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A Whale of a Time

Tom Hutton paddles the intricate waterways of British Columbia on the trail of killer whales

A Whale of a Time

To the Kwakiutl people, the animals that shared the waterways, forests and mountains of their British Columbia homelands were like a thread that bound together their very existence. Each species displayed its own unique character and each played a specific role in their everyday lives. As well as being a vital source of food and clothing, these creatures were revered in worship, depicted in art and poetically immortalised in volumes of fascinating fables.

From the other side of the world, these fables make enjoyable reading but the true meaning is lost. Hear them told around a roaring campfire, on a remote island, in the heart of these homelands and you can’t fail to be drawn into the magical spell they weave. After 4 days of kayaking in the intricate waterways of the Johnstone Strait, a broad sound that separates Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland, I was starting to feel like I too was becoming part of that spell; my days no longer revolving around a clock but instead around light and dark and the movements of the tides.

My camp was on Ksuiladas Island, a small islet approximately one mile off the coast of Vancouver Island and once inhabited by the Kwakiutl people. It consisted of little more than a cluster of small tents for sleeping in, a larger square tent that served as operation headquarters, a few rustic wooden tables, and a very basic lavatory. Myself and my fellow guests, a father & son team from Manitoba, were ably looked after by Kelly and Rhiana, two very capable kayaking guides that doubled up as instructors, cooks and, of course, story tellers.

Strait into it

My mission here was simple; to fulfil a life’s ambition to see killer whales (or orcas as I prefer to call them). The Johnstone Strait is summer home to a resident population of around 200 orcas, making it one the best places on earth to observe this magnificent creature in the wild. It’s also one of the finest places in the world to practise sea-kayaking so I put two and two together and ended up with four action packed days on Ksuiladas.


With no previous kayaking experience at all, I have to confess to being more than a little nervous as I squeezed myself into the cockpit of my tandem boat for the first time. Even to somebody with a fairly healthy sense of adventure like myself, it didn’t seem overly sensible to be heading out into whale infested waters in a flimsy fibreglass bath tub that I had no control over whatsoever. I needn’t have worried though, my paddling partner and guide, Kelly, offered me a little basic tuition and before I knew it, we were floating out into the wide-open reaches of the strait, cutting a fine line through the crystal clear water.

I took to it instantly and we quickly got up a good head of steam, rounding the jagged western tip of the island and making our way steadily up the narrow channel beyond. Within seconds we spotted a mink, sunning itself on a rock, and before we’d even made the far end of the channel we found ourselves the object of curiosity for an inquisitive young sea-lion. He followed us for a while, swimming repeatedly beneath the boat and surfacing again with a loud “sploosh” sound, just a few feet away from the tips of our paddles. It was an uplifting encounter with a truly wild animal and it was difficult not to be totally captivated by his effortless grace and poise beneath the water.

We continued to cruise silently along the rocky shoreline, looking out for starfish and sunstars beneath the surface and all manner of creatures above it. Kelly and I soon got into a good rhythm and we were able to move quite quickly without expending too much energy, something that bode well for the next few days. We returned to Ksuiladas at a leisurely pace, enjoying the views and soaking up the late afternoon sun. After hauling the boat up onto the beach, I clambered up into a hammock, strung between two large pines atop a rocky bluff, and I whiled away the rest of the afternoon in a state of trance-like tranquillity.

There she blows

The second sortie into the strait was to be a far longer tour than the first but as Kelly explained over breakfast, the tides would be on our side so it shouldn’t feel too much like hard work. Radio reports from the whale-watch and fishing boats in the area suggested that there were orcas heading along Blackfish Sound (black fish being one of many First Nation names for the orca), so we changed our original plan and headed towards them, paddling with our fingers well and truly crossed.


We really did strike it rich. As we neared the top of the first channel and broke out into the slower currents of the main sound, a small pod of around 15 whales cruised easily past our bows, less than 200m away. We hugged the coastline, conscious of the kayakers’ code of practice, designed to protect the orcas, but much to our amazement, the small group veered slightly to the right and started heading straight towards us. Accordingly, we stopped paddling and watched as they passed less than 20m in front of us.

No matter how many times you run through it in your mind, nothing can properly prepare you for your first sighting of an orca. The sheer size and beauty of these intelligent beasts is difficult to really comprehend until it is right there in front of you and then you just find yourself speechless. This effect is only magnified from a kayak where you are sitting at the orca’s eye level and are actually looking up at the tip of that huge dorsal fin.

The group was moving slowly and surfacing regularly, probably sleeping, which they usually do on the run. In addition to two huge mature males, easily identified by their 2m tall dorsal fins, there were a number of females and even a very small calf. We sat mesmerised, trying to take it all in as they moved ahead of us and passed straight through another group of paddlers that had now joined the throng from another side channel. Slowly but surely they made their way up the sound leaving us in the silence of their wake. That was going to be a hard act to follow.

Study group

The Johnstone Strait orcas are probably the most studied marine mammals in the world, due mainly to the fact that this ‘resident’ population, as it’s known, return to these calm waters at around the same time every year. This is the southern end of their true home range which stretches up the west coast as far as Alaska. They live almost solely on fish and enter the straits to feed on the returning salmon. One of the most wonderful things about the resident population is that every individual is known to the researchers, who have given them both names and numbers. It’s therefore possible to not only say that you’ve seen whales today but, with the help of a few photos, it’s actually possible to stipulate exactly which ones.


