Kayaking with Orca

Technically, we kayaked with Orca. As we paddled along the Johnstone Strait on Day 2 of our paddling we heard reports that several Orca were swimming alongside boats that we could see with our bare eyes. We could not, however, see the Orca. In my gut, I feel that we did not kayak with Orca, although that is not to say that we did not see them. In fact we saw five over our two day trip. The first two were transient bull Orca at 9:30pm on July 21, 2012. The two put on a great display, breaching and then falling back under the Strait, the surreal sound of the blow of air at the surface, before falling back below. Unfortunately, we did not have camera’s to hand and did not want to leave the shore front of our overnight beach. We simply wanted to stare at the spectacle unfolding before us.

We did have cameras with us on July 22, 2012. We woke to rain and overcast skies, although the remainder of the day was beautiful. The best shot, unfortunately, is this shot – from great distance and with only a 18-105 lens on our Nikon D90. Zooming in on screen, you can clearly tell we were watching Orca – and they repeatedly slapped their tales at the surface of the water as a warning to trailing boats.

We were in British Columbia for a beautiful wedding of two friends in Whistler. The wedding, being on a Thursday, made it a perfect weekend for a trip to Vancouver Island and some kayaking. Making Nanaimo by ferry on Friday we drove for several hours up to Port McNeill, just twenty kilometres from our destination of Telegraph Cove. There are two ways of reaching Telegraph Cove from the south, Highway 19, or Highway 19A. There is little difference between the two by formal name alone. Highway 19 is the Inland Highway. Highway 19A is the Oceanside Drive. Although it adds about an hour to the length of the drive north, Highway 19A is the way to drive. Passing through a few small towns and Latitude 50, the scenery along the route is breathtaking.

Shortly prior to the turn for Telegraph Cove we decided to drive on to Part McNeill, the primary reason being a greater chance of accommodation for the night. Telegraph Cove has only twenty year-round residents.

Port McNeill is a small town of about 2,500. It has a beautiful marina and its primary economy is logging.

We stayed at the Black Bear Lodge which appeared to be the best of all accommodations in the area. For food, the restaurant to try is the Northern Lights Restaurant (can be located on Facebook). We ate the Seafood Platter for Two, although in reality it would feed three of four adults. Comprising of a whole King Crab, B.C. Salmon, Halibut, Shrimp, Scallops, Oysters, Mussels, a side salad and rice, the platter will cost $74.00 for two people, although the price is more than reasonable for the quality and taste. The restaurant seems to have a number of specials, and has an extensive regular menu. For seafood, it is the place to eat in Port McNeill.

On Saturday morning our real adventure began. We travelled to Telegraph Cove for 8:30 a.m. This village is a launch point for eco-tourism. It does have accommodation in addition to a couple of coffee shops and gift shops. You can get the best London Fog that may exist from the Seahorse Cafe & Gallery (seahorsecafe.org). For more on Telegraph Cove you can peruse telegraphcoveresort.com.

The reason for our trip to Telegraph Cove (which while a small village, was too short a trip) was to take part in an overnight kayak trip with North Island Kayak (kayakbc.ca).

Setting off from the marina we turned east and paddled for approximately 10km along the southern coast of Johnstone Strait. My research on Johnstone Strait is summed up well by that greatest of all resources, Wikipedia. It indicates that Johnstone Strait is a 110 km channel along the north east coast of Vancouver Island and is between 2.5 km and 5 km wide. Of more importance for this trip, it is home to approximately 150 ‘resident’ Orca throughout the summer months and frequented by ‘transients’.

During the first day of paddling we stopped at a couple of quint coves, one of which is known conveniently as ‘Lunch Beach”. We set up camp on Kai Kash Beach before paddling for a while longer into the evening of July 21, 2012. On the second day we then returned back along the coast to Telegraph Cove. While we didn’t see Orca as we paddled, we were treated to an array of other marine wildlife. Many Dall Porpoise’s were spotted along with bald eagles, sea otters, seals, moon jellyfish, jumping salmon and sea urchins.

Stephanie and Danielle, our guides at North Island Kayak, were both extremely personable and knowledgeable which added to the overall experience. If you were to travel to be educated – which I was – the guides were a wealth of information, the former being a university educated biologist.

Upon returning to Telegraph Cove we returned with a few pieces of styrofoam and a glove. Johnstone Strait is very clean, crystal clear ice cold water and almost unspoiled landscapes surround every paddle stroke. Having said that, on a more general basis we discussed the state of the surrounding oceans and environmental studies. As the fishing season starts to get into full gear with the gathering of spawning salmon, the waters become dirtier and more and more floating debris can be gathered. I’ll leave that comment there for now, but needless to say that more has to be done to protect this waters, and the Orca that reside and survive in them.

The Orca themselves can be surrounded by 100 boats or more at any time and while Canadian federal legislation requires that boats stay beyond 100m of them (200m pursuant to U.S. legislation), that alone is clearly insufficient when 100 boats are in pursuit and creating deafening distractions to the Orca. I have learned that studies have shown that Orca now communicate at a much louder level than in prior years, likely as a result of simply having to “speak over” the surrounding noise. They are, quite literally, shouting at each other.

There is a lot more to say on this issue.

All in all, this was a life-changing, fascinating trip, and I shared it all with Sylvia. I encourage you all to contact North Island Kayak and schedule your own environmentally friendly tour of Johnstone Strait – and share your close-up encounter Orca pictures with us all…

– James.


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