Envisioning a Happy Ending for Lolita

For the past few days my facebook feed has been inundated with posts concerning the protest on the behalf of Lolita, the imprisoned southern Resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium. The activism and awareness spurred from the documentary Blackfish continues to gain momentum and the pressure continues to mount on those that guard the tanks.

The scene of Lolita breaching in cold north pacific waters surrounded by her family, the San Juan islands in the background is certainly a powerful, and romantic one. An image and ending almost too good to be true. Yet we are many steps away from that reality, and on borrowed time.

The conversation unfortunately begins and ends with those that, for legal purposes, “own” Lolita. The proposals seem to be gravitating toward the idea of the aquarium deciding that the time has come to retire Lolita from the show business as a way of thanking her for her decades as a forced laborer. Some have suggested the positive media coverage would offset the loss of those that attend the aquarium solely to see the orca. It would be an incredible gesture, and sadly, a dramatic change in philosophy. She remains a massive source of income for them and it seems unlikely they would willingly part with her.

Just last year a U.S district judge threw out a case proposed by the orca network, PETA, and others protesting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) renewal of the aquarium’s license. Claiming that the marine parks tank was too small and in violation of the USDAs standards. The case was dismissed as the judge determined the animal welfare act (AMA) did not specify requirements for those already holding USDA permits. It is a frustrating and despicable minefield of red tape and bureaucracy that now seems firmly on the aquarium’s side. There appears to be no hope in the near future of government intervention forcing the release of Lolita.

Meanwhile National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing Lolita be included in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since she remains a member of the Southern Resident Population. Public comment closes on the 24th of this month, if she does indeed qualify as a protected member of the population, the hope is that she would no longer be allowed to be used as a revenue stream. Should the motion pass, I’m confident the aquarium would fight tooth and nail to ensure that she remains where she is. A long legal battle would probably ensue, where, as we know, the system moves very slowly. The courts have already sided with the aquarium once for much flimsier reasons and I’m hesitant to believe that they would redeem themselves this time. I pray I’m wrong.

Which leads us back to the aquarium doing it on their own. Yes, Sea World stock is plummeting, marine park public opinion is at an all time low, and yet, Sea World’s response seems to be to throw more money at the problem and I imagine Miami’s response would be the same. It continues to confound me what my fellow man will do for profit but it is most likely the only voice that they will answer to. We must continue to ensure that revenue continues to fall, in hopes that they realize they must cut their losses and salvage what public opinion they can. They must reach a point however, where the cost of keeping Lolita is higher than what she brings in. It feels so taboo, dishonorable to make Lolilta’s case come down to money, but I fear it’s the only outcome with a happy ending.

So we will protest, we will hold signs and picket. Give copies of Blackfish to our friends that continue to attend the parks. Support animal advocacy groups, volunteer, and write our congressmen. Real change is happening and I pray that it comes before it is too late for Lolita, Corky, and the others.

The best case scenario may be a net pen, the waters of Juan de Fuca on her skin. After forty years of swimming in slow circles, it would be a miracle to see her travel hundreds of miles with her natal pod. She could hear the calls of her family, her relatives, and maybe remember what it means to be a wild whale after all these years. It’s hard to admit that she may have changed irrevocably, who wouldn’t after all those years alone. I may never buy a ticket to an aquarium, but would happily hand over my money to stand on the shore and see her in a cove, on the open water. No corny music, no tricks, no bleachers, no applause. Just a whale trying to be a whale again, chasing fish, and vocalizing without fear of the calls echoing off concrete walls. And know that the age of captivity, is coming to an end.

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We Have Neither the Plans Nor Disguises

My last Christmas in Eagle River I went to the same holiday party that I’ve been going to for years. No longer though, was it acceptable for my friends and I to drag the TV into one of the bedrooms, hook up the Gamecube, and beat each other silly in Super Smash Brothers, taking time only to race back upstairs through the maze of grown ups for another piece of pie. Now in our mid 20s it was time to negotiate through the kitchen, making small talk and drinking enough to make it all seem interesting.

Balancing a plate of food I bumped into person after person I had hardly spoken to since high school. Time and again I would compress the last five years of my life into a succinct three minute presentation. That I had graduated college, was not in grad school, and was working seasonal jobs and globe trotting as much as possible. Most were receptive, some excited at the prospect of spending a winter on an island isolated from the rest of the world, understanding the romanticism and beauty of living a simplistic life for months at a time. Others, did not.

