Posted on July 11, 2012 - by Nadia
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Entrance Island, Hobart Bay
The water ahead of me began to bubble and spin and I threw it in reverse. This was getting crazy. I was hemmed in between a kelp-draped rock pile and a couple of energetically feeding humpbacks. My right paddle blade was literally on the rocks and my bow, well, it was retreating as fast as I could make it. The whale surfaced on its side, leading with its long, white and grey striped pectoral fin held high, then it let the fin flop onto the water, rolled to expose its blow hole, took a gulp of water and slid under the surface. It was about 10 yards away. I could see into its blow hole. That’s more intimate than I need in my life with whales.
“Come on, you two, take it to deeper water, will ya?” I asked. They had been in deeper water when I started around the point and I figured they would pass on by. I had gotten a late start. I had lain in the tent, wishing it would stop pouring rain. When I got up I saw the tide had left and all I had to show for it was a long drag over sharp, slippery rocks. I had camped on a mossy shelf near a spring and the rain and spring rose up into a sop of tea-colored water around and under the tent. It was an awkward and soggy morning and now I had whales to contend with.
It had been shaping up as a whale weekend.
Friday might have been my longest mileage day so far. It started with a heavy breathing at dawn that sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and an anchor chain being raised. I thought the circus was in town. It was 3:30. I got up at 4 in time to see that the ruckus was a bunch of humpbacks doing some wild breathing and barrel rolling along the shore to stir up critters they eat. The sea was an eerie calm, the proverbial “red sky in morning,” with pink glowing from the glacier. It had been choppy when I’d landed and windy when I went to sleep. Anxious to take advantage of the calm, I was on the water by six.
The calm never ended and by 10 I had vertigo from seeing the sky reflected so clearly ahead of me. I stopped to stretch and eat at an island I had considered my stopping point for the day. Clearly, the day had more miles in it. I had pulled to shore over the richest tide pool of my trip, completely filled with urchins and sea cucumbers and anemones that look for all the world like breasts. I tried not to squish too much sea life as I landed the boat, and, after a brief tour of the tide pool, went about making peanut butter and Nutella roll ups, the standard. I had heard whales breathing as I entered the bay, but they were behind me and I couldn’t see them. Now, I scanned the broad water and was surprised that I still could hear but not see them. They sounded close and were breathing so frequently that there had to be quite a few. Their splashes were so loud that some of them echoed, but I couldn’t see their signature forked tail or smooth grey back rolling through the water. I got my binoculars.
There! I was looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place. A pod of orcas had followed me into the bay and were coming around the corner making a huge racket. I had almost despaired of seeing any killer whales, and here, they had searched me out.
The pod comprised a male with a huge dorsal fin, at least two young of the year and three medium-sized whales. They spent much more time on the surface than the humpbacks generally do. The male was hunting with vigor. A third to half of his body broke the surface when he lunged. They didn’t blow with as much force as the humback, instead, the seemed to breathe more frequently, less deeply. They circled around, working steadily past me, coming about 50 feet from the beach where I stood.
After a while, I wondered how long they’d be. I had to get going. They seemed to be on a mission to get somewhere themselves so I just left and aimed for where they were. I paddled well behind their path for a few minutes, then they went their way and I went mine.
My way called for rounding Cape Fanshaw. “Take it wide, you’ll be fine,” the woman in Wrangell had said. “Pass at least 600 yards from the light,” my book advised. I had been paddling well off shore all day, trying to get a boost from a flood tide. It never came and I searched further and further off shore until, approaching Fanshaw light, I must have been at least two miles off. That put me within listening distance of a whale-palooza going on on the far side of Fredrick Sound (which is a huge body of water,) but the whales were leaping and splashing with such vigor that I could clearly hear them and even see their splashes. I’m sure I drifted closer to that action, getting even further from shore. By the time I realized that I was in danger of missing the point all together and just going forever forward, the wind, of course, had picked up. I had to paddle hard for about an hour to close the gap. At one point, a humpback simply surfaced, blew and dipped back down just off my right side. It was encouraging, which I needed.
I rounded Fanshaw, which proved to be no big deal, and tucked into the shelter of Whitney Island to scout for a campsite. After rejecting a few long-abandoned cabin sites as too creepy, I did some remodeling with my saw and carved a nice place on the moss. It started raining hard as soon as I got the tent up, so I ate in a moss-covered forest as the rain ran off my hat.
Fast forward a full day’s paddle. I camped on a sandy (oh, ick!) beach and got another early start, this time aided by a quick launch off the sand. I hopped from cove to cove, knowing the crux of the day was a three-or-so-mile crossing of Windham Passage.
I had the place to myself. It was an ebb tide, so I worked my way up the shore for a mile or so, reducing the distance of the crossing and giving myself a buffer in case I got halfway across and discovered that the current leaving the big passage was carrying me to toward the mouth faster than I could manage. That proven not to be a concern, so I angled my crossing at the halfway point to the point.
A good-sized ship came around the point moving pretty fast. It was at least a half mile off and I thought, “Nice looking ship.” I thought we were on a collision course, so I changed course to more directly aim for the islands I was approaching. The ship changed its angle, too, still headed directly at me. I flipped on my VHF radio and hailed the ship. No answer. I padded hard. I hailed. Nothing. The ship seemed intent on passing between these islands and the land. Surely it would run aground. I hailed it about a half dozen dozen times, an increased sense of urgency in my voice. My goal was to say, Hey, I’m down here. Do you see me? But no one was home. Then, the boat did a U turn and left the way it had come, slowing almost to a stop as it rounded the point, right where I was headed. What the H? It had given me a bit of an adrenaline boost, which I used to gain ground on the boat, which seemed to have stopped for tea. It was 9 a.m.
Not until I was right up on it did I realize there were a dozen people with fancy cameras on tripods on the top observation deck. Only then did it strike me that this was a tour boat. And only then did it strike me they had turned around to watch a whale … and the whale was right in front of me.
Again, the head tossing, fin flopping, krill stirring, low-tide kelp bed feeding frenzy was going on right in front of me. This time, there was a nice ledge of rocks between me and the whale and I could loosen my grip on the paddle and take some photos. But first: “Northern Song, Northern Song, Northern Song. This is the kayak directly off your bow. Please respond.” And finally, its helm found the transmit key and assured me they would not run me over as they maneuvered for better viewing. And I waved at the whale peepers and they all waived back with vigor, watching me, watch the whale, at eye level.