Friday, June 04, 2010

A Grand Day Out

Last week, the Hey Skipper nuclear family unit spent the better part of a week on Kodiak Island, a couple hundred miles southwest of Anchorage.

While there, we went on an all-day sea kayaking trip, and had the good sense to pick the most spectacular day of the current era on which to do it: sky and ocean perfectly blue, visibility endless, and scarcely a breath of wind.

Our expedition was a small group spread among five two-person kayaks: the guide company owner and her assistant, four women from Anchorage, and the Hey Skippers. Except for the odd airliner going from one side of the world to the other six miles above us, we were the only people we saw all day.

First, some happy snaps:

Perhaps this last image could stand with some explaining. From the beginning of our little adventure up to the questioning thought balloon, roughly four miles, we were gliding along as a loose group of five boats, and checking off the wildlife squares.

Kodiak is lousy with these things.

I don't know whether otters just cruise through life, but it sure looks like they do.

At that point, though, two things happened nearly simultaneously. The other two kayaks decided they needed a “beach stop”, and whales started spouting across the bay. The only landable beach was a couple hundred yards in the opposite direction.

Whereupon the guide told the Hey Skippers that we could head after the whales while everyone else headed for the shore in the opposite direction.

The first thought across my mind, accompanied no doubt by a stupefied stare which the guide completely failed to suss, was “Is she nuts???” These whales were near the other side of a bay four miles wide, filled to the brim with water cold enough to incapacitate in 15 minutes and kill in 30, should someone be so unlucky as to end up in, as opposed to on, it.

But hey, there’s not a breath of wind, and it’s not like we are just going to topple out of these things. What could possibly go wrong?

So off we set for a destination that never looked very far off, but, like the Sir Launcelot running toward the castle in The Holy Grail, never seeming to get any closer.

During the forty five minutes we were crossing the bay, the group of whales had sounded a half dozen times, staying down 5-7 minutes each time, punctuated by spouts at twenty feet high accompanied by wooshes that would have done a medium size jet engine proud.

Connecting the dots gave a reasonable guess on where they were headed; counting off seconds between seeing and hearing a less useful stab at distance, largely because gauging such a thing on open water, from a vantage point less than three feet off the surface, brings a whole new meaning to “approximate”.

However, having spent a fair bit of my life in one fluid environment or another, I have perhaps developed a knack for seeing certain things where most people, less attuned, just look. (Similarly, some people can see a symphony in color, while others are left with a small, largely empty, box of crayons. I wonder what it would be like to see everything we look at.)

Having completed most of the crossing, increasingly hoping that a wind from the southeast wasn’t in our near future, and the whales having been gone for some time, I decided to stop at a “spot” in all that expanse, which I picked because of — oh, I don’t what to call it, a boundary where the surface subtly changed, along which the whales might have been moving — and wait.

A minute passed, and part of another. We heard, then saw, spouts at least a mile to our left. TOSWIPIAW* said “Darn. We must have scared them.”

At about the moment I had finished pondering how wide of the mark that explanation might be, there was the sound that reminded me — as if I have any actual experience — of a salvo of large caliber artillery rounds going right over my head.

The pod of whales either wholly unfrightened by, or blissfully unaware of, our presence had surfaced not a hundred yards away, headed directly for us.

The one shot I got off before deciding to be a participant instead of a photographer.

I am far from being sufficiently talented to convey the moment. We were at least a mile from the nearest shore, in tiny boats, on dangerously cold water, suddenly finding ourselves in the midst of freight trains lacking the comforting predictability of rails. The oncoming leviathans were fin whales, second largest animal on the planet. Ever.

Aerial view of fin whale. To give a sense of scale, our kayaks extend from the nose to the fins, with a beam roughly a third of the head’s width

In the way of a fin whale. Except our viewpoint was three feet above the water, not twenty.

