Maya + Kayak = Mayaking

“Mayaking”: described in the tourist brochure as kayaking in the Mayan preserve of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere near Tulum—a UNESCO world heritage site. Corny name, but cute. Later we learned the name was actually pretty significant.

The Sian Ka’an preserve is actually a giant national park—in fact, the fifth largest in Mexico. It stretches down the Yucatan coast from Tulum halfway to Belize. It includes many different ecosystems—brackish coastal lagoons, inter coastal waterways, jungles, freshwater lagoons. It is home to manatees, jaguars, huge saltwater crocodiles, hundreds of species of birds, and rich collection of both freshwater and saltwater fish.

Our tour company, Community Tours, based in the tiny town of Muyil, is completely operated and run by Mayans, part of a local effort to build a local economic base for jobs and to keep kids in the community. Our guide for the three of us, Benjamin, left his village at age eleven as the only way to further his education. After college, he tried living in Mexico City but came back to his roots and culture. Mayan language and culture is very much alive in this region—in fact there are about 800,000 Mayan speakers left in Yucatan. Benjamin’s first language is Mayan and he said his English is much better than his Spanish.

The Community Tours headquarters is right on the main road in Muyil and consisted several whitewashed buildings, including a beautiful open air, thatched roof meeting room that doubled as the dining hall. On the grounds were a butterfly enclosure and, of course, a gift shop that featured local handmade souvenirs (which, strangely enough, Benjamin never urged us to visit).

The tour began with a typical Mayan breakfast of fried tortilla chips, ground pumpkin seeds and tomatoes and sautéed summer squash. Sounds slightly strange, but was delicious! As we ate, Benjamin gave us the overview of the kayak tour which would take us onto two huge freshwater lagoons connected by an ancient cut dug by the Mayans. Both lagoons are fed by rain runoff seeping through the Yucatan limestone into the underground rivers—the same rivers that fed the dozens of local cenotes.

A short, but bouncy van ride took us through the jungle and past barely visible Mayan ruins covered by vines and brush. There are likely dozen more ruins throughout the area that have simply been swallowed up by the jungle. Hard to imagine the size of the population that must have existed before the arrival of the Europeans.

When we arrived at the lagoon, we saw a dozen of more Mayan locals sitting around with cell phones perched on top of huge plastic gas cans. Later we found out they were the boat operators who took less adventuresome tourists out for boat rides on the lagoons.

We settled into our kayaks — certainly well used (aka beat-up) sit-aboard kayaks, but with the most comfortable strap-on backs we’ve ever used, first-class paddles and new personal floatation devices. And we were off on the absolutely flat, crystal clear water.

Through water grasses along the shoreline we saw dozens of birds, with Benjamin calling out their names and pausing to show us pictures in his dog-eared bird book, always carefully stowed back in a plastic bag. Some of the birds were known to us like the Great Egret and Green Heron, but others were new, the Black Crowned Heron, Tiger Heron, Tropical Kingbird, Northern Jacana and Anhinga. The water lilies that the raccoons devoured in our fish pond at home in Seattle grew here unscathed.

The first and smaller lagoon was several feet above the larger lagoon and as we ventured through the very narrow canal a slight current made the paddling easy. The entrance to the 500 meter channel was all but invisible to us but Benjamin signaled for us to follow him and suddenly we were in a beautiful narrow waterway barely wide enough for our kayak paddles. An oncoming motorized boat every now and then added to the excitement—forcing us to the side as we used our hands to guide the boat past us.

Benjamin kept checking the reeds along the shoreline for crocodile nests. One of the other guides reported seeing one, but no such luck for us.

Once in the large lagoon we stopped briefly for a dip in the clear water. A soft bottom of silt felt a little strange on the toes, and we were told to avoid the darker rocky or sponge-like objects — actually an important organism that created oxygen that flourished in these waters.

All in all, the kayaking was peaceful, gorgeous and easy. However, by the end of the three hours, our sitting muscles were sore and our paddling muscles tired. It had been almost six months since we had been kayaking! Getting out of the kayaks was a bit exciting as a result, but the Mayans did not let us embarrass ourselves.

We returned to the lodge for lunch — our choice of chicken or fish cooked in banana leaves and hibiscus juice, again prepared in a more traditional manner. Quite tasty.

As we were eating, Benjamin used some well-worn, laminated pictures of Mayan drawings to illustrate the tree of life and several Mayan legends. After unsuccessfully trying to teach us some basic Mayan phrases (the word Ka’an has four different meanings based on slight changes in pronunciation), he explained that Sian Ka’an translates to “where the sky is born.”

Not hard to see why after mayaking in this gorgeous part of the Yucatán.

Hometown Whales

The first time I saw a humpback whale it was so close I could have thrown a rock and hit it —and I don’t have a great arm. A group of us were kayaking along a fjord in Alaska and the whale came between us and the steep rock wall. Four times it surfaced just beside us and we were all to stunned, entranced and awed to take a picture.

After that trip seeing whales became part of most vacations. Humpback whales in Kauai. Gray whales in Baja. Orca in British Columbia. Blue whale in the Sea of Cortes.

But then there were “our” whales, the ones we see almost every year. On and off in April and May Gray whales come into the waters off our beach cabin on Puget Sound in Washington, as part of their annual migration from Mexico to Alaska.

This didn’t happen when we were growing up there, but over the last twenty years has become pretty routine. The same 10 – 12 whales come each spring. Whale researchers have named and identified two we often see, named Patch and Trim-tail because of their distinction features. Others simply are identified by numbers. They come into the shallow areas seeking the ghost shrimp and tubeworms that live in the sand. After the whales have been through the sand bars at low tide are marked with large divots, evidence of the digging the whales do with their fins.

Using their tails and fins, the stir up the sand, apparently taking in great gulps of water, food and sand. Yellow, cloudy water appears as they move along.

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This summer for some reason at least one gray whale has hung around longer, into August. Appearing now twice in the last couple of weeks, it spends several hours cruising up and down just a few dozen yards from shore, often unnoticed by the people along shore.

Twice now we have been lucky enough to be out in our kayaks when the whale appeared. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. Gray whales don’t have the sonar locating ability of orca, but our guy appears to keep track of its surrounding by sight, sometimes keeping its distance and other times appearing out of nowhere just beside us. Researchers report gray whales often approach boats. Are they curious?

When we get downwind, we can smell it’s fishing breath as it blows. But we can also hear a soft intake of breath after it’s blown — if the breathing of a 30 ton creature can ever be called soft.

I don’t care how many times I see these guys, they are always special.

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.