It was a birthday present to myself, a tradition started when I was young and living on a tight budget – something I wanted but didn’t need and probably couldn’t afford. Experiences as opposed to things. SCUBA lessons one year, a sailing trip another, a weekend at a spa.
This time, it would be four days in Johnstone Strait, kayaking with orca . . . if we were lucky. Our small group – a couple from Belgium, our guide and myself – would be camped just around the corner from Robson Bight, a marine ecological reserve established in 1982 for the protection of orca habitat. At the south end of Johnstone Strait, the shallow bay has a unique shoreline with smooth rounded pebbles where the whales come to rub and feed. We were in the perfect spot to view some of the 200 orca that visit the Strait every summer.
We made our way by water taxi to what would be our home for the next few days, tucked away in a small cove and barely visible beneath the towering Douglas Fir. Greeted by a bald eagle eyeing us suspiciously as we disembarked, we waded to our stony shore. This was Canadian west coast at its finest – rugged, remote and resplendent in its natural beauty.
Mornings we woke to songbirds and the smell of fresh coffee drifting down the beach. Days were spent slipping silently through calm waters as clear as glass. Jumping salmon , pacific white-sided dolphins, dall’s porpoise and a lone minke whale were our companions. Evenings were spent by the fire talking life, travel and politics. A humpback passed by one evening, his presence announced with a huff, the spray visible in the full moon light reflected off the water. We watched as his back rose up for an eternity before disappearing again below the surface. Three breaths and a wave of his tail fluke and the grey ghost was gone. We heard him, later, his haunting call piercing the still night.
The orca, however, remained elusive, perhaps slipping past us silent as thieves while we slept beneath the forest canopy.
Our last morning we paddled across the Strait and hiked through the giant red cedars of West Cracroft Island to the Eagle Eye Research Station overlooking the Bight. As part of the Cetus Research and Conservation Society, volunteers monitor activity in the Strait and educate boaters and visitors to the risks faced by marine wildlife. They told us what we already knew – there had been few sightings to date, the salmon run that would bring the whales starting late that year.
I’d seen orca in the wild before, so wasn’t too disappointed. Just to be away from the city and on the water again was enough for me. With a few hours left before the taxi would return to take us back to Port McNeill, I hoped only that my new friends from Belgium would not leave disappointed.
They didn’t. As we paddled back towards camp, our luck turned and a pod of transients appeared in the cove from whence we’d just come. Radio traffic indicated they’d been seen south of us chasing a porpoise. We turned and headed back, cameras now at the ready to catch that perfect moment.
A wildlife photographer I’m not. As I stared through the lens taking one poor shot after another, it occurred to me I was missing what I’d come to see. I put the camera away and sat, experiencing the moment, struck as I always am by the size and grace of these once feared animals. For the next half hour we floated, audience to an epic show as the small pod of five celebrated their hunt, breaching from the water, tail fluking, spy-hopping and fin slapping. No one spoke, awed into reverent silence.
As quickly as they’d come, they were gone, swimming back towards the mouth of the Strait, their dorsal fins briefly visible in the distance before disappearing from sight.
We’d come for the whales and the whales had given us an experience beyond all expectation, a moment captured in our consciousness and in our cameras; a perfect end to a perfect weekend.
This trip was taken with Ecosummer Expeditions, a company I’ve toured with a few times and highly recommend for their professionalism and quality of service. Other companies also offer whale watching expeditions that range from two-hour tours to week-long kayak and camping excursions. Check with Destination BC for the trip that suits your time and budget best.
* header photo by djmboxsterman, courtesy of pixabay