JOHNSTONE STRAIT, B.C. — Very few experiences can send adrenaline coursing through your veins like paddling in the midst of a pod of killer whales.
Riding a roller-coaster can be thrilling. Plunging a bike down a steep slope can be downright scary.
But there's nothing quite like the mix of fear and exhilaration that comes with sitting in a kayak while aquatic mammals the size of station wagons plunge in and out of the water around your position.
British Columbia's Johnstone Strait, a 110-kilometre-long passageway on the northeast side of Vancouver Island, is likely the best place on Earth to get a good look at orcas.
While it's illegal in Canada to get too close to any species of whale, the narrow nature of Johnstone Strait -- only 2.5 to five kilometres wide -- almost guarantees some form of killer-whale sighting if you spend enough time in the passageway during the summer, when orcas chase salmon up and down the strait.
Every day during the high season, two to four whale-watching boats leave the tiny town of Telegraph Cove, B.C. to allow tourists to catch a glimpse of the whales. They're joined by dozens of kayakers who take guided tours or make independent forays around the strait as well as the islands of the Broughton Archipelago to the north.
I joined this small flotilla during the August long weekend and was rewarded with three whale sightings -- probably the same pod swimming back and forth -- in less than 24 hours.
The most exciting took place while my wife and I were scouting for a campsite. At first, we saw the spray from orca blowholes and a distance. Then came the unmistakably large dorsal fins, which make it easy to tell a killer whale from a porpoise or dolphin at a distance.
Then before we had a chance to paddle away to the legally proscribed safe distance, there were orcas swimming all around us. A female and her offspring dove a few metres off the stern. A massive male -- probably measuring about seven metres and weighing more than six tonnes -- surfaced to the right of our bow before plunging below the kayak.
Another, smaller male breached out the water and did a backflip -- possibly because he was annoyed with our presence, we were later told at the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove.
All the while I fumbled to take a decent photograph (which I failed to do) and prayed that the massive animals cared enough to avoid our kayak (which they almost always do) and dunking me and my wife into the strait, which was a frigid 7C despite the heat wave earlier this summer in B.C.
The killer-whale encounter, as easy as it was to obtain, ranked up there with some of the most rewarding wildlife-watching experiences in my life. The irony is, there are far more people watching orcas than there are actual orcas in the Johnstone Strait on any given day in July or August.
At the height of the tourist season, before the late-summer fog rolls in ("Faugust" is the local name for the eighth month in the calendar), as many as 200 ecotourists on dedicated whale-watching boats and dozens more in kayaks are trying to catch a glimpse of 85 resident killer whales. A handful of massive cruise ships and dozens of logging, fishing and pleasure boats also cruise up and down Johnstone Strait each day.
The vast majority of the boats stay a respectful distance from the whales, thanks to a widespread local education campaign. Ecotourism in northern Vancouver Island has grown into a lucrative business that has the potential to ease the pain from the decline in logging and fishing. An orca preserve at Robson Bight, a shallow Vancouver Island bay where the whales rub themselves on smooth pebbles, is closed to all human visitors and monitored closely from the north side of the strait.
The real threat to Johnstone Strait's killer whales is not visible above the water. The resident whales, which subsist primarily on salmon, may disappear from the waters within decades if salmon numbers continue to decline.
While overfishing has seriously depleted salmon stocks, a profusion of Atlantic salmon farms in B.C. waters has also impacted wild Pacific salmon populations, mainly by exposing juvenile native salmon to lethal sea lice.
Salmon-farming employs less people and generates less money for B.C. than sportfishing and whale-watching, environmentalists claim. But the B.C. government has been reluctant to close down the farms.
For now, it's still easy see orcas in the strait. If you want to help maintain the situation, avoid B.C.-farmed
salmon and limit your wild salmon intake as well.
I like to think the killer whales will thank you by declining to flip your kayak.