As the night wore on and we continued to shift conversation partners, I bumped into a man I hadn’t seen since high school. A middle aged father of two, he had for a time been a volunteer in the youth group of my church as I was growing up. And so I began my presentation, summarizing my summers on whale watch boats, farming in New Zealand, and my upcoming year in British Columbia and Orca Lab. Anyone whose ever given a presentation, at school or work has felt the wriggle of insecurity as you begin to talk, and know that it isn’t going to end well. His face evolved from one of surprise, than shock, and finally, condescending.

“How old are you now, David?” He asked.

“25.”

“When are you going to start taking life seriously?”

I pause, taken aback by his bluntness. What would constitute taking life seriously? Did I have to make X amount per year? Or own a house of a certain square footage? Or perhaps I had to have a job that I didn’t love. I avoid a philosophical debate and chose to just announce that I’m happy with my life, young, and having fun.

“Well, yeah,” he allows, “but it’s like riding a skateboard.”

A skateboard? Whatever he had in that glass I wanted some.

“You see those 13, 14 year olds riding around and that’s ok. But if you see, like a bunch of old guys riding around on them… you can’t do it forever. You start to wonder when they’re going to grow up.”

Convoluted and ambiguous metaphors aside, my pride began to flicker, my eyes narrow, the cocktail shrimp on my plate forgotten. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard inquiries such as this. About once a week during the summer, some older man would try to explain to me why I couldn’t go on this way forever. But there was something about hearing it from a man who knew me, someone that I had been friendly with that made this time different.

But as I walked away a few minutes later, I began to feel pity instead of anger. I imagined if one of his kids came to him someday with the same wanderlust that had overtaken me. What kind of reception would he receive?

It is a very American ideology. That we must have a plan, that we must be secure, safe, comfortable. We build walls of comfort and safety and along the way, forget what it means to be alive. But it is all ok, because it has been deemed acceptable and normal to live this way. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. It is a blueprint followed by most, and for many, perhaps that’s ok. For some, maybe they are perfectly happy and content to live in the same house and go to the same office every day for forty years, punctuated by their annual two week vacation.

But for a growing number of the younger generation, it isn’t. We’ve seen too many of those walls turn into bars, a prison with no escape. Guarded by the henchmen of mortgage, debt, and car payments. Maybe they’d be happier if they pulled their old skateboard out of the closet from time to time, gave it a whirl, and remembered what it felt like to be young and free. As I’d neared this age of reckoning and college wound down, I began to feel this noose begin to tighten. I wondered if there was another way, a different trail down the road of life. Bumpier, perhaps, but a lot more fun. Slowly I loosened the noose until finally I became ok announcing that there was no plan. That I wanted to be an environmentalist and a writer and as long as I was doing something to better the wild world and wasn’t curling up under park benches at night, it’d be ok.

And so to the man that I doubt will ever read this. I plan to ride that skateboard until a wheel snaps off and sends me careening into the briar patch. Who knows, maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it will. But every second is going to be a fulfilling ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the House of Tom Bombadil

The trail winds through new and second growth foliage, their branches stretching like eerie arms onto the skinny trail, refusing to be thwarted by mans’ fruitless trials to contain them. Rocks thrust out of the mud, their surfaces slick with moisture. The continual December rainfall creates a steady trickle downhill, creating mud poles that go halfway up our boots. The forest is quiet besides the steady drip of rain bouncing from one leaf to another as they plummet to the trail and moss. We push further and further into the middle of Hanson Island, a weak winter sun battling the clouds.

After fifteen minutes of steady uphill hiking we round a bend and are met with a fence composed of a brilliant maze of branches. A gate sits partway open and we slide through and step onto the well trodden ground of what the weather beaten sign nailed to a tree announces is the earth embassy, a small crown of willow branches hanging above it. A few small buildings and a woodshed dot the clearing as we approach slowly. It’s a peculiar thing, to march into someone elses isolation. With no way to warn them that you’re coming. After months of solitude, the echo of our feet pounding up the trail had to sound like thunder.

Passing the door to the first building we hear a call from inside, a growl, a bark, and the door creaks open, giving way to a massive mountain of orange and white fur. The fur ball is recognizable as Kessler, the Hanson Island dog that had been exiled from Alert Bay, and now lived with the man we’d come to see. A man known to me only as Walrus.

