Friday, July 16, 2010


Yes, I saw a whale! Yes, from a kayak, not from a zodiac with the Straitwatch biologist listening to the VHF radio to hear where whales had been sighted. I just went out and happened to see a whale.
When I put the kayak on my shoulder Thursday morning, I was just heading out for another mid-day paddle in my home waters. Same old same old, out to Flower Island and back. It was a pretty good moment for an ordinary outing, I gotta say. Clear blue sky, warm but not hot, no wind. Tide was out and heading lower.
By the time I got to Stein Island, the whale-watching boats were roaring in with roostertails of wake flaring behind them. Sonofagun. They were stopping right off Flower.
There's been this gray whale hanging around the Oak Bay area. The Times-Colonist newspaper wrote about people spotting it from Ten Mile Point to Trial Islands over the last two weeks. There's a great little news report from A Channel on YouTube here. If you have no idea what a gray whale is, it's a good idea to go see that three-minute video. The biologist who gets interviewed says this whale looks young and healthy. There's another YouTube video of this whale well worth seeing here, which shows what you might see from shore or a whale-watching boat.
There were eight whale-watching boats in all, floating between Cadboro Point and Jemmy Jones Island, off Smuggler's Cove. They turned off their engines like good, conscientious nature watchers.
Mama Seal was floating in the little channel between Flower Island and Evans Rock. She glared at me, as if to say "You humans are WAY too noisy today!" I pulled up against the steep rocky shore of Flower, looking at the whale-watching boats to see if they knew where the whale was. I pulled into first one nook and then another. Tucked in among the rocks like this, inside the kelp at low tide, I was in barely enough water to float my kayak. The flexible, tough bottom of my boat rasped on the rocks and barnacles, but I didn't move offshore.
Gray whales feed in shallow water. Bernie has seen them right next to a cliff. Kathy saw this one just barely offshore at Turkey Head, browsing up food from the muddy shallow bottom. I was betting that the whale might even come between Flower and Evan. I had to be in a place that a whale absolutely couldn't need to go. These narrow rocky nooks wouldn't have stopped a transient orca hunting a seal, but a gray wouldn't want to roll on its tummy on a rock.
I heard it first. The whale came up to breathe, just off Evans Rock, and dipped down. Three breaths and a long pause under water, maybe six minutes or so.
The boats were really close -- probably too close for the rules, but the whale seemed patient with us. I knew we were supposed to stay 100 metres away from a whale. But when the whale came closer than that, we boaters did the only thing we could: they shut down their motors and I huddled into the rocks.
Here's where I was when I saw it. See Flower Island, off the big headland? See the rock just offshore? That's where I was, at low tide, tucked in with rocks all around and under my kayak.
And here's what I was paddling. John took this photo a few weeks ago, at the rally against the proposed Marina in the Inner Harbour.

Yep, the good ol' Dragonfly, my reliable inflatable kayak from Advanced Elements. (The new version of this 8' 4" model is called the Lagoon, and it is even better.) Not the boat most whale-watchers use, admittedly. But that gray whale was getting followed rather too close for comfort, followed by four zodiacs and four big powerful howling boats full of whale-watchers. I was glad to be in something small and almost silent. And no other boat I have is both small and tough enough to sit on that wet rock shelf, just barely out of the whale's way. I am in awe of this kayak's outer shell. The material of the lower deck has some new scratches on it from today's adventure, as I shuffled my butt across a couple of barnacled rocks. The scratches are barely deep enough to see and feel -- mere cosmetic damage.
The whale appears to have a few scrapes on its back, but no visible cuts or injuries. Apparently gray whales got that name from those mottled marks that look like scrapes or scars. And it's big! This is a young one? Good grief, how big are the mature ones? How big is this one compared to the really big whales? The sound of its breath is bigger and deeper than any animal I've heard, bigger than orcas and elephant seals. OMG.

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