Before you ask, the answer is yes. When you’re bobbing vulnerably in a sea kayak with an eager pod of the world’s most powerful apex predators heading in your direction, yes, you do wonder if this really was the best idea.
Yet here we are, my husband and I, having the time of our lives as we celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary—wishing to be nowhere in the world but in our bright yellow double kayak off this remote northeastern tip of Vancouver Island.
We’re part of a small group of travellers, hailing from Great Britain and Germany as well as Canada, who have signed up for Orca Camp—a kayaking-with-killer-whales adventure created by long-time operator Ecosummer Expeditions.
Just getting here was an adventure. A flight from Calgary to Vancouver. A second (and wildly scenic) flight to Port Hardy on Pacific Coastal Airlines high above the Inside Passage, with Vancouver Island down below to the left and mainland Canada to the right. A land taxi from Port Hardy to Port McNeill and then a water taxi to Ecosummer’s Orca Camp, a Swiss Family Robinson-style set-up embedded in the hillside of a rainforest that looks out to Johnstone Strait—world famous for its high concentration of killer whale traffic.
Our sleeping quarters are tents complete with Therma-a-Rest mattresses, comfortable sleeping bags and small pillows. They’re tucked in beneath the branches of towering cedar trees and there’s enough distance between individual tents for us to feel like the rainforest, which shimmers emerald green in the early morning light, is all ours.
Two guides—Steve Cutts and Jacqui Golsby—work tirelessly both in the open-air kitchen to provide delicious, hearty meals for guests, and out on the water as they shepherd their novice paddlers along the salty coastline.
Both Steve and Jacqui are beyond competent instructors which is, frankly, the key to Orca Camp’s success. Many of us have little to no experience sea kayaking. You know you’re in good hands when you’re willing, like one British mother, to take your young children out in waters where male orcas, which can be nine metres long and weigh as much as a FedEx delivery truck (only with better acceleration), regularly cruise the waters.
When we’re kayaking, we steer clear of any oncoming orca traffic, maintaining a respectful distance so as not to stress out the whales. And if we didn’t know already, we learn over the course of our three-day, four-night excursion that humans are far more of a threat—thanks to ocean traffic, water pollution and overfishing—to orcas than these creatures, members of the oceanic dolphin family, are to us.
(The exception is when they’re held in captivity, which is when most conflict happens. Check out the provocative documentary Blackfish for more on captive killer whales.)
As a bonus, Ecosummer Expeditions partners with McKay Whale Watching during Orca Camp, so we tee off our trip with a day on a boat that takes us to nearby Blackfish Sound where we get a full dose of orca education from local experts and an eyeful of what I can only describe as “orca soup.”
The whales are everywhere, sometimes more than a dozen in one cluster. A baby orca steals our hearts as it tries to swim hard, almost breathlessly, to keep up with the rest of its powerful family. We learn that whales have complex social structures, like elephants or wolves or higher primates like humans. Sometimes four generations travel together in one group.
Motoring past several swimming sea lions on our return makes the excursion even sweeter. They peer up at us from the water like small gangs of cheeky, inquisitive teenagers—all shiny heads, long whiskers and glistening black eyes.
No question, though, the whales are the stars of the Orca Camp experience. We watch these black-and-white beauties from the shores of our base camp as they swim past. We observe them from beds of kelp as we raft together with other kayakers.
And we hear them blow, in the silver light of morning as we sip our fresh-brewed coffee on the beach, and from our tents in the dead of night. Great, explosive geysers of whale vapour reverberate off steep-walled rainforest and across the water—not a sound we’ll forget any time soon.
But it’s the whole experience—the easy rhythm of our days, the distinctive West Coast oceanscape, the company of interesting strangers, the fresh salt air, the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning new skills—that leaves an indelible impression. (So too, I confess, did my al fresco shower experience at the camp’s makeshift Wobbly Bear Spa, which is basically a curtained-off area by the beach surrounded by salal and salmonberry bushes where guests can scrub up.)
Kudos to Ecosummer Expeditions owner Andy Schwaiger for maintaining the Orca Camp tradition for gobsmacked city slickers like me and my husband.
“Sharing this place, which has a spirit to it, gives me a lot of satisfaction. Plus, you can’t leave without concern for the orcas and their well-being in your heart,” Austrian-born Schwaiger told me on the phone once I was back in Calgary.
“This part of the world has a very strong hold on me. It will never let loose.”
Months later, and his words echo in my land-locked mind.
Orca Camp now joins the ranks of a handful of trips I’ve marked as unforgettable, even transformative, experiences-of-a-lifetime.
— Kim Gray
*Many thanks to our partners in tourism, none of whom reviewed or edited this story before publication, for helping make this post possible. — T&C