We step out of the rain and around Kessler and into a library. Books cover a massive shelf in the entrance and litter the walls, meticulously categorized by subject. Conservation, religion, and history with subcategories such as: Greenpeace, Animism, and Mayan culture. There’s just enough room for a desk nestled right next to the door where Walrus sits, a journal out. He’s everything an old man living in the woods should look like. A massive grey beard coats his face. Even his eyebrows are preternaturally long, sticking almost straight out as long as my pinkie before finally succumbing to gravity and curling at the tips.

A sweet, musty, woody, smell permeates the tiny shelter and stepping behind the massive bookcase reveals an open space with a wood stove and table covered in fruit, crackers, and a bottle of rum. While I’m sure somewhere out there lives a reclusive old hermit who cringes at the very thought of social interaction, Walrus is not that man. His life in the forest seemed to give him remarkable preservation, and despite having reached an age where many would be comfortably retired, he’s bouncy and quick witted with an easy laugh that seems to go on forever. He is a marvelous cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and any assortment of bearded, woodsmen, Tolkien characters.

His house was a jigsaw puzzle of scrap wood that he had scrounged from the surrounding woods. Small and efficient it was easy to keep warm when the temperature dropped below freezing. The site had been picked for him he explained, when he’d pitched his tent directly on the path we had just walked up. Decades ago it had been a logging trail and Walrus had stood resolute, refusing to allow them to have the island.

Wielding an education in anthropology Walrus had scuttled over every nook and cranny of Hanson Island, learning the island’s history and secrets, searching for a way to save it. Culturally modified cedar trees (CMTs) cover the island, evidence of the first nations presence here long ago. They would cut long horizontal strips of bark from the tree, using the wood to form baskets and string. Their cutting encouraged the trees to grow even faster, creating a resource that renewed faster with use, a concept unheard of in our modern day “advanced” world.

Citing the CMTs for their cultural and historical significance, Walrus helped save the island from the carpet bombing that had befallen the nearby islands of Swanson and Cracroft. His camp quickly became something of a heritage site in addition to his year round home starting in the early 90s. A place where he welcomed grade school kids in the summer to learn about the history of the forest, and showed them around a massive garden where he grew everything from kale, to potatoes (if he can keep the jays out), to garlic. Garlic, he said, he’d give away as gifts. What a stocking stuffer.

There seemed to be little that he hadn’t done on the conservation battlefield. He’d fought wolf hunters in northern Canada, been a cook aboard the early Greenpeace boats that put themselves between whalers and their cetacean targets, and become something of a legend. His quiet manner and humbleness hid all of this though as he enthusiastically showed off his garden, Kessler constantly bumping against our shins waiting for his ears to be scratched.

We walked back down the trail toward Orca Lab a couple hours later, inspired and motivated. Someday I hoped that I could look back on the decades of my life and see the world a better place from my actions. I imagined the feeling of gratitude and joy Walrus had to feel when he woke up and looked about his forest home. Hearing the birds call, the deer trampling through the undergrowth, the leaves whispering in the wind, and knowing that it still stands because he had. His feet planted firmly on the trail, loggers and equipment barreling up the hill, unaware of the man they were about to face.

When the Outflow Arrives

Wool socks, down jackets, long underwear. All them and more have been deployed to combat the latest northeasterly outflow that has descended upon Hanson Island; freezing the intertidal pools, our waterline, and our toes. We had the bright idea last night of dragging our mattress downstairs from the loft and putting it at the base of the fireplace stacked with bark and fir, Penny’s house placed snugly in the corner. And while the cold seemed to paralyze us in the early morning light, numbing any motivation to rise from the comforters, the Orca’s seemed impervious to it all.

Shortly after nine we begin to hear the faintest Transient calls in Johnstone Strait, leading us to the lab where the temperature hovered just a couple degrees above freezing. After just half an hour of sporadic calling the sounds vanished as the whales disappeared into acoustic parts of the strait unknown. Silently I gave thanks that all I had to do to catch my breakfast was crack a couple eggs over a skillet. I don’t think I could catch a harbor seal in this weather.

But despite the cold, the view atones for it and than some. The palest of blue skies and the whispiest of clouds frame the mountains on Vancouver Island, their peaks clinging grimly to their traces of snow, illuminated in the weak December light. The solar panels greedily suck in the beams’ power, giving our generator a belated reprieve. Blackney Pass sits immobile, or at least as still as it can as the tides pull the waters north and south cutting trails in the surface like tiny intersecting roads. It’s still odd to have Orca Lab so quiet. Besides the occasional Transient celebrating its catch the speakers tell the story of cycling hydrophones, insistent tugs, and at low tide, the cries of eagles as they soar past.

