The realm of the orca, Canada

Geoffrey Roy goes whalewatching in the realm of the orca, better-known as the Johnstone Strait, Canada

5 mins

The sea-kayak rolled gently in the slight swell. From behind me a voice spoke, “Whalewatch this is Ecosummer, Good morning!”

“Good morning Ecosummer. How are you today?,” came the immediate reply. Somewhere, high up on the mainland of British Colombia, sat one of a group of dedicated volunteer whalewatchers who monitor the coming and goings of whales along Johnstone Strait, the major waterway that divides the mainland from Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast. In the summer and early autumn this is serious orca-watching territory.

“We’re fine today, thank you,” Steve said, “We are just off Hanson. Are there any blackfish heading our way? Over.”

“A couple of animals from A26 are on the island side in an easterly transit. They should be with you in about 20 minutes or so.”

Five other kayaks waited patiently as Steve Booth, our senior guide, said his thank-you’s and stowed the tiny radio away. We were on the wrong side of the strait and had a spot of hard paddling to do if we were to get in front of the orcas before they reached us. Unlike the larger motorboats that do whalewatching in Johnstone Strait, we couldn’t hope to keep up with an orca in transit so it was necessary for us to try to place ourselves somewhere in front of the animals and patiently wait for them. Hopefully we were going to be in the right place in time for an encounter.

We were in Southwind kayaks; an extremely stable two-person sea-kayak and although experience isn’t necessary for a trip such as ours, it does help. Steve selected a spot he thought most likely for a good encounter and we all positioned ourselves to await the arrival of the orcas.

I desperately wanted a close-up shot of a bull orca, but as I sorted out my camera and toyed with shutter speeds and stops, I realised today wasn’t going to be that day. Overcast skies are perfect for whalewatching, but unfavourable for good photography – particularly when there is a slight drizzle. In the end I gave up, put the camera away and decided to enjoy the experience for what it truly was.

Steve had put our group in an almost perfect position. The bull arrived first. His huge, black, dorsal fin emerged almost two metres out of the water as he surfaced just near the first kayak. A great whoosh of air resounded as he drew breath and dived under our boats. He surfaced again just in front of Steve and I, and completely dwarfed our kayak as he sliced through the water with comparative ease. Shortly afterwards, and in hot pursuit, came a cow and calf. They surfaced a little further away, as if to avoid passing directly under the boats, but showed us a fine display of synchronised swimming. Gentle, smooth and effortless they were sheer poetry in motion.

As quickly as the orcas had arrived, they were gone

Everyone sat in awed silence with the kayaks rocking once more with the gentle roll of the sea. This was our first really close encounter with the orcas and it took our breath away. We had seen them in the distance before, either from the kayaks or from the beaches where we had our nightly campsites, but nothing prepared us for this. Close, almost physical, contact with any animal in its own environment is an uplifting, almost euphoric experience. I felt completely alien in their world and justly insignificant, yet had this fierce compulsion to reach out and make contact.

Orcas, or ‘killer whales’ as they are popularly known, come into the reaches of Johnstone Strait to feed on migrating salmon returning to their breeding grounds. Unlike the British Isles where we have only one species of salmon, the Pacific coast of North America has five species inhabiting its waters. When I arrived in Johnstone Strait the pink salmon were in full migration and the coho were just starting to arrive.

Steve and Xander, our other guide, fished every day for the table. Thick pink salmon steaks barbecued as the main course with the stronger-flavoured coho finely sliced for sushi as hors d’ouvres, really tickled our palates.

The Canadian First Nation people call orcas ‘blackfish’ which seemed quite appropriate as we passed the orca research station and rounded Cracroft Point between West Cracroft and Hanson Islands and paddled into Blackfish Sound. Temperate rainforests, with stands of Sitka spruce, red cedar and western hemlock hundreds of years old, line these tidal islands and channels. Bald eagles appeared to be in every flat-topped hemlock tree, watching for unwary fish that may constitute dinner for the family.

After a couple of days exploring the main channel in search of orcas, we moved further inland through the inlets and islands of the mainland coast. The weather was improving and the paddling was easy.

We entered Indian Channel as we rounded the eastern tip of Harbledown Island. The cliffs and rocky shoreline provided us with a rock cod which we floated on the water as bait to observe the bald eagle’s fishing techniques. We stopped at Alder Island with loons, a waterbird with a mournful cry, calling in the distance, to stock up on some firewood for the evening’s camp. Steve chose a campsite along a secluded beach that he believed was once used by the First Nations people as a temporary site for trade, and my ravenous appetite for fresh salmon was once more appeased.

Reincarnated as an orca

The First Nation people of this area are the Southern Kwakiutl or Kwaguilth who speak Kwakwala of the northern wakashan language group and orcas play a large part in their mythology. They believe that when they die, but before going to the afterlife, they usually return to this life as an orca. When that particular orca dies the person whose spirit it possesses goes to the permanent potlatch in the ever-after-world.

