Swimming with Orcas

Many years ago, my youngest brother and I ended up building a cedar strip wooden kayak. Something fairly small and easy to transport by one person. One day back in 1998, I decided to get out the canoe and head up to the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound (you'd have to see a map to see where they are at). Beautiful group of small islands that has some of the best kayaking and boating in the world. I loaded up the canoe on the Acura and drove up there -- and then caught a ferry over to the islands. After many hours, I was finally in the water paddling along. I cruised around a couple of islands and was having fun -- but I has this strange sensation that I was being watched. At times it was very eerie. The hair stood up on the back of my neck at times -- I couldn't figure out what was going on. I stopped a couple of times and spun the boat around -- but didn't see anything. So started paddling again because I figured my mind was playing games on me.

Then as I was putting the paddle back into the water to take a stroke, there was a big black fin that came out of the water. First thing I noticed was that it had a small notch in it -- and it was kind of lazily lying over. Then another fin appeared. Then another. I was in a pod of orcas!!!! At first I literally freaked out. I didn't breath. I thought I was dead -- they would just have to nudge me a little and I'd be in the water. But they didn't nudge me. They cruised up on the surface of the water just outside of my paddle range. 13 orcas in total. I think they had 4 baby orcas with them. They were just as curious about who and what I was -- as I was in them. I then finally remembered to breath after what seemed like forever.

Then it dawned on me to keep paddling. When I stopped it was strange and an unknown to them -- and I figured if I kept paddling, it was a common motion for them. So I kept paddling!!! After awhile, I stopped being scared and started listening really closely. You could hear them squawking to each other -- as if they were talking or communicating. It was COOL!!! =) Finally one came up really close to me and I couldn't paddle with it so close -- you could literally see the blackness within its eye -- it was maybe two feet from me. I didn't know if it was going to just lean over and pluck me out of my canoe -- my canoe was literally only inches above the waters surface. But it didn't. I even was able to take the paddle and stroked it down its back. It rolled away at first as you could tell it wasn't quite sure about me --but then it rolled closer. It wanted more!!! It was actually close enough that I could touch it with my hand. Yes -- scary but it was almost surreal in what was happening. The skin felt like a strange wet leather-like texture. Warm but cold. But I figured I had better not take any chances, so I put the paddle back into the water and veered away a little bit. They turned with me but gave me some distance. We kept doing this for about twenty plus more minutes. It was fun after awhile to see if I could get their pod all messed up!!

But then you could see off in the distance this big tourist boat. It was coming at me at high speed from a long distance off. As it got closer, the orcas' dived and disappeared. I was kind of miffed they were gone -- but also sort of glad also. But the big tourist boat wasn't slowing down!! They saw me as they were waving from the bow. At the last minute, they turned hard to port -- and created this big giant wave that started coming at me!! The wave was about three feet high and I'm just inches above the water line. Yup -- you guessed it! The canoe was swamped and I got flipped out into the water. At first I had this vision in my head from the 1975 movie "JAWS" by Steven Spielberg of the opening scene where the girl is swimming and the great white shark comes up from beneath and chomps on her for dinner. I scramble back over to the canoe, somehow toss it into the air and clip right side up and climb back in. Then with my hands, I dogpaddle and am able to get to my paddle. (pretty good considering I had never done this maneuver before huh!)

The big tourist boat was now almost next to me. Two people threw life preservers into the water to try and save me. They are all screaming that the "killer whales" were going to attack me and kill me and I had to get out of the water!!

I then got mad!! I started yelling at them -- who do you think is the most dangerous person out here on the water today --- the orcas that live here or you who is invading their territory and chasing them all over the place!!! They were all stunned -- they were "saving me" and I didn't want to be "saved". I figured if the orcas were going to attack and eat me -- they would have done it immediately. They were probably just as curious as to what I was about as I was in regard to them. Nothing more and nothing less.

I paddled back to the ferry terminal by myself. Got back onto the ferry at the terminal with the canoe and rode back to my car and then drove home. No use challenging fate more than once a day...

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