Every year our family travels to the San Juan Islands in Washington state with that years crop of family and friends. The idea is to camp and kayak in the vicinity of Orcas. If we are lucky we get to paddle near these magnificent creatures.
read more about Paddling the San Juans
Sometimes we get very lucky… like 4 years ago when we were in the middle of a super pod of over 100 orcas for more than an hour – mesmerized by the orcas version of a pool party. As luck would have it we were on the water and in the orcas path as the the 3 resident pods of Orcas that reside in the area combined into a super pod. A superpod is when all 3 resident families of orcas get together. We were surrounded by over 100 Orcas getting together for one big cetacean party.
I never had the opportunity of seeing, much less paddling in such a large group of Orcas in over 25 years of kayaking the islands. It was my sons first kayak adventure and he got to spend over an hour in the company of these magical creatures. Little did he know how special that was. There were repeatedly breaching yards from our boat and they dove directly under our kayak several times. Once a group of 4 headed straight for our boat and only at the last minute did the orca going directly under our boat dip its dorsal fin and barely miss hitting the rudder on our kayak. It was truly a unique magical paddling opportunity. In all the years of ‘paddling with the orcas' this was the best experience by far.
For our trip this year the weather gods delivered some all-to-typical chilly wet weather – summer, Pacific Northwest style. The wind and clouds divided time with occasional bouts of luke warm sun and patches of blue. Not quite perfect for paddling with a family but the wind held back for several hours a day so we had some fine NW paddling.
The orcas were being coy this year – only one brief encounter as they cruised by our camp. In past years we would see them at least once a day but not this year. To compensate, we had several fabulous wildlife encounters that made up for our lack of ‘orca paddling time.’
Saturday we were paddling the shoreline kelp beds, looking for kelp crabs and starfish and marveling at the intertidal marine life just a few yards from the rocky shore. One of the group yelled "eagle!" and I was not expecting anything other than the usual view of an eagle perched up the cliff in the top of a towering Douglas Fir. I rounded a rock and just a few yards from us was an adult bald eagle munching on a large fish on the rocks just above the waterline. Wow! We immediately stopped paddling and drifted to a stop in the kelp. We stopped talking and gawked at this magnificent creature just a few feet away. Since this bird obviously had encountered humans before she did not even look up at us as she munched her raptor sashimi. In fact, she oblidged my silent wish to come out from behind a small rock so I could get a better photo. She hopped up and and perched on top of the nearest rock to my boat. I was positioned perfectly for 20 minutes or so of wildlife watching bliss. We could not believe our luck. As she hopped down on the rocks that were partially submerged she cleaned off her beak on the sea weed and then calmly grabbed a piece of fish and flew off to her nest that was just above us on the cliffs.
The wind had started to pick up by then and we paddled back to camp, replaying the encounter to our unlucky camp mates who had stayed behind.
That evening the orcas made their only visit of this trip as we were all winding down from a long day of paddling, playing and relaxing. While we were watching the sun go behind Vancouver Island's mountains they were outlined in the brilliant colors of the sunset sparkling on the water.
Sunday a few of us paddled off in the increasing winds for some paddling before forecasted near gale force winds hit us. The tide was low,so I paddled along the shoreline, then off to some rocks a few yards off shore and along the edge of the kelp beds just seeing what I could see. As I rounded a point, slowly paddling with the current, I came across several fat sleepy seals lounging in the chilly sun. I stopped paddling and got caught in the kelp but luckily I had taken my longest lens along so I got several good shots of them lounging on the rocks, snoozing, belching and scratching away the day. Seals are not uncommon but to get that close to them is rare since it is illegal to try to get that close to them – serendipity ruled in my favor this time.
This year the main act, the orcas, did not provide the intimate wildlife experience we had hoped for but the plentiful wildlife of the San Juan Islands provided an exceptional experience in a supporting role.