Three White Bellies

by Terry Chase
Eight brightly colored plastic sea kayaks bob in the gentle sea surf off the coast of Washington state among the San Juan Islands. I am one of a small group of sea kayak explorers lined up side by side facing out to sea, silently watching and waiting for orcas. This is day two of a three day adventure. The orca day is the most anticipated event of this short sea kayak excursion and the main reason why most all signed up for this trip in early July, midway through the April to October migration season of the mighty orca whales.

Orca whale watching is a daily anticipated event whether one is standing on shore or in boats in this water region of the Pacific Northwest. A day paddle planned around the coves and shorelines of San Juan Island at just the right time of mid-afternoon got us there to set up, watch and wait. Tim, the burly, sun-soaked trip leader, tells the group, “I’ve been out on these waters for 16 years, and those orcas never disappoint me. I just don’t know exactly when or where the whales will show up. We are in the best place if they do show up.” Anticipatory giggles and excited laughter among the rest of the group members, small talk kept to a minimum as we sit facing west and wait bobbing gently in the cold Pacific waters. All eight kayaks are backed up against a steep granite rock wall that meets the water, no sandy shore line here, our boats steadied by the tangle of seaweed and long strands of kelp on the water. Paddlers wait at a safe distance for viewing, maybe a quarter of a mile away from the highway of whales.

All of a sudden, the orcas can be seen three hundred yards ahead of us streaming across the open water on their way north, in pods, groups of three or five, sometimes a single whale, popping up out of the water, seemingly effortless and fast. The large graceful black and white whale bodies pushing up and down, blowing air and snorting sea water, moving swiftly along. Excitement builds for us all. “Look there they are,” shouts the young woman from Chicago in the red kayak, pointing to the open waters. Cameras start capturing everything possible. I raise the camera to my eye and follow the stream of life before me, never knowing when they might pop up or blow a geyser of water into the air.  I feel my excitement build too; my stomach does flip-flops, my breath quickens. Here I am, away from my wheelchair, sitting in a sea kayak with my paddle in reach, out on the edges of the Pacific Ocean watching this natural event of great sea creatures migrating north in tune with some ancient drive to survive.

I am lined up on the far end line of kayaks, open waters to my left. I keep watching the orcas way out in front of me while sitting and swaying in the bobbing plastic boat. I sit there mesmerized by the natural events of these mammals moving in a synchronized rhythm, guided by some inner knowing. I look to my left and notice a small group of whales have broken away from the usual route and are now coming directly toward the kayak line-up. As the group of three swim in the direction of our small group of plastic boats lined up side-by-side, I keep taking pictures. At the moment, there really isn’t anything else to do. Inside of me, there is a rush of energy, an indescribable feeling of, “Oh shit, now what?”

I quickly realize I am the only one of the group seeing the whales coming. All the others are still facing west to the open waters. I yell at the group, “Look to your left, our left, orcas are coming at us!” The three big black and white bodies, fins above water, power directly toward our group of kayaks. I keep snapping pictures, not wanting to miss a single shot. The whoosh of their weight and energy of movement heave my boat up and down in one big wave action. At that moment, I do not even think of the danger should those big bodies hit my boat or their tails slap at the wrong time; my focus is on snapping pictures through my camera, not the fear of the potential danger. I can feel the surge of water and rush of wind as the whale bodies all come at me at once. I follow them through my camera lens and then all three turn over quickly and swiftly move under my boat. Three orca whales, possibly a papa, mama and baby, all turn belly up before they pass underneath.  Their white tuxedo bellies flash in unison and keep moving to exit out from under the last kayaks to my right. One big wave action heaves all boats up and down . . . then they are gone, out to sea to be absorbed into the pod and back into the busy orca highway. No boat is overturned, no one person hurt. It is all over in a flash of a second and I am left wondering, “Why did they do this?” What made them break off from the main line of traffic and divert to the edges where these kayakers were all lined up in a supposedly protected location for viewing?

It is the next day looking through the photos I had taken during the event, seeing the pictures of the three black fins and large black bodies coming at me and the turned up bellies going under me, I realize the power of the moment. Those whales could have wiped us out with one flick of a tail or rise up for a breath of air….tossing us and our boats like bowling pins. The potential for serious injury when whales and plastic kayaks might have collided is on my mind for days and weeks to come. Even now, many years later I realize how I could have been hurt badly.

Instead of injury or worse, those three orca whales gave me the most memorable experience and pictures to prove it. I was vulnerable to harm with no chance of escape. It was a close call of giant proportion. I experienced a sense of being touched by the whales, though they never hit me or the kayaks as they passed underneath at tremendous speed and swiftness. There was a momentary mutual regard between us, possibly that of beings on a journey, on some ancient route. I felt blessed in that moment, I saw the whales coming, watched them dive below feeling their power and grace under me and so, so grateful for their agility and strength as the kayaks bobbed in the wake of their departure.
Terry Chase, MA, ND, RN has been in the health and wellness field for 30+ years, currently Assistant Professor, Nursing-Mental Health, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA. She is a highly motivated individual, living fully with spinal cord injury for 28 years; loves all things outdoors: sea kayaking, cross-country skiing, handcycling and whenever possible, riding horses. www.DrTerryChase.com.

© 2018, Terry Chase