The beauty and peace is priceless and there is little more soothing or funny than ten Harlequin ducks bobbing into the cove every morning chirping at one another as they cut tiny wakes through the water. They dive one at a time, vanishing in the blink of an eye, their bodies barely visible in the dark green water, wings flapping incessantly. When they come up for air they shoot clear of the water like little rubber duckies bouncing on the surface, tiny bits of food clasped in their beaks.

But the deep waters of Blackney feel empty with no Guardian or KC or any of the other humpbacks that felt like friends in September, leaving us with the thirty odd sea lions down the beach for company. Today they huddle like a single sentient being on their rocks, stinky but warm I’m sure. It leaves us with nothing left to do but read, drink tea, and chop wood at a frantic pace before running back inside to the warmth of the fire that has been dancing for three days straight. The thermal pane windows have been worth every penny, thank you: Paul and Helena.

In the Holy of Holies

The boat slides into the rocks and triggers a memory. Not a visual one, or olfactory, but auditory. The sound of pebbles racking against the hull of the boat almost makes me turn around, half expecting to see a dorsal fin gliding across the water behind us. Both boat and orca move the smooth, tiny rocks of this beach sound the same way. But today we were alone, just the two of us cautiously approaching the main rubbing beach of the Northern Resident orcas.

I step to the stern of the boat and look back over the water. It’s weird to see for the first time a place I feel I already know so well. High atop an old weathered tree hangs a white box looking for all the world like a security camera. For a summer that was my keyhole. And I would press my eye against it as close as I could, drinking in the scene. But now, for just an afternoon, I got to stand here and see and smell and feel a piece of orca lore. If the bight is hallowed ground, this is the holy holies.

Twenty minutes east of Robson Bight as the orca swims lays this beach where, for all eternity as far as we know, the orcas have come. This beach, an outlier itself in a land of jagged rocks, steep cliffs, and deep water. The beach is smooth and gradual, the reflection of the trees turning the water turquoise, like some tropical paradise. In the shallows, sometimes with barely enough water to cover them, the whales come and rub vigorously on the smooth, quarter sized pebbles that compose the beach.

I step up and over the top of the boat and onto the bow, the waves rocking the boat gently against the shoreline, emitting the sound of rushing pebbles with every crest. I hop lightly off the bow and feel them crunch and slide under my feet. I step clear of the surf and see my footprints imprinted in the rocks. Damning evidence of my intrusion into this mystical place. I lay on the beach and, like the orcas, begin to squirm and roll back and forth on the pebbles, their sounds filling my ears. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough to me. Brittney laughs and rolls her eyes as she steps gently from the boat. We talk in hushed voices, as if we’ve just entered a church, and prod slowly up the shore.

We had a reason to be here. The rubbing beaches are strictly closed off to the public, giving the orcas their own private sanctuary much like Robson Bight. But someone had to pull the batteries of the long defunct rubbing beach hydrophone, the victim of a fifty knot storm in October that had torn the cable free. Without this premise we’d go nowhere near this place, even in December, when the orcas hadn’t neared the beach in a month, it felt almost taboo to stand here.

A steep cliff makes up one edge of the beach and stretches out to a point into Johnstone Strait. I boulder up and walk to the edge, the bottom still visible even on this massive 17.1 foot high tide. I find the batteries and the second camera, the one that looks straight down into the water off the cliff face where the orcas would cruise right past just before they reached the pebbles. Like at Robson Bight I see them in my minds eye, cruising peacefully past, bound for their favorite spot in the strait. We get the batteries off the cliff and perch on a massive log washed against the shoreline. We dig out some food and stare out at the water, this unassuming little stretch of earth that means so much. Camera in hand I snap pictures while I eat, hoping to capture as much of it as possible and failing to do justice. It’s tough to think about leaving so soon, and I a great longing fills me to see the whales here, just once while I hide unseen in the bushes. It’s a dream that will have to remain a dream, and I look up at the camera, thankful that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy it from a distance. We climb into the boat and gently push back into the water, gliding across the brilliant blue/green waves, bound for the gray surf of the straight, the southeasterly starting to turn up the current.

