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I was supposed to be kayaking among killer whales off the coast of British Columbia, but half way through the six-day trip I had a problem. I had seen not a single one — not even a distant fin or spout. As Mel Lawless, the young New Zealander leading my group of 14 would-be whale-watchers appreciated, it would be hard for me to write a travel article if that unfortunate state of affairs persisted.
On the evening of that third day, she decided on a change of tactics. We were camped on one of the hundreds of uninhabited islets off the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island, drinking wine on the beach as the other two guides cooked dinner. Mel came up and quietly suggested that she, my photographer Ken Spence and I slip away for a recce without the rest of the group in tow.
We took a couple of kayaks — a double for Mel and Ken and a single for me. We paddled out in to the mirror-smooth Blackfish Sound as the descending sun turned the water a dazzling silver. Almost immediately we spotted a whale’s spout half a mile away. It was a humpback, not a killer whale, but I wasn’t complaining. With an alacrity not possible with the bigger group, we sped towards it in our little fibreglass vessels, and that great leviathan rewarded us with an unforgettable display.
For a while it vanished, but then we heard the loud whoosh of its spout, like the sound of a wave breaking and receding on a gravel beach. The 30-tonne creature broke the surface a mere stone’s throw from my kayak, the sun glistening on its huge black back as its 40ft body arced gracefully up and over as if in slow motion. For the next half-hour I watched, mesmerised, as it repeatedly resurfaced, its arrival heralded each time by the sudden blast of a 10ft plume of water from its blow hole. At times I was close enough to feel the moisture from those spouts drift over me; close enough to see the white barnacles encrusting its great tail as it dived.
That, however, was merely the prelude. For a while all went quiet, but then, not far away, we noticed the water beginning to “boil” and hundreds of gulls gathering overhead. We paddled towards the growing commotion. We watched the gulls engage in a feeding frenzy, blitzing the water, diving down to seize small fish in their beaks. Then, without warning, the humpback erupted vertically from the depths, 30ft from my kayak, its great jaws agape, gulping in the fish that it had been rounding up beneath the surface into what is called a bait ball.
Twice more in the following minutes the whale soared upwards from the water, once vertically and the second time at an angle. It seemed to defy gravity as its great head hung above the surface for several seconds, mouth wide open, utterly oblivious to my presence. I could see the bumpy protuberances, called tubercles, on its long flat nose. I could see its baleen — the serried rows of hairy slits behind its jaws through which it filters the water. Somewhere nearby I could hear Mel shrieking with excitement, and crying “Oh my God!”. I was far too close but I was transfixed. I felt no fear — only awe and astonishment as I witnessed one of nature’s great performances playing out before me.
Later, back at camp, I had to face the rest of the group. They were a generous bunch, and gracious about my good fortune, but some were understandably a little miffed. I had received special treatment because I was a journalist and everyone knew it.
. . .
By most standards the trip would have been thoroughly memorable even without any cetacean encounters. We had set off from Telegraph Cove, a tiny village near Port McNeill on Vancouver Island, to explore what is surely one of the most sublime coastlines in the world — a vast and dreamy expanse of sparkling blue waters and forested islands backed by distant, black mountains veiled in mist and cotton-wool clouds.
Whales apart, the wildlife was abundant. Seals basked on rocky outcrops in the sunshine. Otters played in the water. A sea lion raised its great head mid-channel and stared as we glided past. Porpoises frolicked ahead of us and salmon jumped so close to us that we joked about them landing in our laps.
Bald eagles, on the brink of extinction only a few decades ago, were so plentiful that we soon stopped pointing them out. We were warned against keeping food in our tents because of bears and cougars, though we saw none. As the tide went out, we watched beachfuls of clams spitting foot-high fountains of water into the air. We admired the colourful “sea jellies” and “sea stars” — the names “jellyfish” and “starfish” have apparently fallen foul of some weird marine form of political correctness.
Each day we kayaked several miles through channels that were sometimes choppy, sometimes as smooth as mercury. It was good exercise, but hardly strenuous. Our number included a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Maryland and a 79-year-old geochemist from Washington state who, in 1970, was part of the first all-female team to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America.
