I had high expectations for my three-day Orca camp at the end of summer. My friends and I had booked it some months earlier and right from the beginning – the booking form – I made my expectations known. I told the small ‘mom and pop’ outfitter, my colleagues, my family, my friends, pretty much anyone who would listen: “I’ll settle for nothing less than my Free Willy moment.” It seems those childhood films are formative.
After a handful of camping trips, cycling around Saltspring Island, driving 5000km around BC and all that it involved, Orca Camp was my penultimate summer trip. Three days at a wilderness campsite a few kilometres south of the Northern Resident Orca sanctuary in the Johnstone Strait of Northern Vancouver Island (also known for the beginning of the inside passage and highway to Alaska…and cruise ship free in 2020). It was fully catered with all tents, gear, kayaks etc provided. Just my friends, the guide…and a hobby wildlife photographer perched on a little rocky beach whale waiting. It was bliss.
Full of anticipation on that first afternoon we paddled about 6km and were graced by a pod of dolphins, a humpback whale and her calf, plenty of sea birds and jumping fish. We were elated. A pod of porpoises swam by later in the afternoon before the stellar sunset. However joyful, our eyes remained peeled on the horizon, our ears listening for a little puff of air. Our group rotated checking through the scope at the horizon. Nothing. The end of the first day.
Oh the hope we had. This short wait would pass soon. We had tasted the sweetness of some humpbacks but knew the main event was still ahead of us. We were happy to be patient.
That evening, I interrupted the merriment with an abrupt request for silence. A puff of air and then another. We wander to the beach. It was dark except for the stars above. More puffs, some splashed and some thrashing. Sea lions hunting.
We woke to fog. It burnt off and we paddled the opposite direction back to the BC Recreation Site and back. While enjoyable, it was void of any wildlife. That afternoon we took the Zodiac across the strait for fishing and exploring. We waved at the researchers perched on the rock above the straight, Orca Live. They have a direct line of sight into Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. I became a little uneasy as I sat in the sunshine.
Evening was coming, as was our impatience. We grew restless. We discovered OrcaLive.com a live feed of under and above water cams and echo-phones dotted across the archipelago. After days away they were heard on the phone though later drowned out by a logging barge. Our renewed energy had us comparing the magnified view in the scope to that of the webcams, the online map with the inlets we could see. Later we saw the barge cruise down the strait, we felt the waves 25 mins later on our shores. The sun was setting.
Frustration was bubbling away. The cost of the trip crossed my mind. The forethought and planning of this weekend and it’s 80% chance as opposed to the 50% back in July. The whales were so close but so far. They were outside our grasp, or rather line of sight, and there was nothing we could do about it.
We woke again to fog. It was the last morning of Orca Camp and we had yet to see any orca. We could only see a few metres off the beach. I felt a sense of blindness – knowledge so much existed beyond the fog but the inability to see any of it. At one stage I heard some little puffs. Porpoise again, I think.
I willed the orcas. I then selfishly prayed for orcas as I snuggled in my sleeping bag in a hammock slung between two trees. Even the pancakes (that I also willed for) didn’t lift my spirits. We launched our kayaks into the calm, sleeping waters. We glided along the mirrored surface. If it had not been for the absent orcas, I might have relished the tranquillity. But I couldn’t.
I resigned to the fact: not only would I not have my Free Willy moment; I wouldn’t see the majestic mammal at all. We packed up, ate lunch and just sat. It was overcast. We distracted ourselves. We tried to enjoy these last couple of hours before we head back to Vancouver.
The whole whale waiting experience (as compared to a whale watching experience) was very alike our current season. We all made big plans for 2020. We had such anticipation for this new decade (jury is out if it really is the new decade but roll with it). Oh the weddings, the vacations, the relocations. Each day we carried our kayaks down the pebbled beach (and the kind guide pushed me off so this single paddler didn’t have to struggle!), we had hope for the main event but settled for simpler pleasures. The trip wasn’t a vacuum for joy but we were still a little disappointed.
In a brief tangent (if you care to journey with me), many ask how I am going. They know I am away from my Australia home, away from my growing family, away from comforts, living solo working from my 600 square feet. Some know I had a planned trip stolen by the grinch that is COVID-19. The questions may vary: “When will you go to Australia again?” “When are you coming home?” “Do you want to go home?” “What about if you work from Australia?” But the answer is all variations of the same: “I don’t know”, “Desperately”, “Do you have $5000-7000 you can give me?” However trivial my trip home is to meet the most effervescent blonde-haired delight, I’m sure we can all replace Australia with whatever you had such high expectations for or perhaps longing for. We are all living in the dumpster fire, some feeling the literal suffocation of the virus, others trapped inside borders or buildings they wish not be in.
The reality is, just like Willy and the wild Northern Resident Orcas, the fulfilment of our yearnings are completely out of our control. We can read the Orca Live reports, listen to the echophones, review whatever resources to make ourselves aware of the situation. Will it bring the orcas to your beach? No. Will all the hand washing, hand sanitizer, physical distancing prepare you for the leap out of captivity? Maybe, I do look forward to attending large events again. I digress. We can fill our days with kayaking and explore the foreshores, spot a porpoise or two, catch a fish, laze in the sun. They will all bring temporary pleasure. Will it be enough? Unlikely. We can pray for reprieve, we can pray for patience, we can pray for Jesus to return. Will it solve it all? In His unknown timing, yes, but still we remain in the not yet season.
In that final hour, as my friend made use of the charmed rustic facilities before our Zodiac back to our cars, we had resigned ourselves. Until we heard her yell from the outdoor driftwood shower tucked around the beach out of sight. “ORCA!” I can only imagine how quickly she threw her clothes on (and not because of the 2 other paddlers tailing the orcas).
We grabbed our cameras. Our guide reminded us to avoid loudly bounding down the smooth rocky beach to get a closer view (interrupting the sound waves of the whales). We watched in awe as Mumma orca, bubba and big brother on the outside swam on past. Although not my first time, seeing those tall dorsal fins emerge from the waters, the loud puff of air, the rhythm of their movement in the wild was everything. I tried to take it all in. I fought to urge to capture it on camera although I desperately wanted to record it. Maybe 30 metres offshore they cruised by before continuing on their merry way. I raced to the scope as mumma orca spy-hopped to see her surroundings. We watched on until we could see them no more.
We were left with smiles from ear to ear. We were in awe of the magical moment we had just witnessed. They came from seemingly nowhere and they continued on without much fanfare. Us? We were moved. My friend met by orcas in the shower? Forever one of the best showers she’d ever have (she returned later to finish the delightful steamy experience).
I hope that after all the longing, the waiting, the loneliness and the little pleasures we made the most of this year, we have our orca moment. There is nothing within our control to bring them on any sooner (unless you’re an immunologist or a pharmaceutical, or perhaps a government with a very deep deficit…). I live in hope. I know it will be all the more special when I’m reunited with my family and give my niece a big squeeze! What is your orca moment? Share it with me.