By James Dorsey
On the flat icy surface of the northwest Inside Passage, sound skims across the water like a flat stone, distorting distance and betraying those who would move silently through the morning fog.
The blows of several orcas filter through the mist, and I sense they are near.
It is summer, and transient whales are following schools of salmon heading north to spawn. In my kayak, I am just one more errant log floating in their domain.
One year ago while paddling near this very spot, I witnessed these animals conducting a funeral. The morning was dull grey and drizzly, as only Alaskan summers can be, and the sky set the mood for what I was to witness.
Fighting my way through bull kelp, I heard the first blow. A large bull led the way, cruising through the mist like an apparition, bearing a stillborn calf across his rostrum. The calf was still bright pink, slumped across his snout like a limp rag, its head and flukes trailing under the surface. The bull moved slowly, not blowing, five smaller whales following in single file until they reached deep water in the centre of the channel. The bull stopped, holding his silent charge, while the other whales formed around him. The bull slowly lowered his head and the stillborn whale sank into the depths.
The pain of their loss hung in the air, thicker than the fog.
An old female, most likely the matriarch, lobtailed the water twice, perhaps in silent goodbye, or maybe just as a signal that they were finished, but as she did, all six orcas came abreast and sounded in unison. They were aware of my presence yet ignored me.
That moment was a gift, a point of connection between two species that share the planet, yet rarely meet. It is the silence of a kayak that allows me to enter their world, and whenever I do, I feel the inferior one.
The familiar blows reach my ears. I stop paddling and scan the fog bank. They are close.
It is cold this morning and calm. The sun has tried to break through twice without success. The silence is broken only by the cry of a lone eagle taking fish from the littoral. Minnows are jumping, a sure sign larger predators are about. My breath hangs visibly white on the air and I zip my fleece up higher.
The calm is broken when a young harbour seal shatters the surface, lunging for my boat and startling me into action. He is clearly terrified, seeking refuge on my bow. In another time and place I might let him rest there, but I sense what is coming and he cannot stay. I slap the water hard and he veers off, only for a second. This animal is panic-driven and will not be easily deterred.
He approaches a second time and I fend him off with the flat of my blade, watching his pleading eyes as he arches for a final dive. He disappears behind a trail of bubbles.
A brief silver flash passes under my boat and a second later I am hit squarely in my flotation vest by a young salmon. It flops onto my spray skirt, flailing to get back to the water. Then one fish after another begins to strike the side of my boat.
Suddenly a black dorsal fin cuts through the fog like a periscope, leaving a white wake, bearing down on me. A quick look around tells me I am surrounded.
The first orca crosses my bow, lunging as it takes a fish in midair, and before I can react, two more streak past, almost touching me.
The pod is herding a school of salmon, driving them against a rock wall six metres to my port. The pod is arrayed in a semicircle from twelve to six o’clock around my boat and they have the salmon cornered. The fish are running in total panic as shiny black fins cut the water like knives, churning it into a crimson red as they take their prey. The salmon are slamming head first into the wall, knocking themselves senseless. I am in the eye of the storm.
These carnivores have been around my boat on numerous occasions and have always shown themselves to be curious and friendly. To the best of my knowledge recorded attacks on a man or boat are rare. They are ruthless when it comes to taking prey, yet gentle when in contact with man. Still, I fight the urge to panic and sit in quiet awe as a deadly ballet plays out around me.
I know these are resident whales because the transients only eat mammals. A white saddle patch zips under the boat, rolling at the last second to clear my keel while another whale passes parallel, showering me with blow as it moves in for a kill. Glistening dorsals cross left and right, parting the water like torpedoes. I can feel their clicks and squeals echoing through the fiberglass hull of my boat. They are executing a perfectly coordinated hunt, calling to each other, all of it in spite of my presence.
Salmon lunge in all directions, clearing the water with great leaps. Large black heads break the surface taking fish down from midair. One whale is approaching broadside in a particularly determined manner, and I instinctively prepare for the crash as he breaks hard left, taking a salmon as he dives, his backwash causing me to brace rigidly.
The whales pass within inches, some lightly grazing my boat, but they know where I am and avoid any solid collisions. I sit perfectly still, not wishing to press my luck.