We ate picnic lunches on the beaches. We hiked and camped in temperate rainforests whose towering cedars, spruces and Douglas firs — some hundreds of years old and well over 100ft tall — gave us the sense of being in vast natural cathedrals. It was hardly “glamping” but our tents were set up in advance and, considering that we had to carry all our food with us, our three young guides cooked some remarkably good breakfasts and dinners. We lacked only an expert naturalist.
We were a diverse group — male and female, young and old, and from many different backgrounds — but we were drawn together by our common adventure and the campfire jollity. As the week wore on, however, the lack of killer whales increasingly became an issue. The Johnstone Strait, off Vancouver Island, is where they come to pursue salmon each summer, and reputedly the best place in the world to observe them. The company that organised our trip had given us the distinct impression that they would be swimming all around us. By now everyone had at least spotted a few humpbacks from afar but, in the pantheon of marine mammals, killer whales rightfully occupy a special place.
Also known as orcas, they were once regarded as ruthless predators, as “wolves of the sea” that destroyed fish stocks. They were systematically hunted down and killed. It was only in the 1960s, when they started appearing in aquariums around the world and scientists began studying their conduct, that the public perception of them changed.
Killer whales are smaller than humpbacks but markedly more social and intelligent. They travel in pods that may include three or four generations of the same family and are intensely loyal to each other. They communicate with clicks, whistles and pulsed calls, and each pod has its own dialect. They hunt in groups, sometimes herding fish into a tight ball, then stunning them with their tails, sometimes collectively hitting ice floes from below to knock seals and other prey into the water. They use echolocation — sonar — to detect prey and navigate. They like to “breach” (leap from the water), “spy hop” (raise their heads above the surface and look around) and to “tail slap”.
It was killer whales that we wanted to see most, and as the trip progressed that yearning only grew. It did not help that our hydrophone had broken so we were unable to listen for their clicks, and the sharply deteriorating weather during the second half of the trip further dampened our spirits.
Poor Mel must have felt increasingly like Captain Ahab scouring the oceans for Moby-Dick. We spent our fourth night at a “rubbing beach” where orcas like to remove old skin by scraping along the shingle. But none turned up. On our fifth day we spotted a killer whale’s dorsal fin in the far distance and spent two hours paddling towards it with the tide and wind against us, but it vanished long before we reached it and we were drenched by rain as we returned to camp. That night we ate a rather miserable supper under a tarpaulin sheltering us from a downpour.
On our sixth and final morning we woke to the sound of yet more rain drumming on our tents. We dressed in sodden clothes, packed up and set off back to Telegraph Cove feeling disconsolate. A blanket of mist and cloud obscured the islands and mountains all around us. It bleached the scenery of all colour, rendering it so uniformly grey that it was scarcely possible to tell where the water ended and sky began. Instead of the exertions of kayaking and discomforts of camping, some of us concluded, we would have done better to take one of the noisy motor launches in which day-trippers speed straight to the whales when they are sighted.
But at the eleventh hour, our luck turned. A passing boat told us that a pod of orcas was a mile behind us in the Johnstone Strait and heading our way. We stopped and waited, peering anxiously into the fog. Thirty minutes passed. Forty. And then, just as we were about to give up, we saw them — a cluster of seven killer whales arcing gracefully up the middle of the channel, tall plumes of moisture rising with audible whooshes from their blow holes every time they surfaced, their great dorsal fins slicing through the water and their black-and-white markings clearly visible.
For the next 50 minutes we stayed abreast of those sleek, majestic creatures, revelling in our proximity. We silently gave thanks that we were at their level, and in their element, rather than passively watching from an intrusive tourist motorboat. We gasped and cheered every time they surfaced. We were thrilled, elated. Our mood was utterly transformed. Even our misty surroundings suddenly seemed beautiful — the multiple shades of grey no longer drab but ethereal. One of our group later admitted that she was crying in sheer delight.
The show ended with a dramatic final flourish as one of the male orcas exuberantly slapped his great tail five times on the surface of the water. Our mission accomplished, we turned and headed contentedly back to Telegraph Cove. “Thank you, orcas,” Mel exclaimed with heartfelt relief.
Martin Fletcher was a guest of ROW Sea Kayak Adventures (seakayakadventures.com). A six-day trip like the one described costs $1,545, excluding travel to Port McNeill; they run from July to mid-September. For more on visiting the region, see destinationcanada.com
Slideshow photographs: Ken Spence