One favourite pastime some years back was to kayak with Gray Whales at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
This story takes me back some few decades ago when I worked as an environmental scientist in government in Victoria British Columbia. One of my passions was sea kayaking in my Klepper kayak. While I covered thousands of miles of paddling on the west coast of N. America one regular date I always kept was to paddle with the Gray Whales at the mouth of the strait of Juan de Fuca every fall. There the migrating Gray’s would pause to reassemble their families on the north shore before making the crossing of the Juan de Fuca on their way south to winter calving grounds far to the South in Baja California.
Gray whales are primarily coastal critters, they live in the very shallow waters right off the beach. Easy to get there in a kayak! There the sandy mucky sea floor is filled with their favourite food, tiny copepods and their ilk. They swim with their heads sideways along the bottom with their great mouths open stirring great clouds of sediment and delicious tidbits.
Once they have a mouthful of muddy water they close their baleen ‘teeth’ and with their great tongues force the water out through the baleen sieving and leaving behind a whale sized dollop of nutritious micro-shrimp, copepods and amphipods.
In very clear water from a kayak one can see them at lunch feeding. It is easy to find feeding Gray’s as the water is unusually distinctly muddy. With a friend in my wood frame and canvas double Klepper Kayak we would launch from my favourite whale beach and paddle along the shore until we found them. I did this quite often during ‘whale season’ over the course of years. What made it a thrill and always worth going back to repeat was that the Gray’s very clearly liked my visits.
Here’s what would typically happen. Once finding muddy water I’d paddle quietly and carefully following the muddy trail. Soon we’d see Gray’s surfacing gently to breathe. No big spumes of whale breath were to be seen as the water was typically only 20-30 feet deep. They weren’t out of breath after a long dive here, just lazily coming up for a breath of air and a burp before sinking gently back to the bottom. Some whales were a bit shy and as I approached they would simply but slowly out pace my approach. Others, especially the big mothers, would welcome me.
How did I know I was welcome? Here is where the fun begins. I would paddle to the head of a muddying patch of ocean water and a bit beyond. Stopping our paddling we’d wait patiently for a minute or few. Then all of a sudden the kayak would begin to lift up out of the water as a gigantic Gray whale surfaced under us.
They were amazingly gentle and would position their giant hulks 3 times longer than my kayak and 100 times heavier so that the hump on their back was perfectly positioned inches off the center-line of my kayak. As they rose straight up the kayak and I would at first be lifted almost clear of the water then with a shrug of the whale we’d be sent sliding down one side or the other of the giant Gray back. simultaneously the whale would exhale with a spume of wonderfully, and I am using a romantic description, fishy smelling breath.
Then came the best part of all. The whale would stay aside us and I’d respond by scratching her back with my paddle. It was clear beyond any question that those Gray whales loved it when I scratched their back. How would I know they loved it? After a few paddle scrubs the whale would always reposition themselves so that they were eye to eye with me and we’d make eye contact. There was no less attraction and appreciation in that eye contact than experiencing the very same with an attractive woman I might be drawn to in a human encounter. But those Gray whales are demure and polite and they would not tease with my affections for too long before with a flip of their great tail fluke they would surge ahead and back down to spend more time plowing away at the h’orderve feast below.
But those Gray whales are demure and proper girls and they would not tease with my affections for too long before with a flip of their great tail fluke they would surge ahead and back down to spend more time plowing away at the hors d’œuvre feast below. I was never disappointed as they would always rise to my delight in exchange for me scratching their back another time or two in each encounter. Over the years I came to think that I recognized, and they me, some of my dear whale companions.
Gray whales are on the increase in numbers so these days thousands of people are experiencing the camaraderie of these gentle giants. We can and must do so much more than simply watch and be friends with our ocean wildlife, we need to help take care of, replenish, and restore their ocean pastures.
As we help them they will help us as whales you see don’t just feed on ocean pastures they maintain them and ocean pastures are the principal means by which this blue planet manages CO2 and climate!
PS.. I’ve experienced much the same close to hand whale affection with Humpback whales and Orca’s but in more than one case their friendly exuberance got the best of them and they would share their joy with a far toooooo close leaping breach! The gentle Gray’s are my sweethearts.
Here’s a link to another of my true whale stories, it’s a tale of two Orca’s Uncle Fred and Little Fred who kept me company while I led a small band of shipmates restoring their ocean pasture.