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.


I'm used to semi-occasional bouts of thickasabrickness, so I could be suffering one now, but for the life of me I can't figure out why this sign exists.