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Stand Up Paddleboarding with Killer Whales!

 On one of my Stand Up Paddleboard tours with Silva Bay Kayak Adventures, I was paddling with a friend who had never been on a stand up paddle board before.  She got the hang of it right away, and the conditions were good, so we paddle out to see the harbour seals on the outer islands.  


We were paddling along the outer shore of Gaviola and Acorn Islands and saw a group of transient orca whales in the distance. This was exciting, even though we were a long way away! So we continued paddling in the direction the group of 7 or 8 whales were headed, but at this point they were way off on the horizon. With a fleet of whale watching boats following behind them, it was obvious which way they were going. As we paddled, we discussed the difference between resident orcas and transient orcas, and my friend shared her recent whale sighting in early July at the north end of Gabriola. As a naturalist guide, and uber whale geek, I started spouting off facts because I was excited. For me, even seeing whales head off on the horizon, gets me stoked. I love any sighting and am thankful for the oportunity to be in the right place at the right time! It’s so fun to be in the same water as large marine mammals, and interacting with them makes you feel alive and connected to the web of life!  As a kayak guide for over 10 years, I have had a lot of whale sightings, it’s the perks of working in this industry! I love studying whale’s behavioural ecology, thier interactions and social structure is facinating. Orca whales can be found in all corners of the worlds oceans. This is a great poster from noaa. 

I knew that this group of whales were transient orcas because they were hunting seals. Resident orcas, primarily found in large family pods around Juan de Fuca Straight and Johonstone Straight, feed on Spring Salmon, and do not frequent our area of Georga Straight off of Gabriola. So it was an easy assumption that we were looking at a group of Transients, the killer whales. 

As we paddled the shore of acorn island, we observed in the distance that they were circling a rock off of Tugboat Island where a group of seals were. This photo is an arial shot of the Flat Top Islands, off of Silva Bay. The right side of this picture is a reef with a white navigation light, this is where the whales were circling the seals. 

The whales were tail slapping, circling up the seals, breatching; displaying great hunting behaviour! They circled the reef, diving through the ball of seals, each 30 foot adult whale took turns eating. These efficient killers we showing off thier skill and strength. These kind of sightings are amazing, and awe inspiring no matter if you’re on the deck of a whale whatching boat, or bare foot on a paddleboard! Then just as fast as it started, the whales were moving on.

We were still a long ways away, enjoying the experience. Quickly analizing the situation I decided that with all the whale watching tour boats lined up along Saturnina Island that if the whales were to move locations they might head towards us. I felt the whales were boxed in by the loud motor boats, and by the shorlines of Tugboat and Sear Islands. This was no good because there was a seal haul out rock that is part of the Brant reefs on our left,  and seals swimming in the water along the shore of Acorn Island to our right. This exact location that we happily stood observing the orcas feed in the distance was turing out to be a risky spot to float.  I knew that we had to get out of there, and going to shore on Acorn Island didin’t seem safe with the harbour seals there. So we decided to paddle across Commodore Passage to Tugboat Island and get out of the orca’s way.

Half way across the channel on the paddle boards we watched the Orcas split into two groups, the juveniles and females, a group of about five individuals, headed out towards georga straight and the Brant reefs. At this point I got my iphone out of my pocket and snapped a few picture of the group of females and juveniles, as we stood floating in the middle of the channel. These pictures were aweful because the whales were way in the distance, travelling fast. I looked up from my phone and the two large males who had been spy hopping and circling the seal rock, were now starting to travel our way. We sprinted to the rocks! No joke, all the hairs on my body stood up! As I paddled as hard as I could, I told my friend to not worry about beaching the board, just making sure she stepped off onto the rocks safely. This all happened in seconds… we stepped off our board into ankle deep water, barefoot on the sea weed covered rocks. At that moment we were on stable ground, the whales were right beside us! Crusing with precision, the huge male was right  along the rock shelf, in as shallow water as he could manage without actually beaching. He was 10 feet from me the huge 27 foot long male surfaced checking me out slowly! It was amazing! And I was happy to be on shore not on my paddleboard! 

The second I landed I swung around, whipping out my phone to snap these four pictures:

The first photo I took was of this guy just cresting the surface of the water! The speed and strength to come up right next to me in the shallow water!

Seeing the whole of his body through the clear water and the height of his dorsal fin out of the water, I felt like he was staring me down, his eye locked on me! He was blatently checking me out! 

This is the second male, he surfaced just off shore from where the first whale was, he was probaly 20 feet away from me in deeper water. 

Then they both dove down, and rose up further offshore, heading northwest down Commodore Passage, and out to Georgia Straight. The one on the right is the bigger male, who had just been right beside me! It’s even impressive how big they are from a distnace, let alone 10 feet from me! 

The following day I was on my facebook, checking on The Orca Network‘s updates. Opening thier website I found a photo from one of the whale watching boats, of me and my friend on our paddleboards, and the two whales! Look in this picture it shows me balancing my paddle, while taking a photo of the other group of whales, and I didn’t realize the two big males were headded right for me!

And there was an accurate description provided by the person on the whale watching boat who had been observing this group of transients through out the day of August 15th. They can identify each indivdual by the marking of the white saddle patch behind thier dorsal fins. So this lady knew exactly which Transient individuals had been the curous ones checking us out! Here is what she posted on the sightings archive: 

‘T100 and T124 …. they headed straight for two paddle boarders, causing them to paddle like they’ve never paddled before for the safety of land. T100 and T124 ever so casually cruised right along the rocks where the two girls were collapsed on the rocks, their legs having clearly given out from fear… it was awesome.’ – Tasli Shaw

So since that momentus afternoon paddleboarding, I have been researching transient’s behavour and have found that they are highly territorial creatures. In the past when I have been in kayaks next to orcas, the orcas never showed interest in us, yet on the paddle board they specifically came to check us out. I feel that sitting in a kayak, I’m 2 feet from the surface of the water, so we don’t look at all like the silluette of another orca. But standing up on the paddleboard I am 5.5 feet off the water, similar height to a large male orca’s fin (1.6 m is the avarage male’s dorsal fin). So my new theory is that the transient orcas thought we could be two other orca whales in thier hunting territory. And when you think about what a paddle board with a person looks like, it is so similar to an orca surfacing. I hope to test this thoery another time while paddleboarding around the seal haul out rocks of Silva Bay. You never know when you’re going to be in the right place at the right time!

Happy Paddling,

Hilary Masson

Guide and Owner — at Silva Bay Kayak Adventures


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