I am soaking wet from blow and covered with bloody scales. Twice, I must brace against the churning and carefully push a meaty hunk of salmon off my deck with my paddle blade, not wishing it to tempt a hungry whale.
For almost an hour the whales take fish, then gradually the action slows. They have eaten their fill and I see Dall’s porpoise moving about, taking the few stragglers. Orcas often allow their smaller cousins to join them near the end of a hunt to clean up leftovers.
The final touch is something I have never seen.
Half of the pod forms a single line, parallel to the wall, and turn their flukes toward it. They begin to slowly lobtail, causing waves to break against the rock. They are dislodging the few scared salmon that have taken refuge in the cracks and crevices while the rest of the whales and porpoises take down what is left. It is the final act.
In a few moments they go from a feeding frenzy to total lethargy, logging on the surface of the ocean around my boat, gorged and happy.
The sudden calm allows me to take a headcount and I realize they are all females or juvenile males, not one mature bull among them.
While orcas are a matriarchal society, it is the alpha bull who stands as protector, and this hunt was sanctioned on his watch. I know he is nearby.
As I try to imagine where I would place myself as the bodyguard of a dozen feeding whales I paddle further into the channel to sit and wait him out.
Within a minute the tip of his tall black dorsal fin rises slowly. There is a soft blow that the wind carries towards me in a mist, and I am sitting by the great whale no more than 10 metres away.
He has surfaced gently as a submarine, his dorsal fin towering over me by 1.5 metres. Sunlight twinkles on his ebony back and his saddle patch reflects like an alpine glacier. His dorsal fin has a slight bend to it and a missing chunk tells me he has met at least one large shark or other orca. He is half as long again as my boat and outweighs me by eight tonnes. He is a flesh eater whose teeth can shred a great white shark. I am sitting alone next to the mightiest predator ever to rule the ocean.
He logs on the surface, leisurely, sure of his power, in control of his domain. I am an insignificant interloper, here by his indulgence.
He has not surfaced by chance as he is too wise for this to be a random happening. He chose the time and place to show himself and is now making a statement.
My boat sits between him and his pod, a position he would never allow an enemy to reach. I am not alive by accident for if he thought me a threat to his pod, I would have been the first victim.
He knew of my presence long before the hunt began and not only tolerated me, but allowed me to bear witness. I feel this as strongly as if he were talking to me. Perhaps I have been demoted to a curiosity, but I choose to think of it as communication. His black eye, no larger than the tip of my thumb, is fixed on me as I try to fathom the thoughts behind it.
Once again, I feel myself the inferior one, lacking the ability to understand what this animal would tell me.
Fearing an overstay of my visit, I dip my paddle slowly and begin to push away. As I do, the bull moves forward, inching ahead at minimum speed.
I paddle a little harder and he is with me, so I dig in and begin to push shovelsful of water behind me as my bow starts to cut a wake. The bull is pulling away, then senses my frailty and checks his speed, matching mine, even and steady.
His head rises and falls, eye just under the waterline, watching me, urging me on. In my head, I hear him say, “Stay with me”. He is allowing me to paddle with him and I take up the challenge. My heart is racing and emotional tears start to cloud my vision.
Even in his lowest gear it is hard for me to keep pace, but I am now part of his pod, and he is my leader, and this will never happen again. I pull my paddle now, abandoning technique, trying to maintain speed. My arms scream with pain but time has slowed. All that matters now is that I stay with this great beast.
For a brief time there is nothing but the two of us, moving as one, and if ever an animal gave a gift to man, this is mine.
I have no idea how far we have come, but soon I can go no further.
I lay my paddle across the cockpit and glide to a halt. I am cold, wet, exhausted, yet have never felt more alive.
The great whale sees I have stopped and he logs for a moment, his black eye fixed on me, before diving. For a few seconds I am totally alone and the silence is deafening. I look all around and feel very small.
The bull surfaces in the distance where the pod is reforming. He is probably reporting to the matriarch, telling her of the strange creature who entered their space. They turn their flukes toward me and begin to swim.
The fog closes slowly and I watch dorsals fade into it like a movie ending, while I sit, sucking air, taking in what has just happened.
I hear the cry of an eagle in the distance and turn my bow towards land to paddle home.