Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whale of a time

Nothing quite like kayaking amid orcas

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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.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2009 F3

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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