Spirit of the West Adventures

Kayaking with Orcas on the Whale Superhighway

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photos by Pete Heck

It feels like the start of an annual tradition for me. A pilgrimage, if you will, satisfying no overt spirituality except my own, to test my abilities and fortitude in the face of life’s challenges. It started within a year of my leukemia diagnosis when I took a solo trip to an unpowered yurt on Cortes Island. That trip remains undocumented for reasons I cannot explain, except to say that I think I am still processing it. It had been only a handful of months since I finished in-hospital treatment. I was weak and weepy. But that trip provided me with one thing I was looking for: reassurance that I could take care of myself once again. (If only barely.)

So on my return to this wild region of British Columbia, almost exactly one year later, I made note of the changes I saw in myself. My hair was much more than a chemo-reduced helmet of frizzy curls, and I was indeed less weepy (or at least, not for the same reasons). And I was definitely much stronger. But was I strong enough?

I had three days of kayaking ahead of me, and would be living in a largely unpowered situation. I was about to be tested again.

View from Swanson Island
The destination.

We stopped at the sight of lazy sea lions stretched on smooth rock faces as the gentle waves from our boat lapped up and showered their edges. A fellow tour participant sitting next to me, whose name I couldn’t yet remember from our early introductions, pointed at several baby deer further ashore. While the fawns grazed the waterfront for anything green to munch on, we ourselves grazed on delicate and savoury scones offered with hot tea.

We were about halfway to our campsite from the launch in Campbell River when we made this snack break. Up the Discovery Passage and into Johnstone Strait, our destination was Swanson island, located in Blackfish Sound and on the corner of what is known as the “whale superhighway”. Traditional home to the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, the island was to be our resting spot for three nights. From there we would venture out on the water by day and relax in thoughtfully appointed tents when the curtain of night fell.

The indulgences that began in our first hour with early wildlife sightings and delectable food served as a brief indicator of what was to come on our trip. And while those first moments were exciting (and delicious!), they would pale to what came next.

We almost couldn’t get into our camp.

We turned the corner into a tiny bay and a pod of orcas abruptly greeted us. Our boat was held motionless for several minutes while we each ran around snapping photos and uttering hushed statements of awe at our first sighting of these majestic mammals. Not seeing any wildlife is a legitimate concern on any creature-based trip, but that pressure was alleviated in just the first few moments causing our tour leader, Ashley, to dramatically wipe metaphorical sweat from her brow. We arrived at camp just in time for lunch, beaming from our early experience and excited for more, despite the grey drizzle that hovered over us (dubbed the west coast vibe by Ashley).

I had been worried about a rugged experience far outside of my comfort zone, but the aptly named glamp site delivered and quickly dissipated any concern. While I squished in wet sneakers on an introductory walk around the twisty paths (I would live in rubber boots for the rest of my time there), we were shown to our ocean-facing tents with comfortable mattresses, warm showers nearby, a stylish dining room for our family-style meals, and yes, even a wood-fired hot tub facing the Sound. All built and sustained responsibly but with ultimate comfort in mind.

Before our first paddle we gathered for lunch and as an ice breaker, we were each prompted to speak about our most memorable wildlife encounters. Two of the ten participants spoke immediately of what we had just witnessed minutes before, lauding their first view of orcas as a lifetime highlight. One sweet young woman from Mexico, on her honeymoon, clung to her new husband’s arm and admitted that she cried on seeing them. “This is my first time in the woods,” she said. Her husband finished the young bride’s story as she was too overwhelmed to speak, saying that it was her childhood dream to see orcas, and so for their honeymoon they made it happen. A few of us (me included!) teared up at their emotional story.

Camp on Swanson Island
My tent!
Glamping tent
Dining room Spirit of the West Adventures
The rugged but elegant dining room.
Hot Tub Spirt of the West Adventures
The wood-fired hot tub.

