Kayaking with Orca: II

This time there was no apprehension. We thought we knew what to expect, but witnessed more than we could possibly imagine.

Minke, Humpback, Killer whales, sea lions, seals, Dall’s porpoise, bald eagles, salmon, herring, various underwater creatures including jellies and star fish, and a wasp sting. The four-day kayaking trip along Johnstone Strait had it all.

We left Vancouver for Port McNeil on August 5, celebrating my 31st birthday on the road. We were familiar with Port McNeil from our last trip and, since that last trip, I had the opportunity to read ‘Eating Dirt’, a story of the life of tree-planters in British Columbia. In that book, Charlotte Gill paints a strikingly accurate picture of Port McNeil. It is a logging town and, wherever the loggers go, the tree-planters are sure to follow. As we walked the pale and featureless hallway to our room for the evening, I pictured myself in the starring role of Eating Dirt. Perhaps, in the next room, Gill was catching some sleep before catching up to the loggers the next day.

While the drive to Port McNeil had been overseen by nothing but blue skies, within a mile of our destination we knew we had reached lands end. Crisp blue sky gave way to a light mist, which quickly gave way to grey, dense fog. Opening the curtains early on August 6 we were treated to the same view – I was certain I could make out the outline of the building across the street.

A quick breakfast and final shower, and we made for Telegraph Cove, following the fog as we drove. I had travelled this road just once before, one year earlier, but it was so familiar. The left turn, cross the bridge, pass the clear-cut logging operation (that seemed substantially bigger than the year before), crest a hill and descend down into the Cove. Also eerily similar was the packing, and repacking of our bags, fitting whatever we could into the spaces we had and, of course, ensuring that we packed the wine.

We became acquainted with our four-day family: Chris, Chiara and Richard, and our chef, guide and dreadlocked mentor, Joel. A run over the pre-trip paddling techniques, a double check of battery power for the GoPro and a fill of the water bottles and we, once again, were edging our way down the slippery boat launch in the Cove with heavy Seaward kayaks. A few minutes more and, once again, we were setting out to sea, hopeful, but clueless as to what might lie ahead.

Early morning fog...

I have never been so at peace as I am sat in a kayak, eyes closed, the gentle rise and fall of the ocean, the still breeze, the sun warming the crisp morning and the only sound, the odd drip of water from the ends of my paddle as the kayak rocks gently side to side.

The fog took some time to clear that August 6th. In some places visibility was quite low, but, in a way, it only made this place even more special. It lent a sense of  mystique and tranquility that I didn’t experience on my first visit. Staring out toward the horizon it was impossible to tell the sea and the sky apart. The light grey of the air blended with the water.  Only a few metres from the kayak, where gentle currents caused the surface of the sea to ripple, was it possible to be sure that the kayak was still floating on water.

That first morning brought the first surprise. A Minke whale. Joel, our guide, was as surprised as we to see a Minke whale. We learned that it was unusual to see solitary Minke whales in this area at this time of year.

That first morning was a sign of things to come. Pictures speak a thousand words, so please take a moment to put yourself in these shots. Imagine that gentle rise and fall of the kayak, the sun streaming down on your face and watching one of our planets greatest shows playing out live in front of you:

Spy Hop

Playing at the surface...

First sighting of a Humpback tail...

In 2012 we had a two-day adventure. This time we had four days, three nights and were able to cover a much greater distance. Interestingly, this time I found that after a couple of days of paddling I would lay my head down for the night and it would be the gentle rocking of the ocean that would put me to sleep. No, I was on dry land in a tent, but that constant sway of the kayak clearly had a physical impact on me, even when out of the environment.

As was the case last time, we picked up discarded litter when we came across it. I was happy that our haul included only a couple of bags of potato chips, a small bottle of some chemical and a small plastic object. This is not the case worldwide, however. My book for this trip was Dr. Sylvia Earle’s The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. It seemed quite appropriate given the ocean-bound trip we were on.

I don’t intend to review the book here, only to say that if you are at all interested in, or concerned with the state of our oceans and how the health of the oceans impacts us all, this is the book to start with. The book points out that during the United Nations Millennium Summit, protection goals for 2010 were signed by 147 heads of state endorsing action plans to include 10% of the ocean in protected areas by 2010. At the 2002 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Johannesburg, the number suggested was 12% by 2012. Callum Roberts, a conservation biologist at the University of York believes that, in total, 30% of the ocean must be off-limit to fishing.

In fact, to date, less than 2% of our global oceans are protected.

On our final day we were treated to the grand finale of all shows. We had been woken at around 7:00 a.m. to a natural alarm clock. Sylvia and I looked at each other as we heard unmistakable “ppfffffffffffffff” noises: Humpback whales were within metres of our beach and waking us up. I say ‘unmistakable’ as we had been so fortunate over the previous three days to have seen so many whales and other wildlife and were, in fact, becoming quite in tune with nature. Only the day before we had sat watching Orcas playing in the distance and listening to their playful chatter as we dangled a hydrophone into the ocean to listen in to what was going on below. It is surreal to listen to “whale-chatter” as you watch them play. The heart melts.

Sylvia dashed out of the tent on that final morning, I had rolled over and gone back to sleep. As it turned out, the true spectacle was still to come.

The mood was a little somber on August 9. We had experienced fog on each of the prior mornings, but it seemed that this fog was here to stay to lead us back to Telegraph Cove. After our final breakfast, being serenaded with the tune of a tug boat pulling a kilometer of wood in its wake, we loaded the kayaks for one final time and set out north. Not much was happening that morning, in fact we spent most of our morning journey hugging the shore line and looking for anything attached to the rocks that didn’t appear grey. We saw jellies, sea anemones, sun stars and were still looking when, in the distance, “ppfffffffffffffff”, the unmistakable sound of Humback whales. They were at 12 o’clock, we could see two of them, in the distance, coming to the surface five, six, seven times, before their tails lifted and they disappeared into the abyss below.

