Whale of a Day

Stories of (interesting, funny, bad, sad, happy, etc.) things that have happened while paddling. Post your links to your blogs as well.

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lee johnson
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Location: vancouver canada

Whale of a Day

Post by lee johnson » Mon May 17, 2010 2:23 pm

Last May 6th (2010), central Vancouver, Canada was agog with the appearance (never before seen, according to many) of a 40'-50' (12-15 metre) Grey Whale in False Creek where Granville Island is. Well, it turned out that I took my son Blake's Expedition out on English Bay that very day at his request: I was going to take my AF 1 but he said to take his EXP, instead, because of the small whitecaps and steady winds - and to check out my pushing the main inflation chambers tight into the bow and stern to straighten them out perfectly (there are a couple of Forum postings in 2008 by JCooley about how to do this). So, with his Expedition all tuned up and almost humming on the water, I paddled the three miles from my launch point on English Bay to False Creek (over which Vancouver's three main southern bridges extend), then almost to the end of False Creek itself - when I was stopped by the Canadian Coast Guard and the Vancouver Police Dept. in their boats because the Grey Whale was at the end of the creek or inlet. So, I stayed there until the beastie turned around and started its way back out to sea. It breached and blew a geyser-strength blast through its blow-hole about fifty yards from me - quite impressive. By the time the whale was leaving False Creek for the large volume of water on English Bay, there were about eight of us in kayaks, paddling along behind our aquatic mammalian cousin. Thanks to the fairly strong waves and winds blowing directly at us from the west, all the others turned around and headed back into False Creek. They were all in hard-shells, ranging from 17' solos to 22' tandems, but some of their kayaks, especially those with narrow beams and low sides, were becoming a bit tippy and wet in that weather. The wider and higher AE Expedition, though, moves as safely through waves and winds as it does on glassy flatwater - and I was having a fine time paddling after the whale.

Now comes the best part: I thought of where the whale might go - along the quiet southern coast of the bay where the run of herring could be - and proceeded accordingly. It turned out I was right: every now and then another geyser of water would blast up from the blow-hole and immediately become an impressive mist in the breeze. I was now alone; no one else was around, not even the Coast Guard, who were content to get the whale out of the narrow inlet. About four miles along as I neared a shelf of shallows extending into the sea, the whale surfaced big-time, blowing a great geyser up into the breezy air. This time, though, the whale was only about 50' from me! - about as far away from me as it was long. Imagine my excitement: my own private whale. Canadian federal law wants us to stay at least 100 metres away from these wild animals. In this case, though, I think it is the whale that should receive the citation: it was not my idea to get that close!

Thanks to Blake for having me take the most appropriate solo craft out to sea so that I would be prepared for this lifetime event (he mainly wanted me to be safe, of course). I enjoyed watching the local TV news that night, too: one of the major networks had a great shot of the whale in False Creek, with a guy in a Tilley hat in a bright yellow AE Expedition in the foreground. Most of the coverage was from two helicopters, taking overhead shots, though. After five hours of almost non-stop paddling, I must confess that my shoulders were a bit sore the next morning; but that did not stop Blake and me from taking his EXP and my new AirFusion out to a mountain lake a day later.

One moral of the story: a long hard-shell would also have worked well for this adventure, but how can one put a price tag on the EXP, so relatively inexpensive, yet so "there" for an extraordinary and priceless adventure in less than perfect conditions? Another moral: go kayaking as much as possible, and be in the right place at the right time for these unforeseen miracles.

lee johnson
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Joined: Tue Dec 02, 2008 2:51 pm
Location: vancouver canada

Post by lee johnson » Mon May 17, 2010 4:17 pm

Should read "May 5th" - sorry, but I confused the date with the birthday of one of my brothers, who is something of a whale himself!

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Post by Pearly » Mon May 17, 2010 5:12 pm

Fantastic adventure Lee! But where are the photo's??

Did you manage to record the news footage?

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Post by paddlesheep » Mon May 17, 2010 7:59 pm

Lee that's amazing. I'm so jealous. And an awesome plug for inflatables as well, another reason I like to have one in the trunk of the car. Hope to see you out on the water some day! Cheers.

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Post by diemonde » Tue May 18, 2010 12:04 am

What a great experience!

I really would like to see the video coverage as well :-)

I also really would like to see the faces of those harshell yakkers (most of whom come down at us for being in an inflatable) when they had to give up.

lee johnson
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Post by lee johnson » Tue May 18, 2010 4:24 pm

Postscript: I live only a couple of blocks from the sea here in Vancouver and often go out with the least provocation, at the slightest excuse. Throwing an AE inflatable kayak into the back of the car and driving that short distance, pumping up the kayak and hitting the water, usually takes less than half an hour. So, sometimes I am not properly prepared, by remembering to take my clever waterproof Optio camera and waterproof set of binos, for example. That is especially likely to happen if the weather is lively, as it was that midday of May 5th when I set out. Initially, I wanted to paddle against the lively weather out to the west - but there was enough aquatic mayhem to encourage me to seek the shelter of False Creek in the other direction. I had no idea that our visiting Grey Whale was already in False Creek, even though two helicopters kept circling the south part of downtown Vancouver. It wasn't until the Canadian Coast Guard stopped me that I knew what was happening at the far end of the inlet.

