Last week, while visiting my dear old friend Dawn and her partner Janell in Victoria, B.C., a charming town with a wide, thriving waterfront, I had the pleasure of whale-watching in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The experience was so transcendant I had to share.
I’m happy for any excuse to “mess about in boats,” and seeing a killer whale (or “orca”) has long been on my bucket list. Despite their reputation, most killer whales in the Pacific Northwest actually eat salmon. Others, however, happily gobble up seals, sea lions and walruses. They often hunt in packs, like wolves, and have been known to successfully attack and feed on other whale species – even on sharks. Fortunately, they have no interest in humans.
First I scoped out all the whale watching places, walking around the waterfront, taking a flier at each and asking lots of questions. I felt like my mother was with me. “Write the information right on the flyer,” she reminded me. “You think you’ll remember which was which, but you won’t.” Most places were big and commercial, staffed by distracted college kids who could just as easily have been selling ice cream. Their boats, too, were often big and commercial, more like cruise ships than what I think of as pleasure boats. Most cost around $100 for a three-hour tour (“a three-hour tour…”), save one that charged $120 because they often stayed out an hour or two longer than planned, without any notice, which didn’t exactly seem like a perk.
My favorite place – coincidentally the first place I checked out – was Seaking Adventures, on Fisherman’s Wharf, a touristy Tower of Babel where visitors ate fish and chips as they ogled the adorable houseboats. The booth – on a floating dock – was staffed by the owner himself, Ron King. “Captain Ron” ran the business with his wife and led the tours himself in his small, 10-person Four Winns boat moored right in front of the booth. He patiently answered all my questions: the tour cost $95 for three hours (a few dollars less than the others); they guaranteed whale sightings; and they were deliberately “green”, conscious of their environmental impact, to which none of the other places even paid lip service. I found myself comparing the other places to them, and later, as I laid all the flyers on the kitchen table for Dawn and Janell, I knew Seaking was the clear winner.
Ron ran two tours per day, at 10 am and 2 pm (a full day for him, with an hour for lunch). He had said to call in the morning to see if whales were in the area, and if so to reserve a spot on the afternoon tour. I was so excited about going out with Seaking that I actually set the alarm and reserved my spot first thing in the morning, then went back to bed for another hour’s sleep.
Ron’s wife (I never did catch her name) had said to come by 1:30, but I presented myself at 1:15, checked in, got coffee, and came back with hot beverage in hand to get ready. I talked to Ron’s wife as I suited up in the big red coveralls they provide, part flotation device, part insulation for warmth. She’s from Buffalo, New York, just a few hours down the Erie Canal from where I grew up, small world. The sky was grey, cloudy but not rainy, and I suspected we’d see the sun soon enough.
Then Captain Ron said, “You’re all suited up, how ‘bout you board first?” The boat had three real seats (one for the Captain) and one big cushiony bench in back. He suggested I sit up front, the best seat – bumpy, but dry. Well, relatively dry. As I said confidently, “If you don’t want to get wet, you shouldn’t get on a boat!” These are the kind of words one ends up eating.
Ron can have up to 10 people on a tour, but it was just me and these three big nice guys: Joe from Toronto; Nikit, a South Asian from Africa who’s lived here 6 years; and Momo, another big friendly South-Asian Canadian. After Ron’s safety lecture, we took a slow scenic ride out of the harbor, east along Victoria, past beautiful houses, modest apartment buildings and a golf course. The radio crackled with the voices of other boaters: “Roger that. Over.”
First we stopped right in the midst of a bunch of kitesurfers. They were doing all sorts of tricks – “They don’t have anyone else to show off for,” Ron said. One kitesurfer jumped right up in the air, at least six feet, which is called “controlled flying” – and that’s just what it looks like, humans figuring out how to fly, if only temporarily. Totally beautiful. Every time a kitesurfer went up into the air like that – into the air, on the air, of the air – Ron would exclaim, “Big air! Big air!” “That’s what they say,” he explained. It was humorously incongruous – this sun-baked sailor using the kitesurfing lingo, like when my 80-year-old dad calls something “awesome”. Big air! Amazing.
Then we stopped at an uninhabited tiny island to watch harbor seals hanging around on rocks, taking in the sun and barking at each other. We saw lots of birds – gulls, of course, but also a few new entries on the life list – cormorants and pigeon guillemots. Ron pulled a big piece of bull kelp out of the water and tore us each a piece. Tastes like, well, seaweed.