Before we go home there’s one more place I want to find, and we shoot across Johnstone Straight, heading for Cracroft Island. As we reach the shore I slow down and and we move slowly west toward Hanson Island. I see the hollow wooden skeletons of a camp. Structures with no roofs or walls, tiny wooden platforms and benches on the rocks. This is it. I stop and look at this unassuming little kayak camp. “This is my birthplace,” I thought.

It was here, seven years ago that I had visited, kayaked, and fallen in love with this place. Straining my eyes for that elusive dorsal fin that has dictated so much of my life. I look behind me and remember the A36s, cruising west past our camp, oblivious to the life they were altering forever with every surface, every breath. A part of me wants to find a place to land, to step ashore here and crouch where I did those nights when the A4s swam by, allowing me to hear but not see. But the wind has other ideas, as does the quickly fading sun of the second shortest day of the year. We pick up speed and continue west, picking our way through the deadheads and kelp, tracing the footprints of the orcas that would be back to chase the salmon. Like they have every summer. For all eternity.

On Hallowed Ground

Traveling south from the lab and through the tiny bottleneck that is Blackney Entrance leads to the wide open expanse of Johnstone Strait. After almost four months and countless trips to Cracroft Point, the image springs to mind instantly. The high peaks of Vancouver Island casting a deep green shadow onto the water, turning it the color of jade as you approach the Vancouver shoreline. The mountain range seems to stretch on forever to the East down the strait, looming over the water with their mighty shadows extinguishing what little winter sun there is. It had been seven years since I had been in the strait past the edge of Cracroft Island. Yet I could still remember the shapes and curves of the shoreline.

Back home I would habitually pull out maps and trace the expanse of the strait, and mouth the names of places I hadn’t seen in years. Boat Bay, the Cliff, Robson Bight, the Rubbing Beaches. The bight and the beaches held a special lure, the forbidden fruit of the strait where no one was allowed save for the whales and the fishing boats. Locations I had listened to through headphones for hours but never saw. The bight is now an ecological reserve, set aside as critical habitat for the northern Residents, the boundaries expanding east to encompass the whales’ rubbing beaches. The maps show the bight as a subtle nick in the Vancouver Island shoreline. It’s as if the strait scooped out a chunk of the island with an ice cream scoop, leaving a crescent shaped divot. In the back of the bight sits the headwaters of the salmon rich Tsitika River.

From Cracroft Point, the lab’s out camp, you can almost make out the bight down the strait, straining your eyes through the glare of the sun, the small bay camouflaged by the steep slopes of the St. John, Tsitika, and Derby mountains, standing like sentinels, the guardians of the bay. It is in this unassuming bit of water, that so much of our understanding and knowledge of orcas has arisen. It is here that they have rested, played, and hunted for untold generations. The place holds an uncontrollable draw, a magnetic attraction pulling me in.

But of course, it is all closed off. Which, is probably for the best. And though the commercial fishing boats are still aloud to clog the bight as the sockeye run every year, it gives the whales at least some semblance of escape and privacy from those of us that perhaps love them too much. But there is no law against hydrophones, and on the east side of the bight hangs a crucial piece of Orca Lab’s research; the Critical Point hydrophone. Anything that makes a sound west of the hydrophone in Johnstone Strait is picked up and transmitted through a thin cord of wire, piping back to the lab the calls of orca, dolphins, and humpbacks as well as the drone of barges, fishing boats, and the abominable log tows.

As the days get shorter and the clouds thicker, the solar panels that power the hydrophones throughout the network begin to sputter. The batteries stationed are asked to supply more of the power each day until finally, they too begin to crack under the increased workload. Critical Point, shrouded in shade most of the time thanks to the mountains, was the first to begin to protest. Clicks and oscillations eventually giving way to hours of pure static, especially at night. The occasionally sunny day would give the batteries a brief reprieve but the only long term solution, was to replace them.

So last week, when Brittney and I came to town, we were met on the dock by Paul. Bouncing out of the car with his usually vigor, he excitedly announced that today was as good as any to take the one hour run from Alert Bay to the bight and replace the batteries. My chance to set foot in the hallowed ground had come and we climbed back into the minuscule boat thirty minutes later, prepared to battle an ebbing tide down the strait.

