Travel: Canada - Killer at large

Weighing eight tons, they need to consume 550lb of meat a day. But thanks to their razor-sharp teeth, they are among the most efficient eating machines on the planet. Anna Rockall comes face to face with killer whales

It might have been a scene from Jaws. We sat in the dinghy, bobbing just within sight of the shore as the fins of giant sea creatures sliced through the water only a few feet away. Limbs were kept firmly within the protective bounds of the boat, and diving in for a quick dip was most definitely not recommended.

But these weren't sharks, though the name sounds almost as deadly; we were adrift in a pod of killer whales in the Canadian Pacific. And far from feeling any frisson of terror, our enthusiasm was boundless as the whales leapt heavily out of the water for a split second before flopping back in with the gargantuan grace of a jumbo jet coming in to land.

There were shortcomings. It was not a picture-perfect day - the clouds were low, the winds high, the seas choppy and extremely cold - and there wasn't a toilet within hours. You could hang off the back of the boat, but as we were dressed in thick boiler suits, and the temperatures were sub-zero, it wasn't a tempting option. We simply crossed our legs and paid attention to the whales.

They were well worth the effort. They made leaps out of the water - an exercise known as "breaching" - and some swam within feet of the boat, surfacing briefly and then disappearing again into the dark water. Of course there were some disappointments; none of the whales close to us leapt completely clear of the water in the manner of Seaworld-type shows, but that is the pay-off for watching wild rather than trained creatures.

You also get the opportunity to play a great guessing game. You watch where a whale last disappeared into the water. Then you imagine it swimming below the surface, try to estimate the speed and direction it is going in, and then stare hard at a patch of water in the hope that it will emerge right in your line of vision. You hardly ever get it right, but with so many whales swimming around there's usually some activity not too far away.

We were floating in a pool of about 20 whales - a well-documented family resident in the area. The tour operators who take you out to find the whales are not allowed to approach them any closer than 100 yards. But when the boat drivers turn off the engines, more often than not the whales will swim up near you.

The tour groups are based on Vancouver Island, mainly in the city of Victoria. They try to keep track of the whales day by day, and some will even offer a money-back guarantee of seeing them. Many claim to have a 90 per cent success rate.

There are two main types of killer whale, resident and transient. Resident whales spend their entire lives in a relatively small area, enabling them to be fairly easily found, and eat only salmon. Transient whales are harder to track down, and eat seals as well as salmon. On one occasion, our guide informed us, a seal leapt on to the boat in an attempt to escape the hunger of a transient. It perched at the front for a few minutes, but when its fear of the whale, who had disappeared, began to be replaced by fear of the occupants of the boat, it slithered back into the water - only to be greeted by the whale's jaws as it rushed up from its hiding-place in the deep.

The resident pods, which live a few miles from the shore of Vancouver Island, are closely monitored in an attempt to learn more about these creatures and so be better able to conserve them. They can be recognised by their fins, which are of varying shapes and sizes, though it takes a trained eye to differentiate them. The pods are made up of 20 to 80 whales. They are led by the oldest female, who may be up to 80 years old, but the males are the larger sex, with fins that are noticeably longer.

Their long lives make them harder to study than most other animals, so despite close observation, much of their behaviour is not fully understood. Breaching, for example, seems expend a lot of energy without any particular purpose. One theory is that they leap out of the water to relieve an itch or shift parasites that may be taking up residence on their skin. The whales are known to go to "rubbing beaches" where they rub their sides and stomachs on the smooth rocks and pebbles. I'd like to think they do it for the sheer fun of it.

Learning about whales and hearing stories from the guide was enjoyable, but we took infinitely more pleasure from admiring the creatures as they breached, puffed, and then disappeared into the icy ocean. If it hadn't been so cold, we would have stayed there for hours, wasting less time taking shaky photographs and spending far longer just appreciating the whales. But we had to get back - leaving them in peace without the noise of engines deafening them and boiler-suited tourists gawping at their every move. They must have been glad to see the back of us, and we were glad that, apart from having to put up with a few boats every day, they were free to roam their territory.

There's a great deal of competition across the Atlantic this summer - but it's mostly between would-be travellers searching for seats. The scheduled airlines flying from the UK to Vancouver are Air Canada (0990 247226) and a British Airways/Canadian Pacific codeshare operation. Air Canada has 12 flights a week from Heathrow to Vancouver, while BA and Canadian each operate one service per day.

Scheduled fares to Vancouver in June are reasonable: until the end of this month, the BA/Canadian fare through discount agents is below pounds 400 return. In July, this rises to more than pounds 650. Charters from Gatwick on Air TransAt cost as little as pounds 237 in June through agents such as Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000), rising to a summer peak of pounds 567.

Visit Canada Centre, 62-65 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DY (0891 715000)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor