A day on the water with Jim Borrowman is like sitting in the forest with Jane Goodall. Jim has been watching whales for over three decades – he launched whale watching on Canada’s west coast – and seems to sense where whales will show up or what they will do next. Standing next to Borrowman on the bridge, I slap on a wool headband as the wind blows over Johnstone Strait chilling my ears.
Even in August the nutrient-rich waters off North Vancouver Island are cool. We chugged out of Telegraph Cove hours earlier with heavy fog making it impossible to see whales on the horizon. Borrowman stops every few minutes, turning off the engines while we strain to hear the distinctive blow of a whale.
Borrowman’s whale sense pays off and on our third attempt we strike orca gold. The knife-life edge a male dorsal fin rises from the water a hundred meters off the port side; from its saddle markings Borrowman identifies the orca as a member of I4 matriline (an orca family led by a matriarch) before it disappears back into the fog.
Jim Borrowman grew up in Victoria, moved to northern Vancouver Island and took up logging. One day he met Erich Hoyt walking near Telegraph Cove. Hoyt, author of Orca: The Whale Called Killer and a lifelong conservationist sparked a passion in Borrowman for orcas. He started lobbying for whale protection, which led him to rent a boat to show a few people what the fuss was about. The informal tours led to a business and the rest is as they say, history.
Borrowman’s company Stubbs Island Whale Tours (Stubbs) started when northern Vancouver Island was accessible only by gravel road. Now people travel from all over the world to take a tour with Stubbs. Borrowman sold Stubbs in 2011 but kept his original boat MV Gikumi to take a few lucky people (including me!) out for five straight days of whale watching.
I was on day three and still not tired of watching whales. “We tend to attract whale junkies,” laughs Borrowman, “and I’m the biggest junkie of them all.” The sun burns off the clouds and reveals a gathering of clans as members of the I15, A42 and A30 matrilines come together.
Over 30 whales swim north along Johnstone Strait in small groups; kayakers squealing as whales surface close to their boats. For two hours we motor a respectful distance behind the whales and snap pictures while enjoying the luxury of watching whales on their schedule.
“Did you see that?” asks Borrowman, “they have all changed directions.” My head swivels in one direction and then another. Sure enough every whale within sight has turned on a dime and is swimming back from whence they came. “Scientists say that one of the matriarchs makes a sound that causes all the whales to change direction but they aren’t in agreement as to what the sound means,” explains Borrowman. I am pretty sure it was the orca equivalent of ‘free beer’ to get every whale responding that fast.
Borrowman is retiring from whale watching this year but is encouraged by the changes he has seen in people’s attitudes towards whales and credits some of that change to whale watching tours. When Borrowman started people regarded orcas as a nuisance or competition for fish. He remembers when he first rented the Gikumi for tourists; boat owner Fred Wastell asked him, “What do you want to look at those darned blackfish for?”
But Borrowman and his wife Mary persevered, marketing extensively to bus tour groups and people willing to drive the old gravel road. “Some people don’t get into whale watching on their first trip,” Borrowman observes but many visitors returned year after year and peoples’ attitudes to whales changed.
“When I started there were approximately 140 northern resident killer whales, approximately 5,000 boats fishing five days a week in Johnstone Strait, and we were finding fresh bullet holes in killer whales almost every year,” Borrowman says. “Today, we have approximately 265 northern resident killer whales and a fraction of the fishing boats. There have been no known bullet holes in many years.”
As I watch fishing boats and whale watchers pause as matriarch A72 – or Bend as she’s also known – lead her family south along Johnstone Strait I am grateful pioneers like Borrowman opened the eyes of a generation to these oceanic delights.
Jim Borrowman’s tips to help you pick a great whale watching tour:
1. Look for good interpretation. “The naturalist is so important. If they take the time to point out all the wildlife, look exited about what they are watching and show pictures from guide books so people can see the whole animal, then guests will leave satisfied with their experience,” explains Borrowman.
2. Consider the size of a boat. A small boat may offer more excitement but larger boats carry more people, burn less fuel per person, and mean fewer boats in the proximity of whales. “Less boats around means better opportunities to educate people, less noise, and better chance to listen to whales on hydrophone,” says Borrowman.
3. Bring binoculars.
4. Look for honesty on websites or brochures. “I’m always nervous when I see ‘guaranteed sightings’. We started putting sightings ‘not guaranteed’ on our marketing materials,” laughs Borrowman.
5. Come with realistic expectations and remember whales are wild. “If visitors are just there to see a whale jumping like at Sea World, they are going to be disappointed,” sighs Borrowman.
If you go:
Stubbs Island Whale Watching offers three-hour tours from mid-May to October. Reserve at – http://www.stubbs-island.com
Stay in a historic building at Telegraph Cove Resort and look for orcas from the boardwalk – http://www.telegraphcoveresort.com
Tour the Whale Interpretative Centre and check out the ‘family tree’ for the whales you might see on the water – http://www.killerwhalecentre.org
Stop for lunch post-tour at the Seahorse Café and try the Baja fish tacos – http://seahorsecafe.org