We continued across the sound, heading for another small island known as Flower Island, where we planned to have lunch. Whilst it would be easy to become obsessive about watching whales, or for that matter, any of the other creatures that share their watery home, it would be sacrilege on a trip like this not to sit back occasionally and drink in the British Columbia scenery, which is captivating in itself. The straits are peppered with thousands of small wooded islands, separated by countless narrow channels of crystal clear water. The middle distance tends to be filled with the glistening open water of the main passages and these in turn are set against a dramatic backdrop of towering snow-capped peaks, whose jagged outlines dominate the skyline on both the mainland and Vancouver Island. Whilst it’s not exactly a wilderness, it has probably changed little since the last ice age.

We waited for slack water before leaving Flower Island and making our way slowly back to Ksuiladas. A school of porpoises passed close by; their modest, timid breeches exposing a shiny arched back and a small rounded dorsal fin. A young eagle sat on a log and watched us pass, his plumage was still mottled brown and his head was showing no sign of yet turning the distinctive brilliant white of the adult bird. Seals splashed into the water as we rounded a peninsula and rhinoceros auks, small seabirds comically yet appropriately known as flying potatoes, attempted a mass take-off as we approached their raft. It seemed a shame to be heading back already; there was still so much going on around us.

Light my fire

We feasted on salmon that night. Freshly caught and barbecued over glowing coals before it had even had time to dry. It was absolutely delicious and a very organic experience, well in keeping with the spirit of the island and of course, the lifestyle of its original tenants. As we ate, a pod of orcas swam past the point, their noisy exhalations giving their presence away long before we could see them. They swung north towards Blackfish Sound, maybe they’d still be in the area tomorrow?


The obligatory campfire was lit and the flames were dancing high by the time the moon passed over the narrow bay. The conversation flitted from music to books and from politics to religion, always interesting when you mix folk from such different walks of life. The evening closed with a few more of Rhiana’s enchanting folklore recitals and we all slipped off to our tents tired and happy.

Encouraged by the success of the previous day’s tour, around 15 miles in total, we made an even more ambitious plan for our final full day on the water. Leaving Ksuiladas by what were now becoming familiar waterways, we headed up the notoriously difficult ‘blowhole’ channel before following the easier flow of the main passage down towards Hanson Island, home of the now famous Orca Lab. A huge ‘baitball’ kicked off on our starboard side. Created by shoals of herring being rounded up by salmon into a panicking mass, the intense activity attracts the attention of auks, gulls and even eagles, who swoop down from the treetops to take the frightened fish. One came in close over our heads, far too quickly for any of us to point a camera at it but close enough that we could hear the wind whistle through its wings.

The frenzy tends to break up as abruptly as it starts although if you stay around long enough, the whole cycle may begin again just a few metres away. We continued on our way, slowing down to take a look at a nesting eagle and also to watch a small gaggle of seals who, like their sea-lion cousin of day one, seemed as interested in us as we were in them. We passed Orca Lab, still resplendent with a huge banner welcoming home Springer, a young orca who, after going walkabout and trying to make friends with both people and boats, had been successfully reunited with his pod again. His story hit the papers in late 2002.

After lunching on another remote beach, we hopped onto the rising tide and made our way easily back up Weynton Passage towards our island home. Radio reports suggested that most of the day’s orca activity had been down by the Robson Blight Whale Sanctuary, a good few miles from our present position, so there was little chance we’d be seeing them today. I was quite content though and spent the last few hours of sunshine back in the comfort of the hammock on the bluff.

The long goodbye

After dinner, I decided to take a short walk down to the point that formed the western tip of the island. As well as being a great place to squeeze the last few drops of warmth out of the sinking sun, it should also prove to be an excellent vantage point for the sunset, which if the last few days had been anything to go by, should be rather spectacular. I wriggled into a narrow cranny in the rocks and drifted into another deep trance, listening to the everyday household squabbles of a family of eagles that were nested in a tree just 10m from my rocky perch.


I was jolted back to life by a deafening “thwoar” and looked up to see the giant dorsal fin of a huge male orca trawling through the kelp less than 5m away. More shiny black fins rounded the rocky tip of the island and joined him in the foraging, one individual even dragging a huge kelp frond behind him as he went.

I was totally mesmerised. Seeing them out in the channel was fantastic but I’d had to share them with a whole host of other craft and it’s difficult to know how much of their behaviour was influenced by the ever-present boats and canoes. Here, whilst I was sure they’d seen me, I was confident that my presence would have little or no affect on their activities so I sat back to watch them. One by one, they filtered past my rugged lookout, eventually turning back out to sea as they neared the rear entrance of our tiny camp. They seemed in little hurry and drifted out into the main current where they were washed around again. This gave me a second chance to enjoy their antics as well as the perfect opportunity to change the roll of film in my camera. This time they headed straight out to sea, presenting their glistening dorsal fins as shiny silhouettes against the burning red of the setting sun. Eventually they faded into the distance and I was left listening to their blows as they made their way slowly up the passage.

I couldn’t have asked for a better send off and I reluctantly got up to leave. As I did, one of the eagles slid out of the tree above me and glided effortlessly out over the water. I stopped again, this time captivated by the grace and beauty of the giant bird. It suddenly dawned on me that whilst I had made the trip specifically to see whales, these wonderful creatures could never really be observed in isolation. They are just one small piece of a much larger jigsaw that includes every creature that lives on this intricate coastline. I had finally heard what the Kwakiutl people had tried to tell me.

While writing this feature, I was saddened to learn of the death of Keiko, the star of Free Willy and probably the word’s most famous killer whale. Whilst there has been some cynicism regarding his release, he did actually achieve a fair degree of independence during the last few years of his short life, including one 1,000 mile journey to Norway and back. I would like to express my appreciation to all those who made his release possible, and I hope that his life and death will not have been in vain. Maybe now, we will see an end to the inhumane capture and imprisonment of all marine mammals. For more information click here

©2015 Tom Hutton All Rights Reserved