The sun broke through the clouds as we entered the bight, brilliant rays of sunshine stabbing through the gaps, illuminating the dark green of the mountain sides. The water becoming that brilliant jade on one side, sapphire blue on the other. Paul brought the boat to rest near the rocks on the far side and I clambered out, soaking in the beauty and silence. It was easy to see why the orcas loved it here so much. The water was calm and the bight would seem to funnel the fish toward the mouth of the river, giving them ample opportunity to catch dinner. The steep rock face we stood on fell directly into the ocean with no gradient. One step to many and you plunge feet down into the frigid waters of the channel. In my minds eye I saw an orca pass an arms length from the rocks, it’s massive body gyrating majestically feet below the surface as it cruised past, bound for the rubbing beaches.

It was, as I’d been told, “just trees and rocks and water.” But my prior knowledge of what lived here, what had happened here, made magic spring from the trees, rocks, and water. It was here that Erich Hoyt and his team had first dove with the orcas. Where Robin Morton had first filmed them rubbing their bodies on the smooth pebbles of the beaches. In these waters the A36s had swam during those nights when they kept me up in the lab, their calls echoing off these very rocks and into the hydrophone between my feet. And now, even if just for an afternoon devoid of orcas, I got to stand on this hallowed ground, staring up at the massive mountains and experience it all for myself.

One Day in the Bay

As many of you know, today marks the 45th anniversary of Corky’s (A23) capture and subsequent imprisonment. She currently resides in Sea World San Diego, hundreds of miles from her home that centers around Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Her family was a consistent fixture in the straight this summer, and every sighting of them is a stark reminder that she deserves to be here so much more than I do. Much today has been written and shared about this amazing whale who continues to buck the odds and survive in her tiny bathtub after four and a half decades. Coming less than a week after the death and autopsy of Rhapsody of the southern Residents, one cannot be blamed for feeling discouraged and depressed about the state of these creatures.

There is however, hope and beauty that persists up and down this coast. There are miraculous encounters and moments shared between people and healthy wild whales. On this day, as we remember Corky, and all the others that have been captured, I’d like to share my most memorable whale experience of my life.

Summer 2012:

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve lies just 30 minutes west of Juneau by plane. A magnificent playground for the outdoorsman with untold miles of not just the bay, but mountains, glaciers, and beaches. It is a place to grow and rejuvenate, just like the land that is still rebounding after years of dormancy beneath the oppressive weight of the massive glaciers that carved the bay.

I had a built in excuse to visit as often as I could as my soon to be wife Brittney lived and worked out of the bay in the summer where she worked as a kayak guide. Leaving the more commercial world of cruise ship tourism where I worked on a whale watch boat, I’d hop in a Cessna 206 and enjoy the breathtaking half hour flight over the Chilkat mountains to spend a few days with Brittney and the bay.

For whatever reason, I remember really needing a few days their his time. Perhaps I’d just had a bad run of ornery people on rainy days, or seen 20 boats around four humpbacks one time too many, but I was ready to get out and needed the silence and therapy that the bay could provide. I suppose it’s a sign that you truly do what you love when it’s all you want to do on your day off as well. There was no discussion of what we’d do as long as the weather cooperated, we were going paddling. It combined our two passions; the kayak and whales.

The next day dawned (at 4:30 am) with baby blue skies and a scattering of puffy white cumulus, the water was projected to be still, a rarity that summer that would wind up being one of the wettest on record. Giving the weather no time to change its mind, we leaped into an old rusty van owned by the kayak company, and drove the nine miles into the park to Glacier Bay’s gateway; Bartlett Cove. We grabbed a pair of fiberglass beauties from the companies rack and slipped them into the water. Unlike most sea kayaks decked out in bright and loud colors like aqua, yellow, and red, these boats were a dark forest green and seemed to blend into the landscape of evergreens and contrast beautifully with the deep blue water.

The north end of Bartlett Cove is lined by two islands, Young and Lester, and just beyond is a tiny archipelago known as the Beardslees. The islands were a veritable fantasy land for a kayaker with quiet coves, calm waters, and plenty of wildlife. The only danger was the similarity in the appearance of every island. They all followed the same recipe with rocky beaches, slight elevations, and plenty of trees. I’d traced a large circle around the archipelago two summers ago, but kept my eye on the map strapped to the boat all day.

