Mothers kayaking with Killer Whales in the Straits of British Columbia
Water dripped off my cheek--was it a tear, or the spray from the whale’s blowhole? As we paddled next to the Orca whales, clicking and squeaking sounds surrounded us whenever the six ton mammals surfaced in the water nearby., The majestic male bull led in front with his immense dorsal fin towering five feet above the water. The adolescents surfaced and dove in perfect synchrony on my left while the whale on my right wheezed as she came up for air. Spray from the blowhole exploded in the sunlight as a sparkling brilliance. Kayaking in the middle of a pod of Orcas, was a heart-pounding dream-come-true. With the radiant sunshine, cloudless sky, and clear cool water, I knew that even dreams don’t get better than this.
When seven female friends and I decided to go on a whale watching kayak trip in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, we were housewives going on a nature tour. What wasn’t expected was that this nature tour would lead us to a mental equilibrium on the water that could not be found on land. Most of us had spent the last few decades raising children in Orange County, and some were now raising grandchildren. Not typical adventurers, but we were immediately drawn to this trip. Maybe it was the fact that Orca whales, members of the dolphin family, are a matriarchal society. The mother-calf bond is very strong. Young whale calves stay with their mothers for life. Females remain with their mothers and grandmothers even after giving birth and are often assisted by them in raising and caring for their young. We felt a connection with this species devoted to family and mothers. The fact that Orcas are also called Killer Whales wasn’t intimidating. The Resident pods of Johnstone Strait fed on salmon, not mammals. It’s the Transient pods that visit the Straits from Alaska who were the meat eating relatives that fed on sea lions and other mammals. These "street gangs" of the Orca family have been known to play with and torture their prey before eating them. We hoped that the Transients wouldn’t cross our path.
When Spirit of the West Adventures’ owners, John and Christine booked us on a 5 day Mothership tour, my family thought that we were going on a Star Trek adventure aboard the SS Enterprise, but we immediately knew that this appropriately named excursion would be other-worldly in a different sense. The Songhee, a 95 ft. wooden heritage vessel with six guest staterooms, would serve as our home base. The ship would allow us to sleep in comfortable beds, eat delicious, healthy gourmet foods and even relax in a hot tub as we motored along the coasts of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. The ship would also be a backup in case our arms gave out.
Johnstone Strait is a 55 mile long channel that separates the west coast of British Columbia from northern Vancouver Island. It ranges from 1-3 miles wide and fingers out to hundreds of smaller channels and inlets in a maze of waterways. As part of the Inside Passage that extends from Seattle, WA to Skagway, Alaska, it is well traveled by fishing boats, tugs and ocean liners headed to Alaska. The snow capped Coast Mountain Range borders the Strait and feeds vast river systems that run down the mountains and spill into the ocean. Deep fjords cut through the rocky, jagged BC coastline with hundreds of evergreen covered tiny islands scattered all around. Here reside some of the largest and densest timber stands left on the continent. Much of the area appears as feral as when Captain George Vancouver and his navigator James Johnstone first sailed through it in 1792. Peter Pan and his Lost Boys would choose to live in this verdant pristine wonderland and never grow up.
Upon arriving aboard in Port McNeil on Vancouver Island, we toasted our departure when the Songhee fired up her engines and motored through Village Channel to Farewell Harbor on Berry Island. Dall’s porpoises, beautiful black and white porpoises often mistaken for baby Orcas, raced alongside the boat. A trio of bald eagles soared overhead, one a brown headed adolescent. Harbor seals played in front of us, and we heard over the captain’s radio another boat had spotted a humpback whale. We watched for grizzly and black bears scavenging by the shore and white sided dolphins playing in the waves. As if our smudged eyeglasses had suddenly been wiped clean, colors were vibrant and sharp when not obscured by hazy city smog. Sounds were crisp and clear without any competing noise. And the silence was deafening. That evening before retiring, we watched the eerie glow of bioluminescence from the phosphorescent plankton in the churning water.
The first morning’s heavy fog evaporated into warm sunshine just in time for the launching of our kayaks. After an informative lesson on safety and paddling technique by John Waibel, our guide and co-owner of Spirit of the West, we were helped into the single and double kayaks. With seven accommodating, friendly staff and crew for eight women, we felt every need and concern was attended to, including the trepidation felt by those of us who had never paddled before. Fortunately, kayaking requires little skill to maneuver around and we soon found ourselves gliding past pictographs painted on the cliffs thousands of years ago, and burial boxes containing the remains of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. Arriving at the historic Mi’mkwamlis village of the Mamalilaculla people on Village Island, we pulled our kayaks on to the midden beach, a beach formed from hundreds of years of discarded white clam shells. We heard Tom Sewid, a descendent of the Kwakwaka’wakw, describe potlatch celebrations and tribal lore as he stood flanked by an old schoolhouse and a tribal longhouse, and wearing a resplendent ceremonial robe. In ancient times, the Kwakwaka’wakw believed that great hunters were reincarnated as wolves and Orca whales (that they call Blackfish) and we raptly listened as he described swimming with his ancestors.
