Kayaking with whales

Halfway through what was supposed to be six days of kayaking among killer whales off the coast of British Columbia, I had not seen a single one. That was a problem, I told Mel Lawless, the young New Zealander leading my group of 14 would-be whale-watchers. It would be hard to write an article if that did not change.

Mel took note. That evening, we were camped on one of the many uninhabited islets off northern Vancouver Island, drinking wine on the beach as her two fellow guides cooked dinner. She 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.

I took a single kayak and Mel and Ken took a double. We slid out into the mirror-smooth Blackfish Sound, the water dazzling in the evening sun. Quickly, we spotted a whale's spout half a mile away. It was a humpback, not a killer whale, but no matter. We paddled towards it with an alacrity impossible with the bigger group and were rewarded with a spectacular display.

Time and again, the 30-tonne creature broke the surface within a stone's throw of our kayaks, each appearance preceded by the sudden blast of a 3m plume of water from its blow hole.

The sun glistened on the whale's huge black back as its 12m body arced slowly and gracefully up and over. I could feel the moisture from its spouts drift over me and see the barnacles encrusting its great fluked tail as it dived.

All went quiet for a few minutes, then we noticed a growing commotion on the surface of the water not far away. Hundreds of gulls were wheeling overhead, diving to emerge with herrings in their beaks. As we paddled towards that feeding frenzy, the humpback suddenly erupted from the depths, 9m from my kayak, its great jaws agape.

It was gulping in the fish which it had been rounding up beneath the surface into what is called a bait ball. Twice more, the whale burst from the water, once vertically and the second time at an angle.

For several seconds, its great head hung above the surface, mouth wide open, seemingly defying gravity. I could see the bumpy protuberances called tubercles on its long flat nose. I could see the long row of slits below its jaws - its baleen - through which it filters the water.

Mel was shrieking with excitement. I was far too close, but felt no fear - only awe and astonishment - as I witnessed one of nature's great performances.

Later, back at camp, the rest of the group was gracious about my good fortune, but some were understandably put out. I had patently received special treatment because I was a journalist.

In truth, the trip in early August would have been memorable even without any whales. From Telegraph Cove, a tiny village on Vancouver Island, we set out to explore one of the world's most sublime coastlines - a dreamy expanse of sparkling blue waters and forested islands backed by distant, mist-veiled mountains.

Seals basked in the sun on rocky outcrops. Otters played along the shorelines. Porpoises frolicked ahead of us and salmon jumped so close to our kayaks that we half expected some to land in our laps. A sea lion raised its great head and stared as we glided past in our red-and-white fibreglass bubbles.

Bald eagles, once close to extinction, were so plentiful that we soon stopped remarking on them. Deer grazed close to our tents. We were warned about bears and cougars, although we saw none. At low tide, we watched clams galore spitting foot-high fountains of water into the air.

We ate picnic lunches on deserted beaches. We hiked and camped in temperate rainforests whose towering cedars, spruces and Douglas firs - some hundreds of years old and well over 30m tall - gave us the sense of being in vast natural cathedrals.

It was not glamping, but our tents were set up in advance and our guides cooked some remarkably good breakfasts and dinners considering we had to carry all our food with us.

We ate Eggs Benedict, French toast or quesilladas for breakfast and, for dinner, fresh salmon, chicken stew or vegetable lasagna with garlic bread and salad followed by cakes and brownies cooked in a Dutch oven. We lacked only an expert naturalist.

We kayaked 5km to 8km a day, sometimes through choppy waters, and, at other times, across surfaces smooth as glass.

It was good exercise, but not unduly strenuous. Our group included a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Maryland and a 79-year-old geochemist from Washington state for whom this was a relatively mild adventure. In 1970, Dana Isherwood was part of the first all-female team to climb North America's highest peak - Mount McKinley in Alaska.

We were men and women, young and old and from diverse backgrounds - a nurse, a former diplomat, a human resources officer, a civil servant, a forester, a Silicon Valley whiz kid and a school librarian. However, we quickly gelled, drawn together by our shared adventure and campfire jollity.

As the days passed, however, we became increasingly agitated over the dearth of killer whales.

The Johnstone Strait off Vancouver Island is reputedly the best place in the world to observe them as they arrive each summer in pursuit of salmon. The killer whale season runs from mid-July to mid-September and we had been led to believe that they would be swimming all around us. We had seen the odd humpback, but killer whales occupy a special place in the pantheon of marine mammals.

Also known as orcas, they were once regarded as "wolves of the sea" that destroyed fish stocks. They were systematically hunted down and killed as ruthless predators. Only in the 1960s, when they started appearing in aquariums and scientists began to study them more closely, did their public image change.

Although smaller than humpbacks, they are far more social and intelligent. They travel in pods comprising three or four generations of the same family. They use clicks and whistles to communicate and each pod has its own dialect.

They hunt in groups, sometimes herding fish into tight balls, then stunning them with their tail flukes, sometimes collectively hitting ice floes from below to knock seals and other prey into the water.

They use echolocation (sonar) to navigate and detect prey. They like to "breach" or leap from the water, to "spyhop" or raise their heads above the surface and look around, and to "tailslap". They have distinctive black-and-white markings and the males boast dorsal fins 1.8m high.

It was killer whales that we wanted to see most and it did not help that the company's hydrophone had broken, so we could not listen for their clicks. 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. She banked on finding some at Kaikash beach - the "rubbing beach" where we spent our fourth night - a beach where orcas like to remove old skin by scraping along the shoreline shingle - but none turned up.

On our fifth day, we spotted an orca's dorsal fin in the far distance and spent two hours paddling towards it with the tide and wind against us, but the whale disappeared long before we reached it. We were drenched by rain as we returned to camp and ate a rather forlorn supper under a tarpaulin sheltering us from a downpour.

We woke up on our sixth and last morning to the sound of yet more rain drumming on our tents. We put on our sodden clothes, packed and set off back to Telegraph Cove feeling distinctly disconsolate. Heavy mist and cloud obscured the islands and mountains and drained all colour from the scenery, rendering it so uniformly grey that we could not tell where the water ended and the sky began.

Some of us suspected that instead of the exertions of kayaking and discomforts of camping, we might have done better to take one of the noisy motor launches that speed day-trippers to whales whenever they are spotted.

But shortly before reaching Telegraph Cove, our luck turned. A passing boat stopped to tell us that a pod of orcas was about 1km behind us, heading up the Johnstone Strait. We turned and waited, peering anxiously into the fog.

Thirty or 40 minutes passed. We were about to give up when we saw them and let out a collective cry of excitement.

A cluster of seven killer whales were 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 dorsal fins slicing through the water and their black-and-white markings clearly visible.

For 50 minutes, paddling hard, we stayed abreast of those sleek and majestic creatures, revelling in our proximity. Our mood was transformed. We gasped and cheered every time they surfaced. We were thrilled, exhilarated, thoroughly elated. We silently gave thanks that we were at their level and in their element, rather than passively observing from some intrusive tourist boat.

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 with sheer delight.

With an exuberant final flourish, a male orca slapped his great tail five times on the water and then they were gone.

We turned for home, our mission accomplished, all gripes forgotten. "Thank you, orcas," Mel exclaimed with heartfelt relief.

Martin Fletcher, a former foreign and associate editor of The Times of London, travelled as a guest of Row Sea Kayak Adventures.

This story first appeared in the November issue of The Life digital magazine.

This article was first published on Dec 28, 2015.
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