We moved through the tiny gap between Lester Island and the mainland at the back of the cove known as “the cut,” timing our departure so that we flowed with the tide and the first half mile of our trip we barely had to paddle at all. We paddled for a couple hours through the islands, weaving through the tiny cuts and inlets, joined occasionally by gulls, murrelets, surf scoters, and the occasional harbor seal, their wide unblinking eyes staring at us with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Finally we passed a wide channel, the tidal influence spewing out water and the islands on our right vanished, giving way to the wide expanse of Glacier Bay. The bay is shaped like a Y, with the upper arms holding the majority of the glaciers, most of them in retreat. The Beardslee’s and Bartlett Cove sit near the base of the Y, where the bay merges with Icy Strait.

We knew we’d passed Lester Island and the northern end of Young Island sat in front of us, a long point of land extended toward the upper reaches of the bay and we followed just off the rocks toward the point where we could make a U turn and begin to head south toward the mouth of Bartlett Cove and home. Brittney paddled some fifty yards ahead of me as I dawdled, trying to locate a Harbor Porpoise I’d been sure was following me when I noticed that she’d stopped paddling. Right at the point she was bobbing just a few feet from shore, paddle held gently across her lap. Coming up behind her I see why. A massive group of her favorite birds, Black Oystercatchers are congregated on the rocks, their sharp orange bills and matching eyes flashing back and forth against their dark silhouettes. I’d never seen so many in one place and they seemed completely unconcerned with the gawking humans in the water.

We watched them jaunt up and down the rocks, dipping their bills into the water until something larger, much larger, brought us back to reality. The point of land was to high to see over, but it was clear from the sound that something large had surfaced just on the other side. Leaving the oystercatchers we paddled cautiously around the point, taking care to stay on the beach side of the kelp bed that circled the island like an asteroid belt around a planet.

When a humpback surfaces in the calm water you can see the water displacement long before you see the whale, than a shadow, than a bulbous bulb of water, until finally the whale breaks the surface. The massive exhalation less than fifty yards away felt like a bass drum in my chest. The explosiveness of her surfacing made it clear she was feeding and I was thankful for the kelp bed between us. I didn’t want the whale to have to worry about us and her daily allotment of half a ton of herring. As the whale disappeared another explosion echoed off the rocks behind us. You can’t spin around in a kayak, but you can twist your head so fast that you sprain your neck. A second humpback had just materialized behind us, lunge feeding just as close as the first.

There was an exhilaration with a teaspoon of fear at seeing these whales so close and at their level with nothing between us and them but a few inches of fiberglass and some flimsy strands of bull kelp. But we weren’t moving, not for the world, as humpbacks broke the surface like fireworks up and down the shoreline, lunging out of the water, mouths agape, herring running down their throats. After thirty minutes of this incredible display, we finally conceded that we needed to start trying to get home. That meant paddling through the bay littered with whales exploding from the water like land mines. We took the long way, skirting the shoreline.

As we continued down Young Island, it seemed around every corner was another humpback. It was as if they were forming some massive 40 ton relay team to get us back to Bartlett Cove. There had to of been 25 in all, encouraging us to hug the shoreline, Brittney at times having to drag me along for I could have stopped and watched every single one. Finally we neared the mouth of Bartlett Cove, and as exhilarated as we were, the soreness and fatigue of 8 hours of paddling was setting in. We started to fantasize about sweet potato fries and Alaskan Summer beer at the lodge in the cove, and prepared for the last couple miles of hard paddling home.

But something stopped us. The tour boat that left daily from the cove and traveled up the west arm of the bay to the Margerie Glacier, had stopped in the channel when it should have been heading into the cove to meet its deadline. Daring to hope we watched and to my shock and absolute glee, a tall black fin broke the water a half mile from shore punctuated by three smaller fins as the tiny group of Transients headed into the bay. They were probably destined for John Hopkins Inlet where the pupping Harbor Seals were sprawled on the ice bergs.

Tears of gratitude formed in my eyes, it was almost too much. The bay had overwhelmed me. First the weather, than the oystercatchers, the never ending parade of humpbacks, and finally, this grand finale. Brittney and I rafted our boats together, her hand in mine as we floated together watching the orcas move further into the bay, completely unaware of the magnitude and power that their presence had just created in our lives. Finally they began to vanish from sight and we begin to paddle into the cove, our spirits full and our eyes glistening with tears of gratitude. I could paddle for the rest of my life and never see another whale and it would be ok. Because every time I pretzel myself into a kayak, I think of that day, the magic it brought, and what a gift it is to share the world with an animal as spectacular as them.