Just a few hours later we put paddles to sea while still confronting the west coast vibe. We didn’t venture too far, but I was quickly drenched through a small zipper on my waterproof jacket left undone. Regardless of my soggy state, those couple of hours on the water sparked that deep love I have for this activity. Every sight I saw and every spot I reached was because of my own power. I earned each experience. My muscles would later wail for sudden and intense use, but I didn’t care.

Our guides Ashley and Josh brought us in for a huddle after a couple of hours on the water. No sooner did Ashley suggest a return to camp when someone’s finger outstretched into the Sound. Porpoises were on the run and creating fan-shaped splashes of water, their spray resembling a rooster’s tail. A pod of orcas was hot on their tails. We watched wordlessly as the rain soaked us even further. Our silence was only broken by the noisy breathing of the whales.

Rain quit soon after we arrived back for dinner, but the trees were so saturated with dew that under the tents it still sounded like a light sprinkle that lasted well into twilight.

Kayaking with Orcas
Huddled and listening to the marine activity around us.
In the distance.

Our mornings began with a discussion of what each of us heard overnight. Usually, there were whale breaches (I slept through all but one), and sometimes a cruise ship could be heard lumbering past. Once, in the pitch black of night, I woke up certain that an ostrich was rustling just outside – it seemed so hefty and loud that I actually yelled out to spook it. In the morning I surmised that I must have been dreaming (an ostrich? Really?) until Ashley said she had heard the same. She (much braver than I!) got up to look and witnessed two herons fighting right beside my tent.

Several more paddles were offered over the days that followed. I took one more lengthy one but asked to be paired with another to help alleviate the strain of the 14-kilometer route. Josh joined me and I was delighted he did. I suffered a bit of nausea while being on the water (I figure that cancer treatment has made me more sensitive), and there were times I needed to just sit still with my head down and let him singly power us forward. After lunch, which was on the shore of a tiny bay on the opposite end of the island, I felt better as the sun opened the skies and more islands became visible. Josh and Ashley continued to engage us so thoroughly during our paddles – we learned more about whales, the giant bull kelp that skirted the water, and of the farm fishing resident in the area that is bad for both the environment and the humans that consume from them.

The afternoon, and all remaining kilometers in it, seemed to fly by.

Kayaking around Swanson Island.
Beautiful kayaking day
Bull Kelp
Learning about bull kelp.
Lunch spot on Swanson Island
Lunch spot.
Spirit of the West Adventures guides
Learning more about the northern resident orcas.
Afternoon snack in the hot tub Spirit of the West Adventures
Post-kayak soak and snacks back at camp.

The following day, while the others went on another excursion, I stayed behind to enjoy the quiet, temperate rainforest. My weary body needed a rest, but there was one more important reason to take the morning off.

How often can one sit with coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and only be disturbed by frequent whale blows? Not very, if ever. I had the lounge area of our camp almost entirely to myself. I nestled under the wool blankets provided and raised my eyes from my book to watch the traffic on the superhighway with utter fascination. Every few minutes I would hear a whale emptying its lungs into the atmosphere; sometimes, I would even see it. I started to keep track but promptly abandoned that task. It was clear that by the end of my morning, the count of wildlife I would see vastly outnumbered humans by many times.

For one special moment, a large humpback even came alarmingly close to the shore. And just before lunch, when I went for a quick nap, I was told by the staff later that a pod of orcas made a quick but close swim-by.

Quiet morning on Swanson Island
Can I start all my mornings like this?
Relaxing in Blackfish Sound
Peace and whales.
Kayaking with Orcas Blackfish Sound
In the distance.

The elusive orca whales were the obvious draw to this tour, and to see them in such great numbers and in such close proximity was indeed a lifetime highlight, and an exalted experience I never could have imagined. Even though orcas were targeted by commercial fishing operations in the mid-20th century, they do not currently carry endangered status, but that doesn’t make them any less precious to see or protect. I took away many memories and lessons from this trip, but the most important was how delicate life is in this important ecosystem.

