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Whale of a Time


It's Time to Get Active

Michael Woods
London Financial Times
Published: June 11, 2003

London Financial Times

We had carried our kayaks above the strand line, pitched our tents, watched the worst of the day's clouds blow away and feasted on Thai curry and flan when Bram, 16 and sharp eyed, cried: "Whale!".

Instantly our group was galvanized. Within seconds a dozen people were standing at the water's edge whooping and hollering. Across the strait, rising majestically and inexorably out of the sea came a big, black, triangular dorsal fin two metres high, like a dagger from the deep. Before it reached its zenith, there was a puff of water vapour followed by the clear sound of exhalation. A black and gleaming back appeared, the top of a torpedo head, a brief wave and then down, steadily, out of sight went the male Orca named, rather unromantically, A30. Day two on our kayaking trip in Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada and here was our first killer whale.

Killer Whale in Johnstone Strait, British ColumbiaBut the evening was not finished with us. As if intent on upstaging their giant cousin, three Dall's porpoises came sailing by, close to our shore. And then, to universal delight, the cavalry appeared. Half a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins giving chase to the Orca, intent on harassment. They repeatedly leapt clear of the waves, flying and going like smoke. One image, of three of these glorious dolphins in a single arc, is etched in my memory. This was enough to enthral anybody.

The Orca, with the dolphins giving him a hard time, was now way down the strait when something else caught our eyes. Heading in the opposite direction was a humpback whale. It repeatedly took three breaths and then made a deep dive for several minutes before resurfacing. After the second deep dive we lost it. But never mind, four species of cetacean in half an hour is as much as the most dedicated whale-watcher could hope for.

I had come to visit the complex and wildlife rich archipelago, which lies inland of Johnstone Strait, with the sea kayaking operators Pacific Northwest Expeditions. We had set off from Telegraph Cove with all our gear, tents, food and drinking water for six days. Some paddled double kayaks, stable craft so packed that they required eight people to lift them. Others, like me, were in singles, and more sprightly in the water.

After more than a week spent in a variety of larger boats, taking to a kayak was remarkably different. When I slid into my bright yellow fibreglass pod, I felt with every paddle stroke that I was in the water, almost of the water. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the strength and direction of wind and the state of the tide and my world shrank both because I was viewing it from a different perspective and also because distances became greater. A 10-minute zip in a powered boat became an hour's steady paddling. But we were able to creep along the shore and see, through the cold, clear depths, wonderful sea stars and fabulous, many-armed sun stars. We moved silently enough to surprise a sunbathing mink and to hear a blowing whale. And when it came to the orcas, we were the least disturbing craft on the water.

We crossed the strait on the third day sneaking into Blackfish Sound at slack tide and landing at a wonderful campsite in an alder grove on Compton Island. Here our guide, Brian Collen, tuned into "the whale channel" and found that a pod of orcas had chosen to move down Blackfish almost certainly to reach their favourite rubbing beaches - where they use the gravel to exfoliate their molting skins. The beaches are now a protected reserve, the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve, named after the man who started the scientific study of whales in this area.

There was a complex chop on the water and a cool wind whipping off the land as we gathered tightly in mid channel so that the whales would "read" us as a single boat. We did not have to wait for long.

Killer WhaleThe sudden appearance of that great black fin knifing through the water, was exhilarating. This time, it was accompanied by a second fin, almost certainly that of A30's mother. What was more, they were coming our way, their blunt noses looking just like the solid bows of submarines. While I was certain that their intentions were nothing but friendly, my heart was thumping under my lifejacket and my fibreglass boat suddenly felt very fragile indeed. I was torn between the unique experience of having one of these five-tonne, 9m giants sufficiently up close and personal to smell its fishy breath, and the sudden feeling of vulnerability in my flimsy boat floating on very cold water over a 100m deep. I need not have worried. Here came the cavalry again. From nowhere, like a terrier baiting a bull, a Pacific white-sided dolphin shot out of the depths, grazed the orca's nose and flew in a gleaming bow over the sea. Distracted, the orca turned aside and our most promising close encounter was over.

I did not know whether to laugh or cry!

Pacific Northwest Expeditions
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