The Whale’s Gift – Kayaking with the Orcas

Some call them blackfish or killer whales. Old salts still refer to them as grampus.

They are playful, highly vocal and, for 10-ton carnivores, are rarely aggresive. I heard the orca long before seeing them. On the flat waters of British Columbia, sound skims along like a stone. You can hear a blow miles away. In late August, salmon are in town and have set the upper echelons of the food chain in motion. Orca eat salmon, and the Johnstone Strait is a 24-hour cafe. For those interested in whales, this is the place to be. Some call them blackfish or killer whales. Old salts still refer to them as grampus. Orcinus orca is a highly social mammal that cares for young and old, staying together in the same pod for life. They are playful, highly vocal and, for 10-ton carnivores, are rarely aggressive.

Until the early 1980s, they were routinely shot at by fishermen or captured to serve life sentences in theme parks. Fortunately, the powers that be finally recognized them to be a highly evolved species, and today they are protected.
In captivity, they might live 20 years. Here in the wild, they can reach 80.

I had paddled the Strait for four days and had seen them far off each day. They are known to approach kayaks and had done so to me in the past, but it had been years since one was really close.

On my first kayak trip, I had been no more than a mile from this very spot when a pod of three transients came at me like a black-and-white freight train. They must have been doing 20 knots when I first spotted them about a mile away, and in the time it took to pull out a camera, they were almost in my face. The two females broke toward shore and avoided me entirely, but the bull came straight on. His dorsal looked about 10 feet tall that morning, and when he surfaced in front of my boat, his mouth was wide open and all I saw were tongue and teeth. I squeezed the shutter and got a shot of him but have no memory of doing so. Taking the photo was an instinctual reaction. That first encounter was so frightening, it still comes back to me in small flashes.

I was so intrigued by this monster that could easily have killed me, yet only gave me a curious once-over. The more I learned about orca, the more I had to know.

I have found these whales to be at least as intelligent as dogs, if not more so. They have a highly developed language, care for their young and old, mourn their dead and coordinate their hunts in a manner that implies a rather complex thought process.

Orca live in a society. The alpha female rules the pod and the alpha bull protects it. They leave the pod to mate but return when finished and spend their entire life together. These mammals are very high on the food chain and not because of brute force. They think! And that makes them fascinating.

I have never heard or read of an attack on humans or kayaks, even though transients have been known to come on shore to take a mammal for a meal. Aside from the initial shock of that first encounter, I have never felt threatened or endangered at all in their presence.

A Silent Witness

Four days in a kayak is a long time when you are over six feet tall. I was stretching out a cramp in my leg and taking a drink of water when I heard the familiar “whoosh.” A large black dorsal was coming right at me from three o’clock, about 500 yards out.

I kicked my rudder hard right, dropped the water bottle and quickly reached for the camera. Then I heard a second “whoosh,” and a third. Suddenly, whales were blowing all around me. They seemed to be converging on my boat, and for a split second I experienced that phenomenon known to kayakers as terrifying euphoria. I had waited a long time to see them so close but never expected to have dozens coming on like waterborne trucks.

The beaches of B.C. are mostly small, loose rocks. I happened to be opposite a rare cliff wall rising about 15 feet high. It ran for about 200 yards. Dozens of orca were converging on this wall, and I was in their path. They were driving salmon ahead of them into the wall. The salmon, in their panic to escape, were ramming headfirst into the rock, knocking themselves senseless. The orca zipped left and right, picking off the dazed salmon. Dorsals sliced through the water like so many black knives. Many came close enough to touch, but I was not about to stick out a hand while these carnivores were feeding. Logic does not always enter the brain during moments of high adrenaline rush.

I took several photos and tried not to move. Once the initial wave of attackers passed me, I realized I was privy to a natural phenomenon very few would ever experience. I sat there watching as a great struggle of life and death played out before me.

Salmon broke the water in all directions only to be taken in mid-flight. I saw several fish grabbed midair but was not quick enough to capture any of it on film. In fact, at this point, I was not even trying. I was simply being in the moment, totally in awe of what was unfolding before me. This went on for the better part of an hour.

As the frenzy began to subside, I watched four orca line up parallel to the wall and turn their flukes toward it.They commenced to slap the water with their tails, making large waves that crashed against the rock. They were using the water to dislodge the remaining salmon hidden in the cracks. As the final stragglers rushed from their hiding places, small dark flashes jumped to take whatever fish the initial assault had missed.

These were a pod of Dall’s porpoise, following the orca and cleaning up the stragglers. Porpoise often swim with orca, and there were plenty of fish to go around. Spouts of water were kicking up everywhere as the hapless fish swam for their lives.

The Dall’s were ballerinas, arcing out of the water, taking salmon in their mouths and diving back in one smooth motion. The porpoise formed a ring, keeping a respectful distance from their larger cousins who were in command, and allowed no victim to escape.

By now the entire event had taken on the aura of a grand play, and I was in the center of it all. I tried to pick out the biggest bull to see how he conducted himself during the scene. There were two or three around, but they just didn’t seem to be in charge. Somewhere close by, out of sight, was the alpha bull, silently watching.

I turned my boat slowly, trying not to disturb the water any more than necessary. I simply did not want to draw any attention to myself at this time. Then I saw him. He was about a half mile out and had not been part of the hunt at all.

He calmly swam back and forth, watching over things, making sure his cows and yearlings executed the hunt properly while he kept his distance. He was either already well fed or so into his role as protector that he let all those tasty morsels pass.

He was perfectly aware of my presence even though I hadn’t seen him until the hunt was almost over. His toleration of my being between him and the pod was proof that he considered me no threat. He was broadside to me with his head slightly elevated—enough for his small black eye to make contact. I felt that he knew what I was thinking at that moment, and we understood each other. I could watch as long as I didn’t interfere with the natural order of things. I had in effect been allowed to witness a highly secret ceremony, and the leader was telling me it was time to move on.

I began to paddle slowly, away from the alpha bull. Females and yearlings passed by me covering me with their blow. The pod was reforming around the bull. As quickly as it began, the hunt was over.

I counted 18 dorsals logging on the surface. I guessed they were just sitting there while heads were being counted to make sure no one was left behind. Suddenly the large female brought her flukes up and smacked them down. With that, the pod turned and headed north. When they surfaced, a few minutes later, they were far ahead of me.

I sat quietly for a few minutes, trying to absorb what had just happened. They were perfectly aware of my presence and tolerated it even though they were engaged in the deadliest activity of all, the hunt. I had been given an incomparable gift.

Since that day, I have often thought of what it might be like to one day actually communicate with these creatures. Then it finally hit me:They had communicated with me.

The entire hunt had been a communication by executing it with me in the center. They allowed me to see an inner part of their daily life that maybe only a handful of people will ever be able to witness. When an outsider is allowed into a closed society, it is the highest form of flattery. When it happens between species, it is a cosmic experience. I can only hope one day to truly understand these creatures that not only share our planet but also allow me to peacefully enter their domain.

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