On March 12, 2015, Tessa Danelesko, coordinator of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN), and Bailey Eagan, research analyst with the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), set off to find killer whales in Burrard Inlet. They had received word of a rare event: whales very close to Vancouver. It became their mission to find the group and collect valuable photographic data that could help identify who these whales were and the reason behind their exceptional visit.

How did you first hear about the killer whales, and what was your initial reaction?

TD: I answered a call from George Papafilis, an observer who phoned the BCCSN hotline. George was watching the whales swim under the Second Narrows Bridge at that exact moment. His call was great because it was timely and descriptive – exactly what we hope for when whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) are near Vancouver. I am very thankful for George’s call; the day wouldn’t have been the same without it!

What did you do to try and find the whales?

TD: As I was on the phone with George, my colleagues were gathering the equipment we needed, including an SLR camera with a large lens, binoculars and keys for the MMRP truck. We then drove through East Vancouver, stopping at vantage points like the Vancouver Convention Centre, Crab Park at Portside and Burrard View Park to look and listen for the whales.

BE: As Tess drove to the various points, I kept my eyes locked on the water. I was looking for any sign of the whales whether it was a blow, a fin, unusual splashes, changes in boat traffic, a crowd of people on the shore – anything. These whales can move fast and we were determined not to miss them!

What part of the experience were you most surprised about?

TD: I am continually amazed by the way people come together in these situations to help us try and find the whales. Members of the public would see us and ask if they could help keep a lookout, without even initially knowing what we were searching for! Colleagues with the MMRP were also very helpful in contacting various marine organizations to ask if they had seen or heard anything.

BE: As seen with this experience, something that will never fail to take me by surprise is the unpredictability of wildlife. You truly never know what you are going to see. When I woke up that morning I definitely didn’t expect to be observing killer whales in Burrard Inlet later that day.

What was the highlight of the day?

TD: Getting out on the water is one of the best parts of working in cetacean research. While Bailey and I were trying to spot the whales from land, we got in touch with the Vancouver Police Department’s Marine Unit, which generously offered to take us out on their vessel. They were incredibly accommodating, helpful and enthusiastic about finding the whales.

BE: It was great to see the excitement these killer whales caused not only for us, but for many Vancouver residents. Large groups of people were stopped on the seawall, watching as the killer whales passed through, a sight I am sure they were not expecting to see that day!

TD: I’ll never forget approaching Lion’s Gate Bridge and spotting the first killer whale blow. I felt a sense of relief that we were with the whales and a surge of excitement that we were about to collect some valuable data.

What did you learn from the sighting?

TD: There was some thought that the group of killer whales we saw on March 12th was one of the groups that had visited Burrard Inlet in June 2013 or May 2011. When we made the first successful identification of this most recent group, we realized it was not a group that had been seen in the area before, and I find that very intriguing.

BE: What we do know is all three groups have been Bigg’s (transient) killer whales, which prey on marine mammals. Perhaps they were spending time in Burrard Inlet looking for food, such as harbour seals, which are fairly plentiful in the area.

Are there ways others can help with this research?

TD: Every sightings report we get helps the BCCSN piece together where and when cetaceans and sea turtles are spending time along the B.C. coast. What’s neat about notable sightings, like killer whales entering Burrard Inlet, is that the more reports we receive the more detailed timeline we can create. We received reports ranging from Belcarra, Indian Arm, Deep Cove, Burnaby Shoal and English Bay.

BE: It was awesome to receive observations from homes, skyscrapers and beaches. Every single one of those reports meaningfully contributed to the BCCSN and the conservation-based research that sightings data helps with. If you see a cetacean or sea turtle any time in B.C. waters, report the sighting by calling 1.866.I.SAW.ONE, visiting wildwhales.org or emailing sightings@vanaqua.org.