A potlatch is an occasion when the First Nation people pass on inheritance and ceremonial wealth or bequeath an honour on a specific person or event. Much is made of the giving and receiving of gifts. People sing and dance, names and certain crests are passed on, and particular stories are told. They are great celebrations and extremely important events within First Nation society. Originally, ceremonies sometimes lasted for weeks, with hundreds of guests coming and going.

The event known as the Last Great Potlatch occurred on Christmas Day in 1922, at the village called Mamaleleqala or Mamaliliculla on Village Island. Many of the participants were arrested and sent to gaol as the Europeans had outlawed potlatches declaring them ‘a waste of time’ and criticising the First Nation people for not progressing towards an equal footing with white men. Potlatches are no longer illegal and are, once more, important events on the calendar of Canada’s First Nation people.

Mamaleleqala has been deserted since the 60s. All that remains now are a couple of wooden houses and the skeleton of a ‘Big House’, a traditional residence of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, and a place used primarily for potlatches. Two totem poles still lay where they fell many years ago. The warm sun brought out the amorous mating urges of harmless garter snakes, and the tracks from the recent visit by a bear searching for berries, made us all a little cautious.

We left Mamaleleqala and quietly paddled our way back to Blackfish Sound along Village Channel and by the end of the day we had returned to Ksuilaaas Island where we first began our expedition into the realm of the orca.

Some of our group were quietly sitting around the campfire. It was our last night in orca territory and it had been a fabulous trip despite the poor weather in the early part of the journey. We had just finished a great meal of freshly barbecued coho salmon and the sweet scent of burning red cedar surrounded us. It was an unusually beautiful, clear, still night. There was a slight chill in the air and the stars were out in shining profusion. No one seemed to be bothering with excessive conversation. I suppose that, like me, everyone was probably reflecting on the experiences of days recently passed.

Recharging batteries with a sneaky power nap

A long, slow whoosh broke the silence, followed by a very deep inhaling of air. Then came two slightly out-of-sync breaths, followed by a third. There was no moon, only darkness, but out there through the stillness we could hear the breathing become as one. Another out-of-sync breath, then in unison once more. Somewhere away from the light of our campfire, close to shore, lay a pod of orcas. This particular pod seemed to be taking a little nap – alternately resting one side of the brain then the other – breathing very deeply and slowly.

An orca’s lung capacity is about 200 litres (a man’s is a maximum of five). Unlike us, orcas make full use of all their lungs. In the fraction of a second it takes an orca to surface and dive again it has exhaled and refilled it lungs to capacity. Now it was happening over a two or three second period. It sounded completely different. Steve quietly moved to the water’s edge and put the hydrophone in the water. There was no singing. No ticks or clicks were coming from beneath the waves. Just deep breathing amongst the occasional slap of a wave along the shore. Then we heard a single, soft, slightly audible tone. Perhaps one had woken up then resumed its sleep. For two hours we listened but heard nothing, not a sound from this pod or any other. Nothing except the slow, deep breathing somewhere just in front of us.

Suddenly the ticks and clicks started again and the breathing broke sync. It caught us all quite unawares. There followed a pinging sound from the hydrophone, and then a splash. We didn’t hear any more breathing but the hydrophone picked up more pings, ticks and clicks and what seemed to be whistles.

The sounds faded as the orcas moved off. We were left alone with the silence once again.

When to go: There are several pods that live year-round along the west coast of Canada, but most are transient. They arrive sometime in early June to feast on the migrating salmon and most have left by the end of September. The best sightings are at the end of August and the beginning of September. Expect warm days and cool evenings. Rain is possible and at this time of the year foggy mornings are common. Water temperature is about 8°C (48°F) year-round.

Food and drink: There are numerous restaurants in Port McNeill. Meals are big but your appetite will be too; food is quite cheap when compared with UK prices. The guides do all the cooking when camping and meals are good, nourishing and simple. The local seafood – mussels and clams – and fresh salmon enhance the supplies brought from town.

What to take: A three-season sleeping bag and closed-cell foam sleeping mat are necessary as is wet weather gear. For your feet, sandals or neoprene diving boots while kayaking; sturdy shoes or boots for any scrambling on the islands you might like to do. It does sometimes get quite cold, so don’t forget warm clothing. Sunglasses, sunscreen, lip salve, eating utensils, and a flashlight, water bottle and swiss army knife or similar are all useful.

A personal first-aid kit for minor injuries is desirable and don’t forget your camera, plenty of film and a pair of binoculars. All safety equipment will be supplied. Everything needs to be kept waterproof in the kayak; several bin liners inside each other stowed inside a waterproof duffle bag does the job – the ones designed for kayaking are ideal. Remember that space on a sea-kayak is limited when you have to carry tents, drinking water and food with you as well.

Other things to do: For those interested in ethnology, the U’mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay is well worth a visit. Nearby is a First Nation graveyard full of totem poles and at the other end of the island is one of the world’s largest totem poles at an enormous 173 feet. There are seven ferries a day from Port McNeill; the crossing takes 45 minutes each way.

Experience needed? No! None at all is needed. All guides give excellent instruction beforehand and the kayaks are easy to handle and paddle. They are exceptionally stable in bad weather and come equipped with sails for use when the wind is favourable.

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