Whale of a Good Time

Family vacations are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. Even in a close knit family, interests diverge. Taking our extended family on a four day kayaking trip could have been a disaster. A couple members have bodies that have betrayed them. From oldest and the youngest, our ages spanned 62 years. A couple of type A’s futilely try to organize the family. Three of us were veteran kayakers who had been on this same trip the year before while several were nearly kayak virgins. Nonetheless, the awe-inspiring wildlife, comfortable camp site, great guides and a flexible schedule worked magic for whole group. And we had the camp to ourselves. It only holds twelve max.

The camp site. No erecting tents, or foam pads on the ground for us. We slept in king size beds with four inch foam mattresses, sheets, fluffy comforters — all under a six foot tent, each placed to provide a bit of privacy. We went to bed clutching hot water bottles the kitchen crew provided to chase away the cool nighttime marine dampness.

And a salt water hot tub soothed our sore muscles and warmed our cold feet. Solar panels provided electricity for lights and charging our electronics. All the comforts of home, almost.

The food. French toast with blueberries. Coconut ginger carrot soup. Ling cod with Middle Eastern pesto. Gorgonzola stuffed dates. We ate well. Our camp had a full time chef and an assistant who had promoted herself to sous chef (actually a Brit from Australia who found this odd job through a website devoted to helping students and others find a cheap way to see the world, trading labor for room and board). Food allergies & quirks were accommodated (and we didn’t make it easy).

If any wildlife appeared, or we wanted to paddle a little longer, the meals were delayed. If we all were hanging out by the hot tub, that’s where the appetizers were served.

But we really came for the kayaking and wildlife. Located on Blackfish Sound in British Columbia, Canada, our camp was accessible only by boat. The Sound stretches along the northeast side of Vancouver Island and in the summer is a salmon freeway attracting orca (which formerly were inaccurately called blackfish). The regional waters are rich with herring which attracts a second large sea mammal, the humpback whale. And bald eagles, white-sided Pacific dolphin, sea lions, seals, plus other birds.

Sitting in our tents at dawn and dusk, we could hear the humpbacks in the fog just beyond our sight. The sound of their blow brought us racing for a glimpse of these huge creatures. On our first morning kayak we had been told to prepare to raft all the kayaks together should we get close to a whale. When the guides first yelled “raft,” I thought the warning was premature; the whales were too far away. But quickly they came close. Instead of humpbacks, it was small pod after small pod of orca. The tall, straight dorsal fin indicated a male, the smaller curved fin was the female and often the small fins of the immature whales were part of the mix.

That first morning we didn’t get very far as we had to repeatedly rafted up, each time accompanied by ohhs and ahhhs. At one point our guide put a hydrophone in the water so we could hear the clicks of the orca pods. Some day scientists will tell us what they mean.

We didn’t get as close to the humpback whales, although a year ago the three veterans had seen them bubble feeding right around our campsite when the herring are running. This year we had to be content seeing them from a distance or when we did get close, through the veil of the heavy morning fog. Almost siting prompted our chant, “tail, tail tail!” With cameras posed hoping for the classic pose. One afternoon we sat on the rocks below our camp and watched two Humpback whales breech repeatedly, causing one of us to yell, “I didn’t know those suckers could fly.” The guides informed us that the big whales rarely breech in these waters where they generally concentrate on feeding so we felt very lucky.

The big attraction to kayaking in Blackfish Sound is, of course, the whales. But our gang seemed to take as much joy in the smaller mammals. The big sea lions act like the bears of the sea, foraging in the bay, using their bulk to intimidate and their speed to impress. Unlike the bigger mammals, the sea lions swim the same waters we kayak and pose a far greater threat to our stability than the big guys who kept their distance.

But it was the dolphins playing off the bow and stern of the power boats we rode to and from the camp that earned the biggest smiles. They just simply played with the boats, appearing to leap and dive just for the sheer joy of it. Kind of reminded me of little of puppies. It was hard not to feel a bit of their exuberance.

When the fog prevented us from seeing many mammals on the third day’s whale watching trip, our First Nation’s guide stopped the boat so we could watch seven eagles and hundreds of seagulls feast on a herring ball. The poor fish form a tight knit swirling ball ball when threatened, based upon the premise there is safety in numbers. Those fish lucky enough to be in the middle of the ball survive. The ball is driven to the surface by the sea lion nipping at them from below which invites the attack from above. Eagle after eagle swooped down, talons extended to grab fistfuls of herring. Sometimes the eagle dropped ankle deep into the water; sometime shin deep. And as the eagles rose with their catch up they contorted their bodies, beak to toes, to eat literally on the fly. An occasional seagull followed a bald eagle, hoping for dropped scraps. The immature eagles, about four of them, who hadn’t yet developed the characteristic white heads and tails, were clearly less proficient. They generally made several passes at the herring ball before getting up the courage to dip into the water, and even then, they often came up empty-handed.

The early morning kayaks had a charm of their own apart from the wildlife. We experienced what our guides called an early “fog-ust,” the typical August weather pattern where warm land temperatures and cool water temperatures create morning fog. Islands just a few hundred yards away disappeared. And as we paddled, we hugged the shoreline so as not to get lost in the mist. This lack of visibility enhanced the feeling of floating and made distance sounds seem close. As as the fog shifted, it offered glimpses of the shoreline or tree tops, presented like like brief gifts to those of us who chose to get up early. At times we could see blue sky above and white all around us.

It takes a special person to be a guide on one of these trips. Part cheerleader, part safety patrol, they had to know the waters, know the wildlife and manage a wacky group of paddlers — a bit like herding ducks. And, of course, they had to know how to kayak and how to help us kayak — getting us safely into our kayaks, adjusting our rudder pedals, securing our spray skirts, and making sure our PSD were worn correctly. All the while making sure we were having fun. They succeeded.

The kayaking was really easy, as you might expect for a trip advertised as appropriate for inexperienced kayakers. With coaching from the guides, our least experienced kayakers managed the most strenuous paddle through some pretty strong currents — no sweat. The guides assisted us in and out of the kayaks, making the experience accessible for least flexible and least mobile among us. The strict and understandable no-paddling-after-wine-or- beer rule kept us from the post-dinner kayak. Only some of us went out on the water at every opportunity. The camp site attractions coerced some to stay ashore as an alternative. That’s why it’s called glamping.

Would we do it again? You bet! And maybe again and again. The camp may stay the same. The activities may stay the same. But the wildlife will always change and surprise.

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