Dances with Whales - Kayaking with the Killer Whales of Vancouver Island

Travel Facts: Getting there | The expedition | Season | Further information

Vancouver on Canada's west coast is an infinitely more relaxed entry point into North America than the US points to the south. But that's not the only reason that that Vancouver International Airport is full of Australian accents these days. In winter the goal is generally Whistler Blackcomb, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Summer destinations are much more diverse but adventure is a common theme.

Of course many head into the Coastal Mountains behind Vancouver, trying to avoid the bears and discovering just how rugged even BC's little mountains are. Others may be heading across to Lake Louise, either by road or the unique and more spectacular Rocky Mountaineer train. Keen walkers (who are well prepared) may head across to Vancouver Island to tackle the West Coast Trail.

We were aiming for Vancouver Island, too, but our goal was the quaint old fishing village of Telegraph Cove near the top of the island. Telegraph Cove is a rustic little community where the few houses and storerooms on stilts over the water of the tiny bay seem to be fighting a rearguard action against the tall conifers that crowd on all sides. This was to be the starting point of an adventure that had been my goal for several years - to sea kayak with the resident orcas (or killer whales) of Johnstone Strait.

For as long as I had considered this adventure, my orientation had always been the chance to observe orcas from literally water level. Over the next few days I found the joy of the almost-daily encounters with the whales was equalled by the pleasure of kayaking through some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world. As we went from one forest camp to the next, we had virtually no contact with the outside world apart from seeing a few small boats.

But that wasn't the way the trip started. On the first afternoon we had to cross Johnstone Strait to reach Discovery Expedition's permanent camp on a tiny little islet in the Sophia Islands group. It was quite windy and choppy in the middle of the strait but the major danger was from cruise ships plying the Inside Passage from Alaska to Vancouver. I doubted if our kayaks would show up on a huge ocean liner's radar.

"What are the chances that a giant cruise ship will come along for the hour or so that we are out in the strait?" I reassured myself before we set out, wobbling with inexperience. And I was right: a ship didn't come along. Four ships steamed past in that brief interlude and I discovered power paddling that I'd never previously imagined. And, of course, a pod of orcas surfaced, luring us to linger in the shipping lane. We resisted and paddled on. Even so, I suspect the passengers on deck may have seen the sweat on my brow. Fortunately, all four ships missed us and for the next four days we saw nothing larger than a fishing boat, or a tug towing log booms.

Besides discovering how tall cruise ships are, we also learned how to pack. We were to be largely self sufficient throughout the whole paddle - and that included carrying camping gear and food. We had packed light but not light enough - especially when a tent and our share of the food was added to the pile. Indeed, much of the first morning was spent rejecting items from our waterproof bags and putting them back in our rental car. Finally it all fitted and we were ready to set off

Lynn and I had no previous experience in sea kayaking so we spent the rest of that first day being amazed at how smoothly (and relatively effortlessly) kayaks glide along. There are a lot of trees in BC and our every stop throughout the paddle was on a pretty beach surrounded by beautiful forest. We became increasingly adept at pulling up onto the sand and getting out without tipping.

And then there were the whales. I once travelled with a New Zealand orca expert who would violently swear at anyone who dared to call orcas "killer whales". She assured me (and everyone else in the room) that "in the wild there is no evident that orcas deliberately attack humans."

That conversation was at the forefront of my mind every time a BC whale approached - perhaps they didn't follow the same rules as the Kiwi ones. The first time I was sitting in my frail fibreglass kayak as a large male orca swam straight at me I questions our choice of holiday. It was rather reminiscent of the scene in old war movies where the helpless ship's crew watch with horror as the line of white from the German torpedo speeds towards their craft. But this was a giant torpedo with brains and he surfaced only metres away. It was exhilarating to be close enough to look up at the whale's giant dorsal fin but it was excitement tinged with terror because he certainly seemed to be aiming for me.

The next moment will stay with me forever. The whale clearly knew I was there (that was one fear allayed) and as he passed about two metres in front of me he rose to the surface and briefly held eye contact with me. My whale expert had been right - the look in the whale's eye appeared both intelligent and benign.

