Monday, August 1, 1983

Thar she blows: Travels with orcas

When we moved to Seattle in 1982, we had the good fortune of falling into a crowd of very interesting folks who were sea kayakers. Helga Beyer was the administrative assistant in the University of Washington Astronomy Department (I was a graduate student in that program) and she had a circle of kayaking/adventuring friends that included Bruce Mower, Jack Dunn and Gordon Comegys. We got started paddling around Seattle and in the summer of 1983 the six of us took an amazing trip up to Johnstone Strait at the north end of Vancouver Island. In 1983, kayakers were very rare up there. We launched from Telegraph Cove, just south of Port McNeil which was a very small commercial fishing community and the guy who owned the boat launch was deeply suspicious. At first he refused to let us park in the area, but we finally got permission to park and launch.

Typical lunch beach. Bruce, Helga, Gordon, Jack and Frances

Boats loaded with a weeks worth of food, water and camping gear we headed out of the cove with only the vaguest plans. We had no information at all about potential camping spots in the area and only had rumors that orcas were common in the Robson Bight 10 miles south during the summer, that the currents could be ferocious and that the afternoon winds would roar along the Strait and out to the Pacific. But, there were plenty of nice pebble beaches with giant, sun-bleached logs and within five hours we discovered a good camping spot down near Robson Bight. Over the next 7 years we would return to this site many times.

The view from the Robson Bight campsite

This first year we did not see any orcas, but did a lot of exploring. We crossed the Strait and poked around through the amazing array of islands north of Vancouver Island. Camping spots were hard to find and we learned to start looking hard early in the afternoon. We visited a abandoned Indian village.

We had adventures.
On the second to last day we made a long paddle back south to the Strait and caught a big tide sweeping around Hanson Island. As we approached the end of the island and the Strait we started to hear a strange roaring noise. Turned the last corner and found the source--huge standing waves and a vast tide rip. With the complicated topography of bays and islands the large tide changes are out of phase in many areas and where two flows meet you have tide rips large enough to be marked as hazards on the charts. Earlier on the trip we had watched in awe as giant ocean-going tugs were stopped and sometimes driven backwards by the tidal currents that flow through the Strait. Bruce and I saw a huge log get caught in a tide-rip whirlpool, get pulled under and pop back out 5 minutes later a quarter mile away.

There was no place to get off of our little ride into the waves and in a few minutes we were in this strange sea with waves popping up on all sides and crashing down on the boats. We immediately got separated into two groups--Frances, Bruce and I quickly lost sight and track of the others. After a few moments of terror, it became pretty clear that this was not big deal. Kayaks loaded with camping gear are amazingly seaworthy little crafts. We crashed right through, aiming for the calm patches that appeared here and there and we slowly worked our way through the rip area. I was starting to enjoy the adventure when I heard a faint little voice cry out "help". I turned and saw Frances' boat being pulled backward into a huge, forming whirlpool. I shouted for Bruce, but there was little we could do but stand by and watch. Frances' boat was 17' long, and with its stern in the center of the whirlpool, the bow did not reach the edge. Around and around Frances went. She took off her bandana and threw it to the water gods as a token sacrifice in a last minute conversion to paganish. This seemingly worked and instead of getting deeper, the whirlpool started to flatten out and Frances was slingshot out, free to go.

We went back most years till 1990. My brother John and his wife Elizabeth made a trip, our friend Bill Frey went a couple of times, our friends Alex and Graciela Raga went up and Bruce Mower joined us. We saw orcas many times. In the early days, it was not clear how sensible it was to be out in a kayak in their world. I liked it best in the early morning. It was usually calm, sometimes foggy. The first indication of whales would be the pistol-shot-like sound of them exhaling. After a bit we would locate the pod and paddle out to be in their line of travel. As they got closer and closer you would realize that the males were huge animals. Their dorsal fins tower over a kayker. You would time the dives and realize that one of the whales was going to come up right under your boat. But, they never did. They seemed to pay only enough attention to us to avoid running into our boats. They would do an extra-long dive or move slightly to one side. The water is very clear up there and you could sometimes look down and see the huge black shape glide under your boat. The whole encounter would be over in minutes. The pod moved on and we would be there with hearts pounding.

We saw lots of interesting behavior--spy hopping, breeching, tail-lobbing and the like. One morning stands out. We had stopped at a beach for an early lunch. It was a circular pebble-covered beach defined on each end by short rock walls that were a few feet above the water. After a bit, we heard the distant sound of orcas. Spotted a group heading our way. Then we spotted another group, then another. As soon as it was clear that the whales' destination was our beach we pulled the boats back into the woods and laid low on the rock walls, still and silent. We learned later that this beach was known to the groups doing research on the Johnstone Strait orcas as the "rubbing rocks". Over the next hour, four or five pods churned around in the little cove--perhaps 30 orcas--sometime pushing well up on the beach. Sitting on the rocks at either end of the cover we could have reached out many times and grabbed a dorsal fin of a passing whale. It was incredible.

Alex and Grace Raga with a big male orca.

The times changed. By 1989 there were two groups leading kayaks tours out of Telegraph Cove and two more companies with whale-watching power boat cruises. The boat ramp operators who had been so suspicious and unfriendly now had an eco-tourism approach to business and you could buy Patagonia clothes and $3 espresso drinks at the ramp. Our little campground by Robson Bight was often claimed by tour groups. An article about the summer Robson Bight orca congregations in National Geographic had made this a summer destination for many sailors and there were lots of boats in the previously-deserted waters. The whales had changed too. Where before we could get out in front of a pod and they would esentially ignore us, now they were very spooky. With the first paddle in the water, an approaching pod would sound and then surface (amazingly) far away.

As is often the case, nature-loving folks loved this place too much and too often. We are very lucky to have had a chance to spend some time here before it was well known. Thanks Helga!


Gordon said...

Hi Mike,

I did a google search for my name and up came your blog for one of the hits. A pleasant trip down memory lane with sea kayaking. The year of the first trip to Johnstone Strait had to be 1982 because I was in the UK all summer of 1983. The crossing of the Johnstone strait with the converging currents causing the huge whirlpools that caught Frances still ranks as the closest call I experienced in sea kayaking. After that trip, I was always extremely careful with the timing and location of the crossing and no more close calls.

Gordon Comegys

Mike Bolte said...

Hi Gordon!

you are right! It is handy that those old slides have a date stamped on them.

Hope all is well with you! Any time you are down in the SF Bay area let us know. Be fun to get together.