It was a dark and stormy night aboard the Wilderness Adventurer. All of the guests were snuggled in their beds with anticipation and hopes for clearer skies the next day.
With the hopes and dreams of all the passengers and crew alike of things to come the following morning, no one would have guessed the adventure awaiting us.
Early in the morning the sunshine starts to peak through the curtains, waking a few guests extra early. It draws one of them out onto the sun deck where he quietly takes in the beauty of Kelp Bay, which sits just off of Chatham Strait. Even out in the strait, the waters appear flat as glass.
Then the silence is broken in an instance when a humpback whale leaps completely into the sky and disappears as quickly as it arrived.
He looks around and realizes he’s the only one to see this show and wonders, “Did that really happen or am I still dreaming?”
As I get prepared for my kayak excursion and study the map to pick out a route to travel, word spreads to me that there are whales in the bay.
My plan was set that instant:
Step 1: Get in the kayak.
Step 2: Find the whales.
I had a group of 10 guests and I tell them the plan, all the while knowing you can never chase down a whale in a kayak, let alone figure out where these behemoths might surface next. It’s all merely a game of luck. But still, we paddled out in full speed toward a spout we spotted a mile in the distance, hoping with every stroke that the whale decides to come our way.
We paddled nearly to the mouth of the bay with only a few very distant spouts on the horizon when I heard a call over the radio from a skiff tour saying that if we could make it to the edge of the bay there was a whale just around the corner and not far from shore. I had a feeling that by the time we got there the whale would be gone and our vigorous paddle would be for naught, but still we paddled on.
As we rounded the bend into the waters of Chatham Straight, I was relieved to see the skiff still floating nearby and knew the whale was not far off. As all my kayaks gathered round there was a big arch and the whales’ tail gliding down into the depths as it dove away from us. We were all on high alert as we glanced in every direction looking for the next sighting.
I noticed a strange rippling in the water not more than 25 feet from my kayak. Then, then the back of the enormous humpback broke the surface. It must have been just as startled as I was because it didn’t even take a breath. It just descended back down into the ocean.
It’s a stunning experience to know that a 45 foot creature is swimming directly below your kayak.
We turned our yaks around and sat and waited. When the whale surfaced again we notice that it wasn't just one whale, but a mother and her calf. They swam over to a small island and started to feed in the shallow waters nearby, surfacing every two and half minutes.
We floated in the current just watching the show, never knowing where the two would surface after their long dives. A few times the mother would come up; mouth a gape and doing a lateral lunge. It seemed as if the youngster hadn’t gotten the hang of this feeding technique just yet. It felt almost like we were witnessing a final teaching session before the two split ways.
A number of whales in this area have learned a cooperative feeding technique called bubble net feeding, where they blow bubbles in a ring to scare fish and krill into tighter packed balls to scoop up in one big mouthful.
The whales surfaced again approximately 100 yards away and to our astonishment this teaching session appeared to move on to an advanced course.
I noticed a few random bubbles coming up startlingly close to my kayak. I told everyone to be aware of the bubbles and to back away if they got close to them. They all looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why should we fear the bubbles?” they asked. I replied, “Because they are made by the 40 ton whales directly underneath you!”
Then I noticed a solid row of bubbles splitting one of our kayaks from the rest of our group. “Back paddle! Back paddle now!” They sat frozen and didn’t know which way to paddle as the bubbles encircled all the way around their kayak and they could actually see the titanic whale swimming below them.
Luckily the whale realized the kayak was above it and decided to surface 50 feet away.
We started to paddle away to try and gain some distance between us and the whale. But as we paddled away the whales swam off in our same direction, appearing like they were going to head for our boat with us. But just then, they disappeared and the show was over.
With such a phenomenal display in the morning it was hard to think anything could follow that act, but we were proven wrong in the afternoon when we set out in search of whales on the Wilderness Adventurer.
We came across a group of nine whales in the middle of a bubble-net feeding session. We watched blow after blow from all the whales catching their breath followed by nine tails raising and falling as they descended into the depths of the ocean.
They disappeared each time for four to six minutes and in that time the anticipation builds as we all search the water for any sign of where they will come up next.
Then all at once nine mouths open wide, lunging upward and disappear again. We were not the only ones with close eyes on the whales. A whole flock of gulls had keyed on the whales as well and went to work picking off the fish the whales had driven to the surface.
After watching for over an hour, the captain gave us warning that after the next lunge we would have to pull away. It seemed the whales had heard him say this because after they lunged for the last time, one of the whales said goodbye by breaching entirely out of the water.
It’s on these magical days when the skies open up and let the sunshine through that all the wildlife seems to be showing off just for you.