Great Adventures: Kayaking with Orcas in Johnstone Strait

kayak and orcas4

In Canada’s Johnstone Strait, regulations demand that kayakers maintain a 100-metre distance between themselves and the orcas that funnel through each summer feasting on salmon. The trouble is, orcas can’t read.

I’d come to Johnstone Strait, a cotton-thin stream of ocean separating northern Vancouver Island from the mainland, to witness one of those great marine hunting moments – orcas v salmon, ocean Goliath v ocean David – a mismatch that resulted in plentiful orca sightings but also a few whacks about the body and face from salmon leaping to escape their pursuers.

Johnstone Strait is a narrow undersea canyon that’s also one of the world’s premier destinations for viewing the creatures Pliny the Elder once described as “an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth”. It’s a bum rap given there’s never been a recorded human fatality from an orca attack in the wild.

What makes Johnstone Strait unique is not simply the swimming smorgasbord of salmon as they head for the world’s largest spawning river, but the pebbly beaches in Robson Bight. It’s the only known ‘whale rubbing’ spot in the world, where orcas cruise into the beaches to rub against the smooth pebbles, scraping away layers of old skin.

awaiting orcas

Boats and kayaks are banned from entering the bight, but as we sat in our kayaks at the edge of the exclusion zone, we anchored ourselves to the kelp and enjoyed front-row seats to a passing parade of orcas. Back in camp each night, hidden in the forest of spruce, hemlock and red cedar that backed the rocky beaches, I fell asleep to the explosions of air that announced another surfacing orca just offshore from my tent.

Other days we kayaked across the three-kilometre-wide strait or simply paddled along the shores of Vancouver Island, where bald eagles peered down at us from the treetops. It was on one such day that I coasted ashore to explore a narrow break in the cliffs. As I climbed out of my kayak, a blast of air sounded behind me. Just a couple of metres from another kayak, an orca had surfaced. The fibreglass toothpick – aka kayak – rolled in its wake and the black dorsal fin towered above my two stunned companions. Then the animal was gone. The wake slapped against the stony shore and the sudden shocked silence lingered only until another orca pod surfaced far out in the strait. The animals were more than 100 metres away now – the message had finally got through.

* Adventure before Avarice paddled with Natural Focus Safaris.

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