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We slid our kayaks into the dark blue waters encircling Orcas Island, Washington. An earthy scent of pines and honeyed roses enveloped us. From the stern, I angled the paddle blade in the water like a rudder while my husband, Dan, power-stroked from the bow.
As we glided ahead, we stole glances at five fellow adventurers with sleek physiques, their Swedish accents rising above calls of seagulls. They paddled past us to joke with Jason, our buff guide, who led the way with brisk, rhythmic strokes.
Last to push off were two middle-aged women who paddled out of sync and laughed hysterically when they trailed behind. Dan and I fell somewhere in the middle. Not too young and not too old, but relatively fit and experienced kayakers.
Following the Whale Trail
As our vessels jostled with waves, Jason called out that he’d spent a semester in the Galapagos Islands studying everything from sea slugs and squids to the world’s only sea iguana.
Now back in his home state of Washington, he wanted to follow the whale trail. The trail is a group of sites scattered throughout the Salish Sea and Pacific Coast to view orcas and other marine wildlife in their natural habitat.
For our first stop, Jason steered us to a pocket of the Salish Sea where hordes of moon jellyfish floated in clusters. We peered over the edge of our kayaks to take a closer look. These curious creatures ranged in size between 2 to 15 inches in diameter.
Their opaque whiteness marked by a pink clover shape on their dome stood out in blue waters. I was struck by how they bobbed around like mini buoyant umbrellas. Jason pointed out that the large moon jellies are often seen from aircraft flying over Puget Sound.
“If you’re interested,” he said, looking directly at the Swedes, “I can arrange an aerial view from a helicopter for you guys. A cool experience you shouldn’t miss!”
Two of the sculpted young athletes gave a thumbs up. Dan and I swapped knowing smiles. This was a side trip we’d explore on our own.
“A moon jelly’s sting is very mild,” Jason continued. “If you capsize right now,” he added with a smirk, “don’t freak out. Their sting is of little to no risk to us. But, if we do run into an emergency, the whale watch boats are there for us.”
Our kayaks banded around Jason, as he drew us together with his stories. I suddenly noticed, however, that we were not all together. The two struggling kayaking novices waved to us from 500 yards away.
Every time they tried to paddle towards us, the wind blew them off course. Jason waved back, in a nonchalant manner, continuing to tell stories like a modern-day Jacques Cousteau.
Just as the two finally caught up to the group, Jason made a long, sweeping motion with his paddle and headed for the next site without pausing to share his moon jelly insight with them. The two women took long gulps from a thermos, gripped their paddles, and labored on.
I dug my paddle into the fast-moving current and wondered how Jason could have let the pair drift astray. Wasn’t he responsible for our safety and for our recreational enjoyment?
Their erratic paddling showed little or no experience, but the tour agency had welcomed kayakers of all levels on this excursion. They’d better be careful, or Jason might lose them in a secluded cove.
We paddled swiftly, as sunbeams flickered on blue-green boughs of Scotch pines lining the shore. Though we were yards away, I picked up their sweet scent mingling with the salty essence of sea kelp.
Dan playfully flung cold water in my face with his paddle, “Don’t get too caught up in the scenery or we’ll end up on the rocks.” He pointed to massive, water-worn boulders up and down the coast.
I hurled a paddleful of water back at Dan, soaking his T-shirt and making me laugh. I felt relieved from the tension of seeing Jason all buddy-buddy with the young Swedes and ignoring the rest of us. But as Dan and I paddled up to Jason at our next stop, he was again caught up in snappy repartee with his new chums.
Kayaking with Orcas?
“Proud racer in the North Sea Tall Ships Regatta,” said a square-jawed man with blond spiky hair. He eyed Jason, as he flexed the muscle of his right bicep. It sported the tattoo of a Swedish flag.
“USA Olympic sailing team hopeful.” Jason raised a fist, as he showed five Olympic rings tattooed on his left bicep.
“Have we moved on from marine life?” asked Dan, his voice edgy with frustration.
“Not at all,” said Jason. He turned away from Dan to talk on a mobile phone to whale watch boats, asking for an update on our surroundings.
“We gotta go!” he said with a surge of energy. “I’ll show you a favorite place for seals to bask in the sun. A great photo op!”
Knowing that orcas love to feed on seals, I asked if we were likely to cross paths with these creatures prowling for food.
“No, Dorothy, we don’t see orcas around here,” Jason chuckled. “They’re often seen in the outer San Juan Islands preying on salmon.”
But I was skeptical. I’d read that transient orca roam all waters around the San Juan Islands. These mammal-eating predators come and go, as unpredictably as gypsies. I’d also learned they were “messy eaters,” who grasp prey with their teeth and tear the victim into smaller chunks.
How would we escape if surrounded by a pod of orcas? I shuddered at the thought. But I remembered an article that said killer whales have not been known to attack humans in the wild. Apparently, they have an aversion to the taste of humans, though they sometimes mistake us for marine animals.
If Jason believed we wouldn’t encounter orcas, why had he called the whale watch boats for a surveillance update? I wondered if he’d been tipped off about a sighting. But he paddled ahead at a fast clip and waved us on with a look of indifference.
I pushed to paddle harder. If Jason was on orca alert, he might know a way to admire these wondrous creatures from a safe distance. If not, I’d hoped he’d steer us well away.