A group of kayakers ahead had prime seats. “Damn those guys” my mind told me – and probably the rest of my kayaking family. A day earlier we had seen Humpback whales from shore and Joel quickly interrupted our disappointment making it quite clear that “what will be will be”. We continued on, feeling something imminent. Sylvia even announced that they would be coming up beside us at any moment.


Closest Humpback encounter...

Final goodbye...

Thirty meters to our 3 o’clock. One, then two Humpback whales. Now, the rules are, if you see whales you cannot go within 100 meters of them. When they come up near you, you just stop paddling, let your jaw drop, and enjoy the show. Well, in fact, if there are a few paddlers, you should all get together and hold each others’ kayaks. Sylvia and I were too far away from the rest for that to happen. We just did the jaw-drop thing. Sylvia also managed to get some great shots. Let me just say, kudos to Sylvia for dealing with a zoom lens combined with the up and down, side to side motion of a kayak!

The two Humpback whales were hunting. Again they came quickly to the surface, five, six, seven times, before finally arching their backs even more and disappearing below, being sure to wave goodbye with their gigantic tales. A few minutes later, “ppfffffffffffffff”, the two are several hundred metres away, continuing on with their day and leaving us to paddle to shore for lunch.

During lunch a bald eagle elegantly swooped to the ocean, grabbed itself a fish, and took back off into the forest. Though this was quite amazing to see, it paled in comparison to our last Humpback encounter.

The whole trip was, in fact, the highlight. For the first time we had seen Orcas breach, we had also seen one spy hop. We saw a sea lion for the first time, and the second time, and the third time. We hung out with conservation workers at Eagle Eye, overlooking the Strait. Their job, to look after the whales. Their view, priceless.

I was stung by a wasp. For the first time in my life I tried the “shit-put”. I’ll let you try to figure out what that is! I stayed up alone on our final night to watch the sunset and the night sky, filled with millions of stars, the only sound, the gentle splash of waves upon the edge of the pebble-beach.


Rainbow Sunset

All I can say to sum up this experience, this little piece of heaven-on-earth, is that it was our “second Annual” trip. We will be back next year.

I cannot end this post without mentioning the Vancouver Aquarium.

After returning to Vancouver, Sylvia and I visited the Vancouver Aquarium. I have mixed feelings about that visit, and I am still unsure about how that will impact me going forward. Immediately inside the aquarium, large tanks of small fish, an extensive jellyfish exhibit and a very informative and educational “tour” of the B.C. coast greets you. Heading outside, however, you meet Beluga whales in a small pool, Harbour porpoises, sea lions and penguins that all feel distinctly out of place, confined and exploited. It is a depressing scene, and I am sure exacerbated by what we had just experienced.

The Aquarium is not, in fact, a monster that traps and holds sea-life captive. The Aquarium itself is a green building. The roof collects rainwater to be used in toilet systems, paints used are low-chemical, the building as a whole is LEED Gold Certified. In concert with the WWF, it runs an annual Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, operates a marine mammal rescue centre (essentially a hospital for wild marine mammals) where it rehabilitates and releases the wild creatures back where they belong, and created the Ocean Wise conservation program, established to assist the public and food providers alike to make ocean-friendly decisions when it comes to the purchase and consumption of seafood.

As part of its conservation efforts, the Aquarium has four Animal Protection Programs: Frog Recovery; Cetaceans; Leatherback Turtles; and Rockfish. There are research programs as well as assessments of water issues including overuse, access, diversion, pollution and climate change.

Chill Sea Otter at Vancouver Aquarium

I suppose it is all about balance. Fortunately, for example, the Aquarium does not take wild Dolphins from Taiji in Japan. Generally the rescued are returned unless they are no longer capable of surviving in the open ocean. Perhaps the facilities could be bigger, however. The research and conservation work should be maintained. Education, and consequently entertainment, should just be collateral.

It is interesting how I felt less distressed by the captive jellies, the smaller fish and the crabs. Perhaps the years of “owning” a goldfish as a child has something to do with that? I don’t know.

I’d like to end by encouraging you all to do more to protect our oceans. According to David Suzuki, there are seven things you can do to help:

1.         Eat sustainable seafood;

2.         Keep cigarette butts off the beach;

3.         Reuse and reduce plastics (and recycle if you use plastics);

4.         Reduce your carbon footprint;

5.         Keep toxins out of your home;

6.         Connect with nature; and

7.         Enjoy the ocean, but in a low impact way.

While it is common to think of the Amazon rain forest as the “lungs of the world”, in fact, it is our ocean that absorbs the most carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the more it absorbs, the more acidic the ocean becomes. As a result the make-up of the ocean is changing, killing coral reefs and other inhabitants, and forever reshaping our planet.

For your amusement, but on a serious note, there is a great “mockumentary” that discusses plastic and the oceans. Set in a ‘Sir David Attenborough-esque’ style, you should certainly give it a watch here.

I whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Suzuki. Enjoy the ocean (just as you should enjoy nature), but do it in a low impact, sustainable way.

– James.

Note: In writing this piece, I debated the use of “ppfffffffffffffff” with Sylvia as to whether it was the most appropriate representation of the sound of a whale surfacing. She disagreed, but phonetically trying to represent the actual noise is impossible. As such, you’ll just have to go and hear it for yourself.


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