Unusually warm for April and the first truly windless day of the season, our 11am whale watching departure was shaping up to be a beautiful day, regardless of any wildlife we might see along the way.
Being early in the season for Resident Killer Whales, and with no reports of Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales at the outset of the trip, I was gearing up my passengers to keep their eyes keen to the water at all times. With such glorious conditions, sighting a blow or a fin wouldn’t be as daunting a task as usual. We made our way through the northern Gulf Islands and into the Saturna Island area, soaking in the sun, hundreds strong flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls, silvery harbour seals, the cacophony of California sea lions, and hundreds of rowdy steller sea lions.
As our time on the water was winding down and the sun already starting to slide into the west I updated the passengers that we would be making the final stretch of our trip and heading back to port.
There were some disappointed faces that we had not been able to find any whales on the trip. But to my surprise, one woman, who was sitting by herself at the stern, looked almost relieved to be heading home. She revealed to me that she was in fact afraid of whales and was only on the tour to try and shed her fear of them.
How strange and fortuitous that what happened next was life altering for not only me, but everyone on board, particularly the woman who feared cetaceans.
We were nearly back at the dock, so I headed upstairs to debrief with the captain when suddenly he pointed straight ahead at our 12 o’clock.
“I think I just saw a whale!” the captain said excitedly.
Not wanting to get too pumped up only to be deflated in disappointment, I replied in my most controlled voice, “oh really? are you sure?”.
We both kept our eyes locked ahead. With the water being absolutely flat calm, there was no mistaking the curved outline of a humpback surfacing about 1 nautical mile directly ahead of us.
“NO WAY! That’s a humpback!!” the captain and I said in unison.
I nearly tripped as I scurried back downstairs to tell everyone the good news. By the skin of our teeth, this humpback whale had appeared directly in our line of sight. The surprises that nature holds are endless!
We saw the broad flukes arch into the air and disappear when we were still about a mile away, so when we slowly pulled into the area we saw the whale go down, I had my passengers on high alert, making sure we were all looking around in different directions. I know that if this was a deep dive we might have a wait ahead of us until the humpback was visible again, so we needed to be extra diligent.
Within about three minutes the whale was back up again, about 300 yards from us and pointed directly toward the boat.
Something about this whole scenario made me think that this might be a whale known to us as “Windy”, a juvenile humpback that we had had several incredible encounters with the previous season where she* breached, pec slapped, cartwheeled, and on a few rarefied occasions, came to engage with the boat, seemingly to look up at the hull and the people on board (a behaviour sometimes called mugging).
Not having been able to photo identify the whale yet, I did not know if this was the famous Windy or not, but I did had a strange feeling that it might be. I asked the captain if we could shut the engine down, and we did. Complete silence overtook the group with not even a breath of wind to break the silence. Everyone was intently gazing out over the Gulf of Georgia, waiting the moment this whale would reappear. A few minutes passed. Nothing. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of instinct, I gazed down into the water, hoping that maybe this would be one of those rare moments when a whale decides to investigate the human world.
The water in the Gulf was brown and murky yet down below the boat, I saw a flash of white.
“She’s under the boat guys!!” I shouted, perhaps a little to loudly and excitedly as a few people twitched at the sudden break in solitude.
And then, right along side our stationary vessel, this huge whale surfaced very very slowly next to us. What an incredible sound, the exhale was so penetrating that it seemed to shock everyone into an even deeper silence, but only for a moment. Then everyone burst out into various cries of joy and amazement at what was happening. We all leaned over the side of the boat to look down on this gorgeous creature floating stationary next to us.
For over 45 minutes, this whale slowly passed back and forth under the boat, right at the stern where everyone was crowded. The water being so calm gave us unparalleled views of her body, even intimate details like the orange whale lice that crowded around near her upper jaw. I wondered if the calm water was part of the reason she chose to come peer up at us, because if we could see her, she no doubt could see us. That seemed obvious given we could see her eye budging bright and even opening and closing a few times.
I was watching in complete admiration of this powerful creature and how dexterous she was around the vessel, never coming into direct contact with it but sometimes sliding within a few inches of the hull. She even raised her elongated pectoral flipper high into the air and gently lowered it, missing the boat with expert precision and not splashing anyone.
Only one time during the encounter did we get a small glimpse of the underside of the tail fluke. I was ready with my camera when it happened, and even though we only saw the tip of the left side of her tail, that was enough to know that this was indeed Windy, the inquisitive humpback we had met last spring. Seeing that familiar fluke marking was like seeing the face of an old friend. Even more amazing, this encounter took place just shy of one year to the day that I had my first encounter with her like this. I often wonder about the sense of timing various marine mammals have in the Salish Sea, and this seemed like more than coincidental timing.
While all this was happening, I had forgotten about the woman who claimed to be afraid of whales. I turned to her and laughed.
“I think Windy is trying to tell you something!” I joked.
“W-will s-she tip us over” the woman stammered.
“No way, she seems to be intensely curious right now. Come have a look” I encouraged.
I led the woman to the railing of the boat and we both looked down at Windy who was twisting from side to side, first looking up with her right eye, then with the left. Windy then came to the surface and exhaled right next to us, coating the woman with a misty layer of pungent whale breath. The woman screamed then just started laughing.
“I feel like I should be terrified, but this is too incredible to be scared” said the woman. “We are having an alien encounter”.
Alien indeed. There are poems and songs written about coming into contact with wild creatures. The experience is so unique that it is hard to describe, and I find myself having a hard time explaining what it was truly like. But alien encounter seems close; a being from another world, perhaps not so different than us, seemingly attempting to make contact of some kind.
Whether this was some more meaningful, unexplainable exchange taking place or pure curiosity, it is a perception changing moment, one that forces anyone who experiences it to seriously consider our role alongside our fellow earthlings and that we are not alone on this earth.
*gender of BCYuk2014#3 “Windy” or “Donegal” is unknown, female has been chosen for ease of storytelling