I recalled a video of orcas in the Atlantic, west of Spain and Portugal, flipping the rudder of a sailboat like a toy and debilitating the vessel. Hence kayaking with orcas seemed a bit risky. From then on, I felt nothing but respect and awe for these powerful predators.
Seal Selfies and a Perfect Feeding Spot for Orcas
Within minutes, we reached a bunch of smooth boulders close to shore where half a dozen seals lounged in the sun. I knew that seals use their good hearing and keen sense of smell to detect predators.
Above water, however, their eye lenses go out of focus, leaving seals at a strong disadvantage against transients using stealth and the element of surprise to grab prey. I scanned the water for tall dorsal fins, in case of an ambush.
Jason laughed and joked with the Swedes, showing no concern about this perfect feeding spot for orcas. Instead, he offered to take a photo of any of us framed with seals in the background. Of course, the two rookie kayakers were first in line, their boat drifting downstream as Jason snapped their smiles.
Next, Jason’s five peers climbed into one kayak to form a human pyramid. The camera captured three of them, as two fell overboard, scaring the wariest seals to dive in the water. I declined the photo offer. But my phone camera was set, in case an orca caught a lone seal off guard.
As we steered away from the site, Jason announced we’d take a lunch break at Point Doughty, a state park accessible only by kayak, canoe or rowboat; a fact that made the site more intriguing to me, almost mysterious.
Without the skills to paddle there, you’d miss a chance to explore the grounds and its fine vantage point. From our kayak, I could see this forested and rocky islet less than a mile away, with snow-clad Mount Baker on the horizon.
I wanted to pause and savor the natural beauty before me. But a feeling of competition remained in the air, as Jason and his groupies rushed across the dark blue water with rapid strokes.
“Let’s go, Dan!” I cheered, “If it’s a race they want, we’re all in.” Dan flashed a grin, as he paddled with vigorous intensity, his well-toned arms glistening with sweat.
I felt the sun burn my knees through ripped jeans. My arm muscles and fingers burned also from fierce paddling, as we touched Point Doughty’s shoreline. But the satisfaction of keeping
pace with the hotshots made it worthwhile. I worried about the two women novices, who were barely staying afloat amidst whitecaps half a mile away. Jason pointed a thumbs up in their direction; then showed the rest of us where to beach our kayaks.
A flight of wooden steps led us to a forest where we searched for a spot to set up lunch. We wandered among Sitka spruce, western red cedar, and hemlock trees until we reached a long rocky slope.
A Scenic Lunch Break
Climbing down a precarious mass of boulders to a grassy area, we collapsed for lunch. In the distance, Mount Baker towered over us and the surrounding wilderness with a protective, godlike presence.
Jason was on the phone again with the whale watch boats, asking for updates. I could see them approximately three miles away. Simultaneously, I heard two voices calling from the rocky ridge above.
The plucky pair had survived the surf and looked rather pleased to have found us. The young man with the Swedish flag tattoo bounded up the boulders to help them down.
Wisecracking and guffawing resonated across the grassy knoll, as the rest of the Swedes shared apples, energy bars and sports trivia with Jason. An old boys club, I thought, can exist in the middle of nowhere.
Dan and I were tossing a tennis ball back and forth, when he pointed to a whale watch boat drifting towards Point Doughty a mile away. I wondered what Jason knew that he wasn’t telling us.
Members of our group stopped whatever they were doing to wave to tourists on the boat decks. We walked closer to the water’s edge; Nils and Sten talked in excited tones, while others horsed around with a miniature football. I followed Jason at close range, but he didn’t drop any clues.
An Unexpected Whale Sighting
We were 20 feet from the shoreline when three killer whales emerged from the breakers in front of us. I jumped for joy, amidst cries of wonder and amazement. No one moved any closer. I heard a lot of screechy sounds, almost like the creatures were laughing at us.
The orcas teasingly skimmed the water’s surface, then disappeared. To see the agility, grace and playfulness of killer whales at close range was a rare gift. Jason’s wide-eyed expression quickly turned into a bark of laughter, as he slapped his new buddies on the back and shook hands with the rest of us.
My competitive feelings melted away as group shots were shared, videos of the orcas were exchanged, and Jason slung his arm around me for a picture. I didn’t know if he remembered my question about killer whales in these waters; but, as the surf softened, I felt we were on the same team, waving the same flag.
If You Go:
Enjoy more than 30 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails at Moran State Park. Follow the 7-mile trail by foot or car to the top of Mount Constitution (2,409 ft.) where visitors have magnificent 360-degree views of the San Juan Islands, snow-capped Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, and Vancouver. https://moranstatepark.com
Madrona Bar & Grill This landmark in downtown Eastsound offers creatively- prepared seafood, salads, flat-iron steak, glazed pork shanks and pasta. Deck seating is available with breathtaking water views. https://madronabarandgrill.com
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Author’s Bio: Dorothy Maillet is a writer and adventurer from Irvington, NY. Her travels have taken her across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. She has been a freelance feature writer for Gannett Newspapers, and her stories have appeared in the anthology, A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel, Pembrokeshire Life (Wales), BootsnAll Travel, Westchester Life, and Go World Travel Magazine.