Orca visit delays Fulford ferry

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Passengers on the Skeena Queen’s 3 p.m. sailing to Fulford Harbour on Saturday were kept on board for longer than expected due to a visit from a half-dozen orcas. 

BC Ferries announced at 3:35 p.m. the ferry was holding off dock and unable to berth in order to give the animals space. 

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will not approach until the killer whales have safely swum away from our dock,” a message sent through Twitter stated. 

The company ended up cancelling the complete round-trip sailing scheduled to leave Fulford at 3:50 p.m. as the visit continued for around two hours before the whales headed out. An extra sailing was added at the end of the evening to deal with the overflow traffic.

Some passengers who were on the ferry while it was holding, as well as other observers located around the harbour, expressed concern about how close a group of about eight whale-watching boats were getting and whether they had prevented the killer whales from leaving. There was also speculation that one orca may have become entangled with a crab trap line and gear. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported their marine mammal expert, Salt Spring-raised Paul Cottrell, confirmed the pod consisted of Bigg’s or transient killer whales, based on the number of animals and their location. Bigg’s whales feed on other marine mammals, unlike the southern resident killer whales that eat only fish.

DFO said Cottrell spoke with BC Ferries’ director of the environment on Monday morning. BC Ferries did not lodge any complaints about other vessels. However, fishery officers from the Whale Protection Unit are looking into the report of a potential disturbance event. 

There was a call to DFO’s marine mammal hotline with a report about one whale interacting with a rope and float, the agency confirmed.

“Paul believes that the animal was playing with the rope and float and not entangled as there were no subsequent reports of confirmed entanglement and the animals moved on and were clear of any gear,” an email from the federal department states.

DFO sent out a notice Friday reminding all boaters and drone operators that it is mandatory to respect the approach distances and other protective measures in place for marine mammals. The regulations require vessels to keep 400 metres away from killer whales in southern B.C. coastal waters between Campbell River and just north of Ucluelet, and 200 metres away from killer whales in all other Canadian Pacific waters. 

The restrictions apply to all types of watercraft, including motorboats, kayaks and paddleboards. Certain whale-watching and ecotourism companies that are able to identify the southern resident killer whales and agreed to stay away from them have received authorization from the Minister of Transport to view other killer whales up to 200 metres. These vessels fly a purple flag.

Drone operators are required to keep a 1,000-foot minimum altitude within a 0.5 nautical mile (approximately a 3,000-foot radius) of a marine mammal and to avoid flight maneuvers around marine mammals.

Reports of rule violations or marine mammals in distress can be made to DFO’s Observe, Record & Report Line at 1-800-465-4336 or by email to DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca. Penalties can reach as high as $1 million for corporations and $250,000 and/or up to five years’ jail time for individuals. 

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