While the oncoming whales seemed wholly nonplussed, there was a certain amount of gender typical pandemonium from our side. TOSWIPIAW and the woman child were screaming in sustained singular notes equally combining terror and excitement.

The man child was more terse. An emphatic “Holy Crap!” was his only contribution.

As for me, I was preturnaturally aware of everything, as if I was an observer standing on my own shoulder, present but detached, noticing myself noticing the sudden gushing of adrenalin so pervasive that even my fingernails went into the flight or fight mode.

That same observer was also a very quick critic, castigating his host for being a stupid git while wondering how to get two upper-body strength challenged women out of the water before it killed them.

The lead whale, headed directly for my kayak, submerged not fifteen feet in front of it, passing so closely beneath that I could see every detail of the animal during the seeming eternity it took for the tail to get where the nose had long since been.

Two more whales passed within fifty feet on the right, under geysers, and the fourth between our kayaks.

Then the whole pod sounded again. Calm ocean to maelstrom to calm ocean, thirty seconds.

As we turned and headed back towards the other kayaks, still two miles away, my wife and the man and woman children were immersed in the hyper chatter that is the consequence of having a couple gallons of adrenalin still sloshing around.

I was a little more circumspect. I still couldn’t believe the guide cut us loose, and fully realized my decision to go could have gotten my wife and daughter killed.

But at least we got our money’s worth.

TOSWIPIAW := The Other She Who Is Perfect In All Ways. The latter part of the term refers to my wife, the former acknowledgment that someone else thought of it first.


Blogger Gaw said...

Wow. One of those deeply memorable experiences you feel eternally grateful for. Afterwards.

June 05, 2010 12:51 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Wow is right!

June 05, 2010 6:33 AM  
Blogger David said...


June 05, 2010 8:40 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

You didn't get any pictures?

June 05, 2010 9:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Jeez. Did you bollock that guide from arsehole to breakfast time?

June 05, 2010 12:55 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I just got the one picture right after they surfaced. I was wearing neoprene gloves, and just after the first picture somehow moved the mode selector on the camera between detents.

I knew it wasn't working, but decided the trouble shooting would just have to wait, particularly since my 55 year old eyes don't work quite so well at close range anymore.


The guide's call was mystifying, at the least, but it's not like I don't have any experience at these sorts of things.

It was I that needed the bollocking.

June 05, 2010 1:09 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

It's not like you were being attacked by Moby Dick. I'm sure the adrenaline was pumping, but don't you think that the odds of something really bad happening were pretty small? I think the guide was trying to give you a memorable experience. If so, the guide clearly succeeded.

June 05, 2010 2:34 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

... don't you think that the odds of something really bad happening were pretty small?

Given the conditions, they were small.


I don't think the guide had -- although there is no explanation for this -- any real appreciation for how far away kayaks occupied by a couple reasonably fit men could get in fairly short order.

Additionally, there had been absolutely no discussion before setting off as to how to get back into one of these things. She predicated her whole conduct of the trip upon being in close proximity to deal with any upsets. Two miles separation is epically wrong on that score.

The odds of something bad happening came down to two things, one I could consider; the other I had no clue about.

The first is obvious: having a whale negligently or otherwise flipping a kayak. For that to happen, you have to get darn close. What are the odds of that? Who knows what combination of skill and blind luck put us in precisely the right spot, but once having done that, the odds of joining our new found whale friends for a swim went right up.

The thing about which I was clueless was that the shoreline we got within a mile of was actually an island itself, separated from Kodiak by a narrow channel. Had the whales gone in there, and we followed them, we could have been caught up in tidal rips we couldn't paddle against (although I have enough familiarity with the ocean to likely have spotted that in time).

Ultimately, I made two extremely stupid risk assessments: We wouldn't get close, and if we did, whales are smart.

Once upon a previous life, I happened to be, on purpose, at least a mile out to sea on a surfboard in an attempt to get close to a half dozen dolphins making their way along the coast off Hermosa Beach. As it happened, they coordinated as a group, and used me for an ocean play toy for about 10 minutes. They repeatedly got darn close to running into me (by close I mean within several feet), but always just missed.

