Thursday, March 18, 2010

Did the whales "speak" to us...

The story that I would like to share is a true story. I have no explanation for the events that transpired. I just know that what happened was very real to both Joan and I. We were reminded of this experience a couple of nights ago when we attended the monthly meeting of the local Naturalists' Society. Eric and Dorothy gave an excellent presentation of images and commentary on the humpback whale, a species they have observed and studied for a number of years in the waters of both Hawaii and Alaska. The lecture focused on a marvelous opportunity they had as part of a team of observers aboard a research vessel  in Alaskan waters last summer.

As all will know, the image above is not of a humpback whale. It is an orca, a killer whale...and, in these parts, this particular whale was a very famous one at that. I took these two photographs of Luna on September 3rd, 2005. We were returning from Yuquot (Friendly Cove), on Nootka Island, and heading back to Gold River aboard the MV Uchuck. (Incidentally, the first European to visit what is present day British Columbia was a sailor of some note. He was Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy and he is known to have sailed into Nootka Sound in March of 1778.) As many Canadians and folks around the world will remember, Luna the whale, seemed to find great comfort in the company of humans. On this day, Luna, also known as L98, swam and played along side us for over fifteen minutes in the waters of Nootka Sound.

There is, however, another story that came to mind, as we listened spellbound to the presenters the other night - a story from our experience some years ago with this wonderful and intelligent species.

This event happened in July of 1996. Joan and I had travelled from our home in Calgary to spend two weeks paddling in the waters of the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island. We had made this trip west, to paddle, for a number of years. In the mid-Eighties we owned an expedition Nautiraide double which we had slightly adapted so that our young son could be a full "participant" on the water. By 1996, we were paddling our present singles, a Current Designs GT and a GTS. On this particular day, our plan was to launch at Ganges Harbour on Saltspring Island for a circuit that would take us out of the harbour alongside the Chain Islands, across Captain Passage, around the beautiful and mysterious Prevost Island and then back to Ganges Harbour. The route was close to 30 kilometres so it promised to be a full and eventful day. As we gathered our gear together, we had no idea just how eventful the day would become.

We prefaced our launch with the mandatory stop at the Embe Bakery for a "sweet reward" to be shared at some opportune time when we needed a quick energy boost. The conditions were "CAVOK", sunny and warm, a gorgeous summer day. Midway through the paddle, we grazed on lunch near the Portlock Point lighthouse, built 100 years earlier and automated in 1969. Conditions remained calm and as I remember, the only wave action, besides the substantial wake from the Spirit Class ferries, was tidal, around Peile Point on the tip of Prevost. By late afternoon, we had crossed back to Saltspring and were just off Nose Point at the opening of Long Harbour.

Feeling a little weariness, we paused to ensure that a BC Ferry exiting the harbour would not surprise us, and to catch our breath before the final leg. The water was still with some tiny whirlpools from the receding tide giving texture to the surface.

And to the port side, there was movement...and a gentle sound...and there was presence. That's the only way to describe it, there was simply, a presence. We both felt it at the same time and it took a long, almost "dreamy" moment for either one of us to process what was happening. The soft, silky, surface of the water broke again and this time we saw the source of what had completely taken over our attention. Two orcas quietly surfaced just twenty metres from where we sat drifting with the current and tide. We had never experienced this before and I wondered why we didn't feel any anxiety in the presence of these massive sea mammals. I suppose that there just didn't seem to be any reason to be afraid. Their eyes were warm, curious and strangely calming. They seemed to quietly accept us as partners in a world to be shared. I imagined that they were admiring the smooth lines of our narrow craft and affirming our willingness to leave our terrestrial home to share with them, even for just a little while, the mysteries of deep, at least from our perspective on the surface. No "words" were spoken, but something was shared.

It was inevitable that the "spell" would be broken. A power boat suddenly emerged at high speed from the other side of Scott Point and steered directly towards the two orca. The whales, perhaps sensing danger, left us and began to swim away, submerging and then breaking the surface several times. Before we knew it, there were five boats and they had formed a circle around the whales. It was entrapment, pure and simple, and it was thoughtless.

As the whales tried to move away, the circle of boats moved with them, confining them and confusing them with the noise and the turbulance of their propellers. The two magnificent creatures, who had been calm and content to swim near us as we drifted in the water, became agitated. They splashed about, seemingly not knowing which direction to go. Eventually they dove under the boats. Moments later, we could see them surface again, the "flotilla" of the curious now following them. And that's when I sensed their "words". Of course there were no words, perhaps it was their thoughts. But what I heard was, "Why...why are they doing this to us?" Their quiet joy, which had been palpable moments ago, had turned to plaintive questioning. I didn't know the answer but I wanted to say, simply, "I'm so sorry. Go where you can be free, my friends." I hoped they would hear my thoughts.

I suppose the idea of hearing the thoughts of a whale may sound like a crazy story. Maybe we had too much sun that day. But I don't think so. Joan "heard" it too. When we told folks back in Calgary about this strange encounter, we thought folks might well roll their eyes, but they didn't.

Did the whales "speak" to us that day? Did they, in return, feel our empathy? Was there an exchange of "thoughts" on the water that calm and sunny afternoon? I don't know, I really don't. Something did happen, however. We returned to our campsite that night feeling that we had connected somehow, in some way, to a fellow traveler with whom we share this fragile, island planet. We knew that something deeply moving had taken place. We've often wondered what it was about.

Some day, I 'm sure scientific research and perhaps the intuition and wisdom of the world's indigenous peoples will give us a clearer understanding of these things. Perhaps you have had a similar experience that touched you in some way?


This evening, after publishing this posting, Joan and I viewed a screening of Julian Lennon's documentary film, WhaleDreamers. It's a stirring film - well worth it. Check here for information from the film's homepage.


  1. What an experience for you and Joan. I thought there were rules about boating for everyone. I know when I went whale watching last year, the captain of the boat stated there were rules about how close the boats could go by the orcas. I have not had any similar experiences like yours. Yours is a unique one to be treasured. I would have been scared out of my wits though. J.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. It all seems so reasonable if all life is somehow interconnected. I sometimes feel the "wisdom" of the giant trees in an old growth forest. I'm not sure words can explain it.


  3. Hi J and Rebecca,

    Thanks so much for dropping by. You're right, J, there are strict rules. In '96, that may not have been the case but I'm not sure the folks who were surrounding the two orca were thinking much about the comfort or safety of the whales. Yes, Rebecca, if only a 700 year old tree would share it's wisdom. Humbling thought.

  4. Duncan and Joan
    I have boated where you were, seen many whales. I have resurrected a drowing moth, fed a failing honey bee honey so she could fly away...yes, these critters all do speak with us and we will hear them if we are open to listening. Your story was full of emotion. Thanks,

  5. Thank you for sharing, Sheila. I like your words, "open to listening". In so doing, our lives expand dramatically. Drop by anytime.


  6. As a paddler from Australia I also feel an incredible bond to the whales that share their space with us. Really appreciate you sharing your story with us. Cheers - FP

  7. Thank you for your comment, Sean and warm greetings from Vancouver Island. We always enjoy your FP postings!