Laos

Desperately Finding…Canada’s Killer Whales

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As we pulled out of the small harbor at Telegraph Cove, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the steep, forested flank of northeastern Vancouver Island slowly shrunk behind us. There were 17 of us in 10 kayaks, a tiny fleet of red and white fiberglass bubbles, all buzzing with excitement as we paddled away. All around us, rocky islets of giant cedars and Douglas firs dot the glistening waters. In the distance rose the dark, Mordor-like mountains of mainland British Columbia, their shapeless peaks floating above layers of mist. It’s pretty dramatic as the intro goes, but we’re not here just for the scenery.

Before long, we were paddling half way through Johnstone Strait, the strait that separates Vancouver Island from the rest of Canada. This strait is the reason we have traveled so far from faraway parts of Europe and North America, as it is said to be the best place in the world to see wild orcas (also known as killer whales). Of course, I should have known it wouldn’t be easy.

Two to three hundred “northern dweller” orcas congregate here each summer to chase salmon that spawn in British Columbia’s rivers. They form about 17 groups, many of which are three or four generations of the same family. Each adult individual is six to ten meters long and weighs four thousand to ten thousand kilograms. The pointed dorsal fin of the male is equivalent to the height of a tall man. There are also similar numbers of “ephemeral” orcas in the area. They visit year-round to feed on seals, porpoises and dolphins, so we feel confident seeing something.

Orcas traveling in pods (Ken Spencer)

Killer whales were once dubbed the “wolves of the sea” and accused of mass-hunting native fish. They are systematically hunted and killed, but are now belatedly recognized as highly intelligent and social animals that occupy a special place in the pantheon of marine mammals. The killer whales in the northern Johnstone Sound belong to three clans – A, G and R, each with their own dialect and unique set of clicks and whistles. They never mate with members of the same clan, but they hunt in groups, gathering schools of fish into tight balls and stunning them with their tail fins.

On top of that, orcas are playful creatures that often leap (or “break”) out of the water in huge splashes. Native guides identify individuals by markings and notches on the dorsal fin, or markings on the saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin. While most are known by their letters and numbers, a few have become so familiar that they have names.

The first night, camping in a bay on Hanson Island, some of us sat by the water watching a magnificent sunset and saw a pod pass by in the distance. But we’re out of luck. For the next four days we saw nothing.

At first it doesn’t matter, there are plenty of other things to savor. We kayaked several kilometers each day in the freshest air and cleanest water, marveling at our surroundings like we were in a real pod of our own. Large bearded seals bask on sun-warmed rocks while dolphins play near our craft. Salmon leapt from the water around us. A sea lion raised its large head to survey our flotilla as we passed, while bald eagles, not long ago an endangered species, circled freely overhead.

We had a picnic lunch on a deserted beach covered with 15 or 30 meters of kelp. We hiked along soft trails, then fell back onto spongy moss mounds in the temperate rainforest, where towering century-old tree canopies formed huge natural cathedrals. We camped on a different island each night and all three of our guides prepared us some really tasty meals considering we had to carry all the food with us. Deer often graze nearby and we also saw otters playing along the shoreline. When the tide is low, clam-filled beaches shoot jets of water into the air. We were indeed surrounded by wildlife, but still no killer whales.

A seal watches an orca nervously (Ken Spencer)
A seal watches an orca nervously (Ken Spencer)

sneak attack

Our team is diverse. We are men and women, old and young, nurses, ex-diplomats, human resources officers, civil servants, foresters, Silicon Valley geniuses, school librarians, and we are inspired by shared adventures and a plethora of Humorous and united. But on the third night, while the others were drinking before dinner, I took the opportunity to slip away with our lead guide, Mel Lawless, and do some reconnaissance on my own.

We paddled two kayaks and slipped into the calm Blackfish Bay. The sun set and the sea water turned into a silvery liquid. We had just left the cove when we spotted a humpback whale spout almost a kilometer away. We thought this was an opportunity not to be missed, paddled quickly to it, and were rewarded with one of nature’s truly great shows.

The 30-ton creature surfaced again and again to approach our kayaks, each time preceded by a sudden burst of water from its blowhole. Its huge black body rolls upward continuously, slowly and gracefully, with the setting sun glistening on its back. I was soaked by the moisture from its spout, and as it dived I could see individual barnacles forming on its massive tail.

Then came the interruption. I thought the Leviathan was gone, but then the water started boiling a few hundred meters away. Hundreds of gulls congregated overhead and soon they were swooping wildly, grabbing the panicked herring in their beaks. Curiously, I paddled carefully to the place where the group was looking for food. As I did so, the humpback suddenly burst out of the depths, opened its jaws wide, and swallowed the fish it had rounded up.

Humpback Whale (Ken Spencer)
Humpback Whale (Ken Spencer)

The whale burst out of the water twice more. I got so close I could almost count the bumpy bumps (called nodules) on its long, flat snout. I could see water gushing out of its baleen – it had rows of slits under its jaw that acted as filters as it fed. Mel screamed, either in fear or excitement, probably both. Honestly, me too.

catch of the day

For me, the experience alone made the trip worthwhile, but for the rest of the group, the lack of orcas became a growing concern as our six-day trip drew to a close. With our hydrophones broken, we couldn’t even hear them click, and the deteriorating weather didn’t lift our spirits.

Poor Mel is feeling the pinch. She had hoped to find an orca on the “rubbing beach” where we spent our fourth night—the whales scrape along pebble slabs in shallow water to remove old skin—but it didn’t turn up. On the penultimate day, we spotted a blowhole in the distance and spent two hours paddling furiously against the tide and wind, but it was like chasing a mirage. We arrived back at camp drenched and weary – at which point there were hardly any dry clothes left to change. We had a rather dismal dinner that night as the rain beat against the tarp we were sheltering from. Our mood is low.

Kayaking in Johnstone Sound (Ken Spence)
Kayaking in Johnstone Sound (Ken Spence)

As we were packing the next morning, more water fell on our tent. Cold and miserable, we set off back to Telegraph Cove. Islands and mountains are shrouded in mist. The environment around us is so uniformly gray that it’s hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. After so much exhaustion and discomfort, we complained loudly about the noisy engines that sent day trippers whizzing past us to witness where these pods were last found.

Then redemption came. Just off Telegraph Cove, a boat slowed as it passed our dirty convoy. The Good Samaritan at the helm told us that a pod of killer whales was just a mile behind and heading towards us. We turned and waited, staring anxiously into the darkness. Half an hour passed. Our spirits began to sink again. But then we saw them—seven orcas swimming up and down the middle of the channel, rising and falling gracefully through the water as if to show off their black and white stripes. Smoky jets of water roared from their blowholes, and their dorsal fins cut through the water.
We paddled hard and spent the better part of an hour alongside these majestic creatures. We revel in their closeness, silently thanking us for being in their level and element, rather than passively observing from some intrusive cruise ship. We forget about the cold and damp. We’re thrilled, excited, elated. Even a gloomy day, completely devoid of any primary colors, suddenly looks unusually atmospheric.

The lead whale smacked the water five times with its large tail, gave a final energetic wave, and then disappeared, going nowhere. We turned and headed home, our mission accomplished, all complaints forgotten, and Mel up front was visibly relieved. We’ve traveled thousands of kilometers and waited six full days, but seeing one of nature’s most amazing sights made our time well spent. All it takes is a little patience.

Author paddling with ROW Sea Kayaking Adventure. A six-day trip that begins and ends in Port McNeill.

Main image: A female orca breaks through in front of another (Shutterstock)

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