He kept swimming and I breathed again.

That was an encounter repeated on many occasions over the next few days. Johnstone Strait is the narrow bit of the Inside Passage between Vancouver Islands and the mainland. It is justifiably renowned for its whales. When I had been booking this five day trip with Discovery Expeditions all my questions had been along the lines of "will we definitely see whales; will we get close; is September a good time for whale encounters?" The company's response could be summarized as: "probably; there are regulations; it's the time of whale migration to the south."

When told pre-departure that not all our kayaking time would be spent looking for whales I fretted because whales were my sole reason to take the trip. But many of the trip highlights came from exploring deserted Indian villages, meeting local Indian fisherman - and chatting to scientists engaged in monitoring the pattern of whale movements.

For two of the five days we left the whales behind completely as we paddled out of Johnstone Strait into the maze of waterways that make a mosaic of the mainland and its nearby islands. Here we entered a beautiful world of calm water, towering forests and picturesque inlets. It was here that we saw a black bear and her cubs standing by the shore. They seemed undisturbed by our presence and watch us paddle by before walking back into the forest. At the now deserted Indian community of Mi'mkwamlis we walked past wooden houses being re-absorbed into the forest and found long-abandoned and intricately-carved totem poles lying buried in the thick grass.

Back in Johnstone Strait we found that the orca whale activity had not abated in our absence. On every day in the strait we had pods swim to us to examine our bright, tiny craft and several of the more curious even circled us before returning to the more productive activity of chasing fish.

By now I was becoming rather blasé about contact with whales. I cherished every moment - and each was even more exciting than I hoped - but I had stopped feeling threatened. I asked Terry, our guide, if my understanding was correct: that orcas regarded us as entertainment rather than a food source. "Well," he replied, "That's almost certainly true for the resident pods of whales that we have been seeing. However, there are some migratory whales than I wouldn't trust at all. And now scientists have identified a third non-habitualised group that live well out to sea - and they are likely to consider us a minor (but tasty) part of the food chain."

After several days of accepting every passing whale as a friend I hadn't met yet, I became aware that I needed more information. I have subsequently seen orcas in Antarctica killing seals that weigh several hundred kilograms. And I've heard of a pod battering a humpback whale to death against the side of a cruise ship. But the bad guys stayed away throughout our paddle and we just saw their Dalmatian-like friendly side.

The best adventures are like a glimpse into a hidden secret that the rest of the world doesn't know. During the summer of 2002 much of the world heard about Johnstone Strait as the orphaned baby orca "Springer" was released here. This year Springer was back and looking very healthy.

Sea kayaking is a rare, complete escape into the natural world and, five days later, we paddled back into Telegraph Cove revitalized. We all had a love of orcas, an appreciation of the joy of sea kayaking and much better muscle-tone. After seeing it at paddling pace, we better appreciated the pure beauty of the coastline of western Canada, too.

Travel facts

Getting there

The most direct route to Vancouver is with Air Canada via Hawaii. We took the more interesting path with Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong then directly to Vancouver. There are flights from Vancouver to Port Hardy near Telegraph Cove. Or you can take a ferry to the island and travel there by rental car or bus. There's accommodation at Telegraph Cove.

The expedition

Discovery Expeditions offers several different trips in Johnstone Strait. These range from three days, based in a lodge to our six day camping expedition. The cheapest is a four day camping option for $C850 [$A780] (six days is $C1140 [$A1050]) and the most expensive is $C1895 [$A1750] for six days, staying each night on an accompanying 60ft boat.

The contact information for Discovery Expeditions is: Discovery Expeditions, 221 Ferntree Place,Nanaimo, BC, Canada V9T 5M1, Tel: (00111-250) 756-0094, Fax: (00111-250) 756-1908, www.orcaseakayaking.com

Season

The orca season is from July to September. Rain and mist is a distinct possibility but you may also have crystal clear days.

Further information

For information on Canada, call Canadian Travel Information in Sydney on 9954 3377 or visit www.canada.trav.net .

For information on BC orcas look at: www.whalelink.org

There is also a wealth of information about British Columbia at www.hellobc.com .

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd