Posted by: Kiersten | March 10, 2010

Whale Tails

The Pacific Rim is now celebrating the return of the whales with the 24th annual Whale Festival.  The return of the whales brought the whale watching charters back to life, and whale watching sandwich board signs are beginning to pepper the sidewalks, including our own “Aquamarine Adventures” sign outside of Image West.

Soon the tourists will be lining up in the store to sign up for the day trips, and every once in a while, I’ll get to go out with them.  Just like Kat & I did this Sunday!

Aquamarine Adventures uses a lightweight, inflatable zodiac boat with a powerful motor to zip out to wherever the whales have been spotted.  A Zodiac looks like the love child of a life raft and a canoe – it sits low in the water, it’s stable and tough.  Tiny but mighty.  And, because it’s lower to the water, you can potentially get closer to the wildlife if they decide they want to come and visit.

Our Zodiac adventure started before we got near the boat – we had to wiggle into our survival suits:

It took about 20 minutes to suit up, and then our group of eight waddled down the dock and stepped awkwardly into the boat.  Once you’re in the boat all you have to do is hang on.

On our way out of the harbour we passed the resident California sea lions.  These guys have been waking us up at least once a week for the last five months.  I’m used to them now and when we have to stay over in Port Alberni, I miss their goofy barking.  Their voices are so familiar to me and yet I’d never gotten a good look at them, until now:

There they are, begging for fish.

Once out of the harbour, we motored over to Barklay Sound where we checked in with a group of three gray whales who were filling up on herring roe.  Every five minutes or so they’d surface with a burst of spray.  Whale breath smells like rotten fish mixed with rotten eggs:

After a few deep breaths of fresh air, the whales dive down for another load of food:

We hung out with the whales for a while, then we headed out towards the open pacific to see if we could find any more whales on the move.  On the way out we visited sea lion rock and got a fantastic look at the Steller’s sea lions!

These guys are my absolute favourites.  They’re endangered and their population is declining everywhere but B.C. – we’re incredibly privileged to see them here.  While the California sea lions pretty much ignored us, the Stellers were bold and inquisitive, all eyes following our little craft as we were tossed around in the choppy water:

They bawled at us in their funny, belching voices, then a small group of them slid into the ocean and rode the enormous green waves.  They bobbed on the surface like Styrofoam peanuts, their round, intelligent eyes glistening as they stared intently at our faces.  They placed themselves between their rock and our boat.  Their message was clear:  “This place is OURS!”

Our guide, Lance, had many years of experience in the ocean.  He handled our little Zodiac expertly, and even in the huge waves around sea lion rock I felt quite safe.  Well, okay once I saw this massive breaker rolling in and watched it swamp sea lion rock entirely – I think I heard myself say “Oh shit!”  But we were fine.  Lance had us covered.

Lance was also a wonderful source of information.  He’d shuttled around the Sound not only with tourists, but with anthropologists, wildlife researchers, photographers and Aboriginal Elders.  He’d absorbed information from everyone.  He had so many stories about the animals, the land, the trees, the native history.  I hope to work what I’ve learned into the blog later on – there’s too much to tell right now.  I just really appreciate such a knowledgeable guide, I feel like I get so much out of the trip.

By this time in the tour my sinuses felt thoroughly cleansed.  Nothing like natural sea air!  I felt myself taking huge deep breaths, really enjoying the taste of the air.  Here you can see the froth and bubbles on the surface of the water – that’s the oxygen getting released into the air.  I could taste salt on my lips.

On the way back to Ukee we visited another group of California sea lions, who trumpeted at us while they lolled around in the water, waving their fins in the air.  One sea lion was hanging out upside down in the water with just his tail sticking out.  He righted himself after we passed – I think he was showing off.

We puttered back into the harbour.  The tides are extreme this time of year:

Back on dry land, we struggled out of our survival suits, looking forward to a hot cup of coffee and a warm bath.  I was dressed in layers of wool and a winter coat caliber survival suit, but I was feeling the chill after just a couple of hours.  The guides are out there for ten hours or more sometimes – the fishermen practically live on the sea.  I began to appreciate how incredibly exhausting it must be to make a living on the ocean.

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