For our final afternoon, we boarded a boat in order to reach farther than we could via kayaks. We were guided by a local named Bishop – connected with other guides in the area, he immediately knew where to take us and he didn’t have to go far. We swiftly found a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins, and then a group of orcas nearby, likely on their way to the protected reserve of Robson Bight. The orcas hugged the shoreline but delighted us with a show, three even spy-hopped to get a better view of what was on the surface around them. We swung wide to get slightly ahead of them and then cut the engine to not disturb as they swam by. One humpback suddenly appeared and momentarily split the pod before diving deep right in front of us.

Ashley dropped a hydrophone into the water to detect sound waves. Orcas can produce whistles, clicks (that determine their location via echoes off of other objects), jaw claps, and more. Although I knew that it was not often the hydrophone picked up acoustics at our distance, I kept close to it at the back of the boat, waiting to eavesdrop on the conversations happening in the depths below.

I was the first to hear the clicks. They sounded entirely alien. Probably because, to us earth-walking humans, they are.

Spy hopping orca
Pod of Orcas

When the orcas were out of sight we moved again and found our dolphin friends. From a distance, they surprised us all with guttural growls. Were they mating? several of us wondered, but it turned out that they were actually fighting off a few sea lions that swam on the tail end of the pod. It was the season for the sea lions to start marking their territory. They weren’t happy that the dolphins were there, and although they didn’t seem to want to hurt them, it was clear that the sea lions were trying to push them out of the area.

The dolphins didn’t care. They were clearly in the midst of a feeding frenzy and kept coming back for more. Following them around the corner, we came upon dozens of sea lions perched on smooth rocks. The beastly mammals roared at them, many left their perch to try and help push the pod away. They appeared playful as well, and at times we couldn’t tell the difference. A couple in a canoe had come up behind us and squealed as all this activity swarmed around them. And although the effects of the few days of activity were wearing on me, I was supremely jealous and wished for nothing more than to be powering that small boat with them.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins
Dolphins followed by sea lions.
Lazy sea lions
Pacific dolphins
Chased again!

I left carrying sore muscles and a weary mind from the four days of activity and excitement (more able-bodied participants would have no problem, I am sure).

But ask me again about a wildlife excursion that tops as a lifetime highlight and I will be quick to answer. And not just because of the incalculable encounters with a number of special mammals, but the full spectrum of the entire experience: the scenic and secluded location, the knowledge gained from the invaluable guides, the comfort of camp, and the spirit of the tour mates who joined. It was worth every last pain and ache. And then some.

how to do it

This experience is offered exclusively by Spirit of the West Adventures, a company that I am proud to have worked with. Operating as responsibly as they are, in this delicate spot on the planet, is no small feat and admirably done. The guides and staff onsite were nothing short of exemplary. The food was nutritious and served with rugged elegance. We were offered every reasonable comfort and never felt wanting nor a burden. Conversations with the staff highlighted their commitment to the area and the company they worked for. They all loved their jobs, and it showed.

This particular tour (and many of their offerings, actually), sell out and fill up early in the year. I took this trip in early September and while this can be a questionable time due to weather, it is more advantageous for wildlife experiences. I personally would have endured all four days of the west coast vibe in order to experience all that I did. It was that fantastic.

getting there and staying there

The tour starts on Quadra Island, which is a quick ferry ride from Campbell River on Vancouver Island (accessible via many flights and ferries daily from Vancouver). An overnight stay on each end of the tour may be required, and I stayed one night in each of two places:

Chipperfield Hollow B&B is within walking distance of the pre-tour meeting and pickup spot located at another hotel nearby. In a large home shared with the owners, I had a substantially sized room and was very comfortable. The breakfast was extensive and the best part might have been the super cute donkeys kept onsite.

Taku Resort is in the same area and I had one night in a studio suite that was a perfect resting spot after the journey (to nurse my beleagured body)! I wish I had had the energy to explore it more, as the resort and the marina was on a beautiful spot.

This trip was thanks to Spirit of the West Adventures. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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