After arriving in Uclulet, on the Pacific Rim side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia last night, we got up at 9am and started to get ready for a most wonderful adventure!
We arrived at Jamie’s Whaling Station at 11.30am and checked into the tour. We were given red ‘floating suits’, which we climbed into and put the gloves that came with it into the pocket for later. We climbed on board a 12-seater Zodiac rubber inflatable speed boat and off we went. These boats are used by the coast guards and rescue services because of their agility and because it is impossible to turn these boats over, even on the roughest waves.
We got outside the harbour, the speed was raised to excitement level in an instant and we arrived at the centre of a wide-open sea with islands all around us! In a zodiac, at full speed or at least at close to maximum, you literally feel like you are flying across the ocean! Sitting in a confined space, with complete strangers, you totally lose your inhibitions and just take in the whole experience. As a total novice of these vehicles, I was never scared as such; a bit apprehensive maybe, of a new test of one’s bravery and how high a level your adrenalin can be sent to. However, the whole experience was exhilarating and addictive – I was to be forever a fan of this boat.
It would seem that the captain, and self-taught naturalist, knew exactly where to go, as only 10 minutes had passed and there it was – A Grey Whale! – spray coming up out of its blowhole in a long ghost-like plume, up into the sky as it came out of the water and just rolled right back into the sea. You just got a glimpse of its huge body and heard its breath and then it was gone. It was about 100 yards away and we sped over to greet it.
Well, it was worth it. This Grey was definitely ‘friendly’, as Scott had described it – it came over to our boat and started to play with us!
Myself and my friend Lesley were at the front of the boat, with four other fanatics behind. The Grey kept putting its tail out of the water and waved it at us. It sprayed us all as it came out of the depths, the smell of fish was so strong and the salt from its breath landed heavy on our lips. It disappeared for a short while – the next thing, it was under our boat. Its tail was to our right and its head was to our left – this 35-foot beauty was ‘loving’ the contact with us and the boat (apparently, it had done this with the early morning tour!). It seemed this creature had no bad feelings towards us humans, thank the heavens.
It continued to go under, around, and past the boat. It came right up to us, submerged to our left! Lesley was looking right into its eye, when it breathed and sprayed its fishy, salty vapour right into her face! A whale’s kiss, now that is a memory of substantial proportions.
This creature is just beautiful! Grey coloured, with yellow/gold barnacles scattered around its head, white patches here and there and spots on its belly. The tail is white on the underside and spotted, so when it throws its tail up you can see the different markings. These different characteristics have helped scientists in the identification process of the species and in their life and migration patterns. This is very important for their conservation.
After it played with us, continuing to roll over, dive, breathe and spray us with its fishy breath, and show its tail, it disappeared! Going to find food no doubt? Grey whales are bottom feeders, meaning they scan the ocean floor in search of squid, fish, and other fodder. They have long beaks, which are used for this purpose, making fishing easier and more practical for them.
After a good hour and a half, we started the engines, you must have all engines off when close to any marine life, for their protection and to keep harassment to a minimum, and sped the other way where the guide had seen another friendly! Two in one tour, surely no one could be this lucky?
This mammal (a mammal is like us – bears calves, suckles its young and has to breathe air on a regular basis), maybe a brother or sister of the first whale we saw, started to play with us too! Rolling over, lifting its fin up, as if it was waving to us, showing its tail, swimming under the boat and around it, and spraying us! At one stage, it came over to my side of the boat and submerged. I looked it straight in the eye – gorgeous! It was as if we had just greeted each other! I was speechless from such a life-changing moment, totally in awe of this new friend! It was really checking me out, wondering what kind of animal I was and what I was doing here in the middle of the ocean, and why was I so interested in him or her? I could answer that – they are the most amazing creatures to behold. Truly inspiring and spiritual, making you assess your life and realising your passions. Myself and Lesley found ourselves hugging each other in the middle of our inflatable. Tears were welling up in my eyes and our excitement was contagious and overwhelming. I was so pleased to have shared this moment with her, such memory will bond us forever!
Back under the boat, spraying, rolling, playing! It came up again near me and I saw its whole huge, beaked mouth. I could not believe how big, but gentle this creature was. It must have been about 10 feet wide (at least and that’s just my guess), 35 tons – 1 ton per foot! And here it was, interested in us humans. This shows its intelligence and a whale’s total pleasure in interaction with other species!
It even lifted the boat a few times. It was underneath the back end and rubbing its back on the bottom – this made the boat ‘jump’ slightly! It never made us feel insecure and never threatened us! It is just not in its nature! It was using the boat to scratch his back – Grey whales have many whale lice that grip onto their skin. These lice must irritate them so much, constantly itching and tormenting! Also, barnacles attach themselves to whales and they too must be a pest at times.
These animals can live for up to 60 years! Apparently, the two we saw were a lot younger, perhaps only about 35 years old. The older whales remember what man did to the species during the mass slaughter decades before and they tend to stay away. We did see two mature whales pass us further out to our right. They would not approach us as they were truly not impressed by our presence. They must have horrific memories of our predecessors.
But this whale really wanted to be with us, as did the other one before it!
Note: On this trip I got the best ever Grey Whale Tail shot ever!
All photos credited and copyrighted to Anita Johnson
This post was adapted from the book “Whales and Tales“