A pod of Bigg’s transient killer whales were allegedly harassed and followed by a small vessel in Campbell River for more than 45 minutes.
Dominik Rüegsegger was sitting at FoggDukkers Coffee on Monday evening when he heard word that orcas were coming into Discovery Passage.
Working as a water taxi driver, he knows the area well and recalls it was at about 5:45 p.m. when he spotted a boat leaving the boat launch.
“My gut feeling told me they are going to follow the orcas since they were holding a camera already and that's when I took the picture to make sure I have the registration number from the boat,” he tells Glacier Media.
Rüegsegger watched as the boat, which has a B.C. registration, headed straight towards the pod of orcas.
“[They] came so close that the orcas went for a long dive. They stopped and waited until the orcas came up again. Once they saw the orcas, they started driving towards them again,” recalls Rüegsegger.
"They did it several times and the orcas went for a long dive every time they got close because of the distress they were in.”
He watched the boat from shore for more than an hour and a half and believes they followed the orcas for roughly 10 kilometres.
"I took the last video of the boat at 7:23 p.m. at Orange Point, which is north of Campbell River," he tells Glacier Media.
He wasn’t the only one who witnessed what happened. Dozens of other people watched the encounter and called Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
"[DFO] would like to thank the many members of the public who reported the incident to the Observe, Record, Report line,” says a DFO spokesperson.
A cetacean research expert and director of Bay Cetology has positively identified the pod of whales as Bigg's transient killer whales.
"There are two families in this group: the T018/T019s and the T124A4s. There were six whales total,” says Jared Towers. "They are commonly seen around Vancouver Island, but are considered threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act."
DFO confirms it is aware of the incident and fishery officers from the whale protection unit are involved.
"As the matter is currently under investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” says a spokesperson.
Glacier Media interviewed three people who witnessed what happened on Monday and all recounted that the driver was ‘leap-frogging,’ a term for when a vessel will attempt to motor ahead of a pod several times.
Hong-Suk Oh was fishing on the Discover Pier on Monday when people started to crowd together to see the orcas. He too saw the boat and was concerned about how close it came to the killer whales.
"I thought they were just fishing on the boat or watching orcas from afar, but they moved their boat right in front of orcas whenever they came up to the surface to breathe,” says Oh.
"I felt really bad for [the] orcas, even I, who don't know much about the law of marine life, was angry because I could see that was wrong.”
Ricky Belanger was working at the Discovery Passage Aquarium on Monday when the orcas started coming through the passage.
“It's a fantastic opportunity. And it's really important for people to have that opportunity,” he says.
Belanger recalls seeing the small vessel, which he described as a lake boat, motoring in front of the whales.
“This behaviour, actually, it was repeating. And so, at a certain point, the orcas, they dove down, and they surfaced a kilometre up the shoreline, some distance away from the Discovery Pier where people were viewing. That signals to me... that it's essentially an instance of gratuitous harassment of wildlife,” he says.
Many people on the pier were outraged and disappointed to see what was happening, he says.
"I was quite shocked that someone would engage in these behaviours in such a publicly viewable setting, such as the Discovery Pier,” he says. “It was very clear that these whales were trying to maintain a great deal of distance from this harassing vessel."
Having it in such a public place did result in many people calling DFO.
"You know, it's not amazing that this actually happened but it is great that it happened in such a setting that it could be documented and seen by the public.”
Belanger believes the whales were followed for at least five kilometres over 45 minutes.
"I would say that this vessel was within 50 metres of orcas at several points during the encounter,” he says.
How close can you get to a whale in B.C.?
An officer in the whale protection unit couldn't speak to the incident but did explain the whale distancing rules in B.C.
DFO receives about 800 reports of marine mammal incidents per year for the Pacific region and 20 per cent of them are for killer whale and humpback disturbances.
Scotti Griffin says whale disturbances are a large percentage of their investigations and they do respond to every single report they get.
"We review files very extensively, and we follow up with them accordingly. It's all case by case,” she says.
All vessels must keep 200 metres away from killer whales in B.C. and the Pacific Ocean and keep 400 metres away from all killer whales in southern B.C. coastal waters between Campbell River and just north of Ucluelet.
The federal government levied more than $45,000 in fines in 2021 for violations of whale protection measures.
“In all of Canadian waters, people are required to stay at least 200 metres away from all killer whales,” Griffin says.
The change of distance above Campbell River is due to the critical habitat for southern resident killer whales, a critically endangered pod.
“We see more passion, and people feeling so strongly about protecting the marine mammals that are in our waters, which is really, really great to see,” says Griffin.
After investigations, and if there is illegal activity, officers will put together a court brief and recommend charges to Crown counsel.
In August, Canada’s largest ever fine for getting too close to killer whales was levied against a B.C. man. The incident happened in April 2020 when scuba diver Thomas Gould interacted with a pod of seven orcas.
DFO said evidence collected by fishery officers established the vessel had attempted to motor ahead of the pod several times.
As a result, Gould was ordered to pay $12,000 for violating Canada’s Fisheries Act, Section 7 of the Marine Mammals Regulations.
Noise disturbance dangerous for whales
A B.C. marine educator with Marine Education and Research Society is glad to see so many people upset with the alleged incident in Campbell River.
Jackie Hildering quickly heard about the incident and encouraged everyone to report what they saw to DFO's reporting line.
"In this specific case, around Campbell River, what is so heartening is to note that people know that this was not OK. They know this was not OK,” she says.
She’s devoted her life to educating people on whales and says people are starting to really realize the impact humans have on the animals.
"I think, if more people realize this, that the ocean is a sound trap and just how much whales depend on sound for everything from finding food... to mate selection to contact calls, the list goes on and on.”
Hildering says the public has a better understanding of the impact noise has on whales.
“They absolutely live in a world of sound and we may not hear the full effects of our engine over the surface, but we're putting that underwater and we're layering that on top of all the other sound and all the other stresses for the whales,” she says. “Sound is magnified up to five times underwater so that when people understand this, it is like, 'Oh, now I get why there are the distance limits, why it's better to go slow.”
Anyone who witnessed this incident is asked to contact DFO’s Observe, Record and Report line at 1-800-465-4336 or email DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca.