Although we always plan our tours carefully -placing our groups in the best locations, and at the best times in an attempt to see our target species, we are never quite sure what the actual highlights of a tour will turn out to be. On our 2018 Ultimate Killer Whale tour, one of these unforeseen highlights was, what we're now affectionately calling, "Spy-hop-mania"...
It started off with us slowly traveling along with a group of Northern Resident Killer Whales. The pod, the A30’s, had been a regular feature of our daily observations during our time on the Columbia III and we had all become very accustomed to spotting A72 (otherwise known as ‘bend’), with her distinctive notched dorsal, amidst the multiple groups of whales that were now concentrated in the area. We had already enjoyed some close encounters from this pod and were perfectly content to travel along with them, maintaining a respectful distance, listening to their rhythmic exhalations and watching in awe as the tightly packed group of whales surfaced in synchrony close to the shore. Tracking the huge bull, with it’s 5ft tall dorsal fin, gave everyone ample warning for exactly when and where the group would surface next (perfect for the photographers in the group), and we watched as A72’s tiny calf surfaced quickly behind its mother - giving a short puff every time it did so.
As we neared the edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, an important marine reserve for the orcas and a no-go zone for boats, we turned around and began to retrace our route. As we did so we encountered another large group of about a dozen or so Northern Resident Killer Whales leaving the reserve and slowly heading in the same direction as us. With the whole group out on the deck, cameras at our sides, we all felt quite relaxed enough to just enjoy watching this new group…. especially since fresh baked chocolate chip cookies were just being passed around. As is so often the case, it was in this moment of idle snacking that one of the young orcas performed the most amazing spy hop! It is not that common to see Killer Whales spy-hop so our excitement was mixed with a little disappointment for those that had cookies in the their hands instead of their cameras (although there was some discussion over the fact that the cookies were worth it). Any disappointment was short-lived though when another young killer Whale spy-hopped ….followed by another….and another….then two spy-hopped at the same time…then three! Unbelievably, this amazing behaviour of multiple spy-hopping, tail lobbing and rolling around lasted for more than 15 minutes. The whales (particularly the younger members of the group) spent so much time with their heads out of the water it was impossible to get any identification shots of their Dorsal fins and saddle patches. A few joked that facial recognition might have be more useful in this case.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, “Spy-hopping” is when a whale sticks it head straight up out of the water. It doesn’t happen that frequently and it is not entirely understood why killer whales, or whales in general, Spy hop. It certainly helps them see what is going on out of the water and in some killer whales it is known to be used while foraging, while navigating and most commonly during social interactions. The behaviour we witnessed certainly looked very playful, especially since most of the spy-hops were carried out by the younger members of the group. Who knows? It could have been young cousins meeting for the first time, showing off in front of their big brother or simply just enjoying their social time. We will never know for sure, but it is with great certainty that their activities created a great deal of enjoyment with everyone onboard and left us all with memories that will last us a lifetime.