Paddle among orcas of Johnstone Strait

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Posted May 9, 2016 by Mark Sissons in British Columbia
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Orca whales most often travel in pods and seeing them in a kayak in their habitat in northern British Columbia is a breathtaking experience. (Mark Sissons/Vacay.ca)

Story by Mark Sissons
Vacay.ca Writer

TELEGRAPH COVE, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Have you heard the mermaids singing? I have, and they sound like pearly black orca whales calling to one another as their sleek dorsal fins slice through the water past my sea kayak.

I first heard their song of the sea on a shimmering hot August afternoon in Johnstone Strait, a narrow channel in the northeastern part of Vancouver Island. Family groups (called pods) of orcas use this passage as an aquatic superhighway, speeding toward deeper waters farther offshore on their seasonal migratory odysseys. Their otherworldly vocalizations are called echolocation, and they use them to navigate, communicate and hunt in these cold, deep waters. From a nearby boat borne hydrophone I could listen to broadcasts of their conversations above the water’s surface as I paddled past.

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Sea kayakers spend three-to-five days paddling through the Johnstone Strait, catching sight of orcas and other wildlife. (Mark Sissons/Vacay.ca)

This narrow passage between northeastern Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland draws sea kayakers from all over the world each summer. Most come to explore the area around Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, home to many resident and migratory wildlife, including orcas, seals, porpoises sea lions and myriad species of seabirds. Robson Bight is also an important nesting sanctuary for bald eagles who perch imperiously high up on forest branches along the shorelines, while sea otters frolic in the shallow waters off sandy, driftwood-strewn beaches.

A Beachfront Base Camp in British Columbia

After a preliminary kayaking safety orientation, our group of 11 guests, two guides and a camp cook launched our double kayaks into the harbour at Telegraph Cove, a postcard-pretty village an hour’s drive from Port Hardy. On our first afternoon we took several leisurely hours to reach our destination — our own private beach deep in the heart of the so-called orca loop where we would “glamp” for the next three days.

Since this is a fully catered trip I needed only focus on improving my paddling technique and keeping my camera ready. Our professional hosts saw to the rest, ensuring that all participants were comfortable on the water and well-fed on land. Sleeping in spacious canvas tents on camp cots, dining on gourmet meals and never short of wine, we enjoyed all the pleasures of wilderness camping without the logistical headaches while exploring our fragile new marine environment. As a Vancouverite, this area is my own backyard and yet Johnstone Strait still feels refreshingly exotic and remote. Judging from the frequent gasps of wonder from some of my American companions – a family of six from Arkansas, a retired couple from Philadelphia, and a NASA rocket scientist and his wife – we could as easily be floating down the Amazon.

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Dining outdoors in the pristine wilderness of northern British Columbia is part of the fun during the Sea Kayak Adventures sea kayaking tour of Johnstone Strait. (Mark Sissons/Vacay.ca)

Rounding a bend in the waterway late on that first afternoon we entered a shallow cove and aimed for its pebbly beach. This is Sea Kayak Adventures’ Orca Base Camp, a spec of shoreline reserved exclusively for us. As we settled into our tents in the cool forest just off the beach our cook and the two guides set to work preparing hors d’oeuvres and salmon bake for dinner cooked hot in a Dutch oven. This was the first of several gourmet meals they skillfully prepare. Soon dinner was served al fresco on a long driftwood log along with plenty of wine and polite conversation.  The evening light lingers here, as did we, stretching out on the beach to digest, watch and listen for orcas blowing offshore. I was only a little over an hour by floatplane from my downtown Vancouver home but that night felt like a million tranquil miles away.

Kayaking in Remote, Fast Waters

Some of us were novice sea kayakers, some veterans of many ocean voyages. Yet we quickly formed a human pod, chatting to one another and sharing our collective kayaking wisdom on daily excursions lasting up to five or six hours. Mostly we explored the perimeter of Robson Bight Ecological Reserve where orcas love to feed on the plentiful salmon, their principal food source. All boats, including kayaks, are prohibited from entering the reserve’s 1,248-hectare marine portion. This protection from invasive human intrusion provides the orcas with enough space to feed, rest, play, rub on beaches and rocks, and procreate, which according to scientific studies they do more here than anywhere else on the British Columbia coast.

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Day or night, the views on the Johnstone Strait are awe-inspiring. (Mark Sissons/Vacay.ca)

Each day pods of orcas powered past us en route to and from their feeding and breeding grounds. We often heard them blowing before we spotted them, giving us enough warning to shift direction and paddle respectfully close without coming too close and disturbing them. But occasionally a stealthy pod surfaced right alongside us without warning, expelling huge plumes of air out of their blowholes before diving once again. I liked to think that this was their form of greeting fellow travellers.

Sea lions also approached, curious about us as they playfully flipped and splashed in the water, soggy whiskers twitching. Even the otter that returned each evening to our cove seemed drawn to us, perhaps because of the unusual sounds and smells we created. As the campfire crackled and the wine flowed onshore, the otter paddled a dozen metres offshore, gliding along, nose just above the surface like a miniature submarine. Later, close to midnight, the glowing blue bioluminescence of the ocean water materialized in the moonlight. Standing barefoot in the sand, swaying to the music in my head, I watched in wonder as bioluminescence spread out toward the inky strait like so many squiggly strands of DNA. Then I heard the signature whoosh of orcas blowing as they passed.

The mermaids were singing to one another again. How I wished I could speak their marvellous language on that adventure in the bountiful waters of Robson Bight.

MORE ABOUT VISITING ROBSON BIGHT ECOLOGICAL RESERVE

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Sea kayaks are built to navigate the coastal waters of BC and with ROW Adventures, paddlers travel in groups of both novice and experienced kayakers. (Mark Sissons/Vacay.ca)

Getting There: Port Hardy is a one-hour seaplane flight from Vancouver International Airport’s South Terminal. Visit Pacific Coastal airlines for details. www.pacificcoastal.com
Website: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/eco_reserve/robsonb_er.html
Recommended Outfitter: Sea Kayak Adventures offers multi-day all-inclusive summer sea kayaking adventures in Johnstone Strait. The four-day option costs $1,220 per adult, according to the company’s website.

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About the Author

Mark Sissons
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