Sea-kayaking and Humpback Whales
The northern end of Vancouver Island in BC, Canada is truly a spectacular place. Even though it’s somewhat in the middle of nowhere and fairly quiet, you could call this a dense city when it comes to wildlife in the area. It’s basically a natural Zoo.
I was lucky enough to spend four summers of my life here from 2010 to 2014. I would guide multi-day trips in sea kayaks all around speckles of wild islands. We’d weave our way from Telegraph Cove to Guildford Island dodging sea lions, orcas, bald eagles, seals, and the occasional humpback. Although the orca was what most people paid to see, for me it was a special treat to see a humpback. They would slowly move along or hang around in the same place stirring up the herring and feeding for hours. I always saw them as the zen masters of the sea from the way they’d creep along, slowly breathing, gentle in their ways. It always reminded me to slow down and be in the moment.
The first time I saw a humpback was at my sea kayak staff training weekend. I was standing on a cliff and directly underneath my feet the gentle giant swam by. Of course, I was so moved I had to hide my tears from my new fellow co-workers. These beautiful creatures were 90% extinct in 1966 and have slowly been on the rise since then.
I didn’t realize how much of an increase took place in Queen Charlotte strait until recently. I had taken a two-year hiatus from my guiding job and decided to return to my favourite place on earth this past September. After dusting the cobwebs off my gear, packing my car and awkwardly loading kayaks at my old home base, we were off for my first real leisure trip with a friend!
The first day of travel it was pouring rain so hard the car wipers weren’t even doing justice. By a stroke of luck, when we reached Telegraph cove to unload and pack our kayaks, the rain and clouds had miraculously cleared. By the time we got on the water, the sun was getting very low in the sky and we were treated to the most amazing sunset paddle I’ve ever experienced. We found a perfect camp spot just before dark and set up.
The next morning the winds were extremely strong so we played it safe and hiked around instead. By late afternoon, the wind died down enough to make the narrow time window we had to cross the strait and get through a grouping of islands that are normally white water rapid at any other time of the day. When we came around the corner of Hanson Island… BOOM, two Humpbacks! Very close too! My friend was terrified as I had told him prior to the trip that it wasn’t the orca we needed to worry about as they know full well where we are, but the humpbacks literally just come up for air wherever they see fit. If we’re above them… oh well. We promptly got to a safe place.
In reflection, that moment was very spooky. It was starting to get dark and the fog and clouds had moved in with gentle rain. The water was completely still with the surprise appearance of my favourite gentle giants.
The next day we had the furthest to paddle. Luckily the weather was turning for the better. Sun and calm waters which in my experience, never happens (In the Johnstone Strait area, it’s either calm and rainy, windy and rainy or windy and sunny.) Because of the amazing weather window, we pushed on to my absolute favourite place in the area… The White Cliffs island. This place is hard to get to for some kayakers as there’s usually a strong current surrounding the area and when you don’t reach the island in high tide. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen with a thick coating of slip and slide rockweed clutching to bedrock. Throw a few barnacles in there for fun and… well, just land there when it’s high tide.
Luckily again, all the stars aligned perfectly and we got to shore just in time to enjoy the afternoon fall sun and a very mild kayak carry. Just after we landed we heard the breath of not two, three, but probably more than 20 humpbacks! I’m not even exaggerating for the sake of this blog… There was breath after breath, breach after breach.. (this was my first time ever seeing a humpback breach!) and of course, the highlight of my trip, a mom and calf humpback breached in synchronicity, not once, but twice! We just watched the better than Netflix shows for hours… until it got dark.
At this point in the trip, we had only heard a group of orca pass us far away in the middle of the night. All my friends wanted after the humpback show was to happen across an orca, even just one. The full moon started to rise and light up the water. Sure enough, as we’re getting ready for bed, I heard it… the breath of an orca! We dashed to the edge of the island and in the moon reflected water, we saw at least 15 orcas including a new calf swim by. My camera couldn’t capture the magic properly but that sight is forever burned into my memory. We fell asleep that night to a symphony of cetacean breaths.
The next morning was no different, I had to guide me ever so nervous friend through that big group of humpbacks. We stuck close to the shores and avoided the thick rolling fog and humpback obstacles like champs! The final night of our trip was on Hanson Island and the sunset didn’t disappoint.
This was by far the most fulfilling kayak trip I’ve ever encountered. Welcome back humpbacks!
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