We passed a huge ship. “That looks like a cruise ship,” I said. “Believe it or not, that’s another whale-watching boat,” Ron said. “Looks like those people don’t have the stomach for a real adventure,” I said disparagingly. Ron nicely explained that those boats are good for older people, or people with physical limitations. Truth.
As we motored through the water, Ron told us about how he came to lead the tours. He’d started working as a deckhand on his father’s (John King) fishing boat when he was just 11. At 20, he bought his own fishing boat, the Aquarius, and fished salmon commercially for 25 years. But due to unsustainable fishing practices, by the mid-90s the local salmon supply virtually disappeared. He said this affected the orca population, too, because they eat the salmon. Back in the day there were around 90 whales, and then it fell down to 60, and now it’s near 90 again. Oh, ecosystems. And when there aren’t any salmon, there isn’t any money in the salmon business. Whale watching it was.
About forty minutes into the trip, we sped up and raced at 27 knots/hr (about 30 miles/hr) out to where the whales had been sighted. We were racing over the water, into increasingly choppy water, and I started to feel pulled in different directions – the energy of the boat moving through the water, the movement of the current, the boat bobbing to and fro on the waves, the tension between all these things. Even in the “driest” front seat, water rushed over the side. Pretty soon we were all soaked. But who cared? This was too exciting!
We found the whales easily. “These are resident whales, as opposed to the transients that come through here sometimes,” Ron said. “The whales live in different pods, or families. This is J Pod. Not to be confused with your iPod. A little boat humor there.”
The whales were awesome. I had joked to Dawn that the pamphlets exaggerated – all those pictures of orcas breaching, their white bellies flashing in the sun, seemingly inches from the boats. But it really was like that. By law we stayed at least 100 meters (about 300 feet) away, but that’s close enough to see everything. (I had brought my binoculars, but abandoned them by then – I had enough trouble keeping my own glasses dry, let alone another set of lenses.)
We cut the engine and idled to watch the whales. Nearby were a few other tour boats, all idling, the stink of diesel fouling the fresh air. I started getting really nauseous. Really, really nauseous. God laughs when you talk big, you know. Apparently I didn’t have the stomach for a real adventure. Makes me laugh, makes me humble.
Ron was really nice – “Just do what you need to do,” he said. I curled up on the bench seat and shut my eyes for a little while, missing a couple of whales but feeling too lousy to care. I love boats so much that even as I felt terrible, I thought, “I always wondered what it would be like out on such rough water.” Now, at least, I knew what it was like.
Then Ron said something about the bathroom – the boat had a bathroom! He’d omitted this from the introductory lecture. All four of us had to go. “Okay, how about the lady uses the bathroom while I teach the guys how to go over the side,” Ron said. I peeled out of my soaking red suit. “Bathroom” was a generous term. I had to climb down into a small hatch, fold myself in there, barely tall enough to sit. As I peed I heard the lesson above me: “Be sure to aim over there.” “Oh shit!” “That’s why I said to aim over there, you’ll recall.” I was glad I was getting the audio and not the visual.
As I peed I suddenly had to puke, immediately, urgently. I yanked up my pants, scrambled out of the bathroom, ran over to the side of the boat – carefully downwind – and lost my lunch. Afterwards, I splashed some water from my water bottle, trying to clean the side of the boat, and Ron laughed – “That’ll get sprayed off in no time.”
After I puked, of course, I felt much better. The guys were so nice, we were all in this together. We rode away from the other tour boats and out on our own, into calmer water, where we stopped and saw even more of the huge black and white orcas. First you see the fins poking out of the water – Ron often imitating the Jaws theme song – then you hold your breath, and if you’re lucky you’re looking in the right place as the whales leap into the air. The males are bigger, with 6-foot fins; the females have 2-foot fins, no less impressive. Sometimes you see the whales leap up again and again in one spot; then, just as you come to expect them, they don’t resurface, and you scan the water for another telltale fin. We rode alongside a male/female pair for a while, following their fins.
After about two and a half hours, a little longer than planned, it was time to head back. I still felt slightly sick, lying down on the bench with my eyes shut as we picked up speed again, bumping and heaving our way over the water. The sun came out, warming, though I was wet through to my jeans.
Intermittently I sat up to take in the sights. We saw Lopez Island, the distant mountains, more shrieking gulls. Ron played the radio, Victoria’s light rock station. Just as we came back into Victoria the radio played U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I watched the sun glinting on the waves as we putted into the harbor, thinking of the whales leaping seemingly out of nowhere, doing flips in the air. For once, it seemed, I had found what I was looking for. And then some.