The charming port of Echo Bay on Gilford Island in the Broughton Archipelago was the next day’s destination. Set against a rocky cliff, the small colorful buildings housed a gift shop with lovely handmade items, bakery, and a small grocery, all of which seemed sufficient to sustain its population of 36 and assorted fishermen and boaters that pass through. Here live local heros, Billy Proctor and Alexandra Morton. Billy, a retired fisherman and logger, watched much of the wildlife diminish to near extinction during his lifetime and is leading the battle to save them. An easy 10 minute stroll from port past a surprisingly well equipped school, led to his small museum containing items found washed up on his beach--trade beads, beach glass, arrowheads and assorted bottles. We all left with unique items purchased in his adjacent gift store.
Alexandra, a whale researcher, came to the island with her husband to study and film the Orcas. Tragically, her husband died a few years later when his diving gear failed while filming the Orcas underwater. She stayed to do further research, but has been diverted to lobby against pesticide spraying, which kills salmon, the primary food source for the whales. She’s also battling the local salmon farms which have been the source of disease in the native wild salmon. A devoted mother raising a family, fighting for the animals she loves, and living on an island without electricity, telephone lines, or TV signals, Alexandra inspired us.
The sunset kayak paddle that evening through the islets of the Broughton Archipelago was better than Prozac. We paddled on smooth reflective water around Insect Island (an ominous name, but thankfully no insects were to be found) and watched the sky’s blazing oranges and reds mix with the lingering blues and purples of daylight as the mountain shadows slowly grew longer across the water. Silvery baby salmon frolicked and splashed around us. Labyrinthine waterways made it easy to become lost, but it was easy not to care. Like the Natives, we had become comfortable with the water as a destination, not just a thoroughfare to another land mass. Everywhere we looked was a visual feast. It was like falling in love: it gave me goose bumps.
On Day three, with kayaking skills honed and armed with knowledge of whale behavior--we were anxious to meet Orcas, the Killer Whales. Cruising south through Blackfish Sound, we headed towards the Robson Bight-Michael Biggs Ecological Reserve located where the Tsitika River flows into Johnstone Strait on Vancouver Island. The 1000 acre reserve is home to about 300 Northern Resident whales. Researchers speculate that they return here every summer to rub their bellies on the rocky beaches and to socialize. This warden-patrolled, protected sanctuary is off-limits to boats. As a result, tour boats pace back and forth outside the Reserve markers awaiting the arrival of the whales.
In contrast to the tiny inlets of the Broughton Archipelago, the enormity of the Strait made us decide to use horsepower instead of womanpower to find the whales. On motorized tenders, we searched for them. As if greeting us, the first Orca we spotted spyhopped, launching out of the water head first and, I’m convinced, waved his flippers at us. His tuxedo-like coloring made it a very formal welcome. We listened to their vocalizations on the hydrophone and watched a cow, with her calf close by, head into the Reserve. Taunting the tour boats that were unable to follow, the pod playfully breached six times upon entering the Reserve, landing into the water with grand splashes. Their awesome power and beauty was enough to silence all eight women, not an easy feat. Exiting the water required these Leviathans to move their 4 to 8 ton bodies 22 miles/hr. To prevent disturbing the whales, boats are required to remain 100 meters away unless the whales approach the boat, so we watched the show from a respectful distance.
Twilight fishing was on the agenda that evening with John and Curly, both former commercial fishermen. Since the sun sets after 9:30 during summer evenings, we had plenty of time to cast a few lines into the water. A couple of small rockfish and a small striped bass were the only ones willing to be caught, but several exciting bites kept the adrenaline pumping.
On our final full day, Captain Jim announced that we would anchor that evening at Alert Bay, a former commercial fishing town now suffering from the downturn in the industry. Containing a beautiful arrangement of totem poles in a park near the BC ferry terminal, it otherwise lacked the natural beauty and charm of the other ports and islands. On departure day we would disembark at Port McNeil to do a little souvenir shopping in the small bustling town before bidding a sad farewell to our adopted family, the Spirit of the West crew.
Putting in our kayaks just north of the Reserve by the Sophia Islands on that final day, we hoped to avoid the crowds and meet the whales entering the Strait. In the heavy mist, we quietly paddled past a shrimping boat retrieving its cages and let driftwood float past us near the craggy rocks that purple sea stars latched on. A great blue heron soared overhead while we watched a bald eagle raid a ravens nest. The whales were playing hide and seek, so we returned to the ship.
Time was running out to realize my long held fantasy of kayaking with the gentle giants. As the Songhee did a final lap through Johnstone Strait toward Alert Bay, a pod of Orcas startled us when they suddenly appeared around the ship. Without time to grab a camera or hat, John launched a kayak and we scrambled In for the paddle of my dreams. As the whales drew close, time slowed down and the realization of the enormity of these creatures sank in. A flip of their tail would have sent us sprawling. Instead, these gentle creatures allowed us to briefly enter their domain and be awed by their company. Within a few minutes, they did a final dive and disappeared.
No celluloid proof or tangible evidence exists to prove that this final paddle ever occurred, but all I need to do is close my eyes to see the black fins in the water next to me, smell the salty spray from the blowholes, and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. The water on my cheek reappears, and yes, it is a tear of joy.