Whistler, we love you, but now it’s time to hit the waters around Vancouver Island in search of some wildlife inspired Canada Moments. After a day of travelling, we finally made it to Port McNeill, the tiny town from which our kayaking expedition with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures takes off from.
For three days we will be camping on the beach at night and kayaking during the day, in search of Orcas, humpbacks, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and bears. Who can blame us for being incredibly excited?
Having packed all of our belongings into dry bags and enjoyed what we guessed would probably be our last shower for a few days, we headed out into the early morning mist to meet the rest of the group at the water taxi. Port McNeill is a sleepy town at the best of times, so the combination of thick fog and the complete silence afforded by such an early hour made for an atmospheric start to our trip. The water taxi glided towards the dock like a ghost and we loaded all of our things before hopping on board. It was a short but mesmerizing trip to Hanson Island, the location of our base camp. We spent the duration of the boat ride gazing out into the white fog that merged the sea and sky into one blindingly white mass. Before long, we were unloading supplies, kayaks and clothing onto the beach.
After a quick camp orientation, we were given a detailed safety and technique briefing for kayaking and then off we went out onto the glassy water to see what wildlife would make an appearance for us.
Alex and I were in a double kayak, Alex at the front in prime position for photography, me at the back paddling as hard as I could whenever we spotted something. It was only a number of seconds before we were treated to some incredible experiences. Humpbacks appeared as if out of nowhere, completely surrounding us with the noise and mist from their blow holes and the splashes from their tails as they took deeper dives to feed. We couldn’t believe how easy it had been to encounter what, especially to us city folk, are considered to be elusive and mythical creatures. We’d heard how the Johnstone Strait, the body of water on which we spent much of our time, was one of the most lush areas on earth, providing stable food sources to a number of creatures, including the hundreds of migrating humpbacks that pass through here each year. Still, we hadn’t expected such a show.Read more
The day just got better and better from here. Our guides continued to keep a tab on the whereabouts of orcas by listening to the radio channels from whale watching boats and ,lo and behold, we saw them on numerous occasions. Much quicker and thus harder to find (and photograph) than the humpback whales, we felt so privileged just to catch glimpses of them as they sped by. At one point we watched from a distance as they frolicked in the water, breaching and spy hopping, clearly happy and content in their beautiful home.
In amongst the whales, we also saw porpoises and sea lions, so by the time we paddled back to camp, all of us were in disbelief at how successful the day had been. The icing on the cake came as dinner was being prepared. We heard our guide shout from the beach that there were Orcas approaching. All of us scrambled to her side as fast as we could in time to see them swim by. The day couldn’t have been any better.
After a sleep interrupted by the sounds of whales swimming past our tents (probably the only time in our lives we’ve been pleased to be woken up in the early hours), we joined the group at breakfast and then got back in the kayaks for day two on the water. The mist was heavy again, its colour blending in with the ocean so that we couldn’t see a foot in front of us. The sensation of gliding through pure white was somewhat ethereal.
It was a much slower day than our first. We only managed to spot a few humpback whales feeding in the far distance and gained a quick glimpse of an orca’s dorsal fin as it raced by in pursuit of an unknown meal. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of scanning the horizon for humpback blows or orcas breaching, we were able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the far off mountains and the age-old islands dotted around these waters. We learnt much from our enthusiastic guides as they pointed out unique types of flora and fauna as well as sea stars and bird life. One thing in particular caught our attention, which was the moss-like strands hanging from most of the trees we passed. Silke, our ever-obliging guide, explained that this was lichen, a moss that only tends to grow in areas where next-to-no pollution exists in the atmosphere. It hit home just how pure and untouched some parts of the world can be, an interesting thought to someone from a busy metropolis, where lichen wouldn’t stand a chance.
We spent the day paddling between islands, mooring up for lunch on a hidden beach and wandering through forests. Then, as we were making our way back to camp, we were treated to something we’d been hoping for all day. A humpback whale surfaced right behind our kayak, closer than we’d ever experienced. Its size and majesty left us overwhelmed and we stared below the surface wondering if this incredible creature was passing right below us, aware but uninterested in our presence.
Last night the island was pelted with rain and we awoke to strong winds and worrying currents. Our guides decided it would be too dangerous to kayak in the morning, so we spent a few hours relaxing out on the point, scanning the horizon for any wildlife activity. We were joined for a time by an inquisitive sea lion, whose head kept appearing in the water just below us. He surveyed us for a good hour, before disappearing once again into the ocean beyond.
By mid-afternoon, the weather had calmed and it was decided we should have a couple of hours out on the water. Having spent the past two days in a double kayak, it was time to try our hands at the singles. It was a nice change, and I kept close to Silke’s side, absorbing all of the interesting facts that she came out with. It was a beautiful and leisurely excursion, which culminated in yet more humpback viewings.
Back at camp, the group enjoyed a last night together. The end of an incredible three days kayaking, tomorrow we were being picked up for our excursion to Knight Inlet for a grizzly bear viewing tour.
We said our goodbyes to those that were not joining us on the grizzly tour and hopped onto the boat that had come to pick us up. Speeding away from the island, we were given one last spectacular farewell by a humpback whale. Breaching close to the boat, we couldn’t believe how high he could jump, considering his size.
On route to Knight Inlet, we were lucky enough to pass a black bear foraging for food on a remote beach, her two cubs playing behind her. It was the first bear Alex and I had ever seen, so you can imagine our excitement as the boat turned off its engine and slowly approached.
Continuing on to our destination, our captain once again turned off the boat engine. Looking out of the window, we realized why. A huge pod of white-sided pacific dolphins were headed straight for us. Naturally inquisitive and playful creatures, they swam to the boat, giving us great opportunities for photographs and to see how beautiful they were up close. This was proving to be another day like our first; with wildlife in abundance everywhere we looked.
We were a little worried we wouldn’t see any grizzly bears when we got to Knight Inlet. Our tour guide had said a helicopter monitoring the salmon in the estuary was due to fly over and might scare the bears away, and another member of the group had previously mentioned how one year they’d not spotted any. These fears turned out to be needless, however. As soon as we approached Knight Inlet, a mother bear with her four cubs could be seen playing in the waters at the mouth of the river. We spent much time observing them and wondering at their size. Only two years old, the cubs were almost as big as their mother.
Carrying on down the river, our luck continued as we floated past bear after bear after bear. Uninterested in our quiet presence, they carried on playing with and nibbling on dead salmon, unaware at how excited we were to see them up close.
By the time we began our journey back to Vancouver Island, we felt humbled to have spent four days in which we’d encountered a huge number of unique creatures. We never expected to be as lucky as we had been.
Now it was time to head back to civilization and on to our next stop – Calgary and the stunning Lake Louise. But first, a shower.