Based upon that, I kind of sort of maybe figured that whales would be similarly benign.

I have no idea if they were oblivious or curious, which means I have no idea as to whether we were lucky or had nothing to worry about.

Neither did the guide.

We were both stupid.

Perhaps that is the sine qua non for a truly memorable experience.

June 05, 2010 4:33 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

OK. It does sound like your guide was a bit out of it.

For amusement, I googled on '"fin whale" capsized kayak'. There weren't all that many results and in none of the links on the first few pages did a fin whale cause a kayak to capsize. So it seems that it's pretty rare, if it's ever happened.

On the other hand, people get in trouble from currents all the time, so I'd agree that you had a higher risk with that.

June 06, 2010 9:44 AM  
Blogger erp said...

When I first read your account, I wondered if the whales went around your kayaks on purpose, the way the dolphins avoided you at Hermosa Beach? Kinda like mammal-to-mammal courtesy.

June 06, 2010 11:26 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hard to see into the mind of a whale. They seem curious about people, if they don't have anything else on their plates, but oblivious about interacting with them.

That is, they are big enough they don't have to be careful.

My one encounter with fin whales was 27 years ago on a New England Aquarium boat at Stellwagen Bank. The whales put on quite a show, but the most memorable part was the passenger who, finding out I was a hick from Iowa, decided to see how far he could put me on.

I played along and was part of this memorable exchange"

Him: Do you know why the whales come back each year?

Me: No, why?

Him: They come back to spawn and die.

June 06, 2010 1:23 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

For amusement, I googled on '"fin whale" capsized kayak'. There weren't all that many results and in none of the links on the first few pages did a fin whale cause a kayak to capsize. So it seems that it's pretty rare, if it's ever happened.

Which is an interesting fact, right there. When we got back to the B&B that night, we told the proprietor our story, leaving out my opinions on head work. She (who's late husband was a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist) was instantly aghast.

She mentioned being out on their 32' boat and having whales come close enough to have the displaced water move the boat, but never close enough for actual contact.

When I first read your account, I wondered if the whales went around your kayaks on purpose, the way the dolphins avoided you at Hermosa Beach?

That's the funny thing. The dolphins off Hermosa Beach did not avoid me. When I got within about a hundred yards of the merge, they just disappeared. So I sat up on my surfboard and waited, figuring they had to come up somewhere, and not particularly close to me, because I must have scared them off.

About thirty seconds later, two of them simultaneously came straight up out of the water two feet on each side of me. Then the rest joined in to give me my own private Sea World show for about five minutes before moving on. There was absolutely nothing threatening about their behavior.

Whales seem curious about people, if they don't have anything else on their plates, but oblivious about interacting with them.

We were in a fairly large bay; obviously, we had put ourselves in proximity, so they didn't have to seek us out.

Their direction of travel had consistently been to the northeast. When they broached this time, they were headed directly towards us, which was 90 degrees off their previous heading. They got very close, but not too close.

Then returned to their previous course.

From these experiences, I think we have to consider the mind-body problem extends beyond humans.

June 07, 2010 10:47 AM  
Blogger erp said...

From these experiences, I think we have to consider the mind-body problem extends beyond humans.

We are all mammals under the skin afterall.

June 07, 2010 12:27 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Yes, we are. However, I was thinking more of dualism.

Some people think it is impossible that a material organ such as the brain can, in and of itself, lead to intelligence and awareness: the brain and mind are two separate things.

At least some other animals are not meat-automatons: dolphins are aware of others that are worthy of more than just investigation. There had to be something else going on: play, demonstration, or whatever. And these animals also had to communicate with each other to do it, because there was way too much synchronization going on to be explained by mere chance.

June 08, 2010 2:54 PM  
Blogger erp said...

I'd like to think so too.

June 08, 2010 4:16 PM  

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