It is here that actor Alan Alda now comes to my rescue. He recently wrote a book about taking his family to Europe and snapping thousands of photos with his fancy new camera and accessories. When he got back to the U.S., he realized he had been to Europe without experiencing any of it. All he experienced was fiddling with his camera. He thinks we should experience things directly, if possible, even if that means not having a lot of photographs to look at. Well, the direct interaction of two living presences - the whale and me - is something I will not forget. Had I my camera with me, I probably would have missed the encounter as I fiddled with the equipment, trying to get it to work in those two or three seconds when the whale breached and gulped down fresh air before quickly diving again. What I really needed was Alan Alda in an AE Convertible, camera at the ready, while I paddled and experienced things directly. Nevertheless, I am sorry not to have photos of this event - just the write-up, which I hope conveys some of the flavour of the occasion.

With respect to my comments on the Expedition and hard-shells: I have paddled hard-shell kayaks and really like the bigger ones - in fact, would like to have, say, an 18' sea kayak with at least a 24" beam and fairly high sides. Aesthetically, the kayak I would most love to own would be a long wooden one; to me, they are the most beautiful watercraft around. Most of my hard-shell kayaking pals go out together, rarely by themselves, for the obvious reason that hard-shells are heavy and bulky and benefit from many hands and backs. I often go out alone, however, and on many different bodies of water, which requires transporting one's kayak and gear. I have found that AE's inflatable kayaks are perfect for a Mad Paddler who simply must get out on the water as often as possible. I find life to be so much more interesting from the water. There was a time when "inflatable kayak" was synonymous with "pool toy" - and there are still a couple of those on the market - but AE's designs are serious and useful watercraft - real kayaks. Thanks to my salt-water adventures, I have become especially fond of the Expedition, which is quite seaworthy, although I suspect the Convertible is every bit as impressive in that respect. All I am suggesting is that my Encounter with the Whale would not have happened had my only kayak been a big hard-shell: I simply would not have taken it out that day. By contrast, there is no excuse not to hit the water with an AE - it is so easy to do. Although I forgot my camera and binos that day, I did remember to take my "packlite" spray skirt, which was absolutely useful as I was tracking the whale in that lively weather.

Finally, in defense of the hard-shell paddlers who did not follow me when the whale left the inlet of False Creek for the large volume of water in English Bay: trying to track even a large whale would have been like trying to find a minuscule item in a vast arena. It is possible that, having been close to the whale in False Creek, they were satisfied and also perhaps daunted by the prospect of tracking it thereafter. Several of these kayaks should have been up to the task (except the ones that were being swamped with waves!). I knew my EXP, though, having taken it out in much more severe conditions than those of that day - and felt absolutely safe in its comfortable stability, thus enabling me to concentrate on some quick calculations as to where the whale might have gone rather than worry whether my kayak would flip or founder. Also, I am pleased that the whale was looking for snacks and munchies, not getting ready to expire. It seems to be the case that Vancouver's waterways are becoming "healthier" as toxic tailings and chemicals from decades past dissipate, allowing herring spawn and other goodies to bring dolphins and whales right into the urban harbour. Should this indeed be the case, we may see more of this kind of remarkable activity during whale migrations in years to come.

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Post by PJohanson » Tue May 18, 2010 10:12 pm

Lee, what a fascinating encounter! I'm so glad you were careful not to crowd the whale. I've been volunteering with Straitwatch, assisting biologists who are observing whether whale watchers are obeying the law and how the whales are affected by human approaches.
As you said:
Canadian federal law wants us to stay at least 100 metres away from these wild animals. In this case, though, I think it is the whale that should receive the citation: it was not my idea to get that close!
Yup, sometimes the whale does approach a boat. Not your fault!
The federal law just increased the distance we're supposed to stay away from whales to 200 metres. That's especially important for any boat with a motor -- the biologists told me the motor sounds hurt the whales' ears. The USA has a similar federal law.

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Post by kiltie_celt » Sun Jun 13, 2010 10:51 pm

Here I am, almost a month late posting a reply to this story, but I've only just gotten back onto the forum after a long hiatus. I hope to be more active in the future. Anyway, thanks for posting such and interesting story Lee! There's something about viewing wildlife from a kayak that is so much more visceral of an experience than almost any other. Maybe it's because sometimes we're able to get closer than we could on land? I can only imagine the thrill of seeing a whale up close like that - and even then I'm sure that even my vivid imagination is no match for the real experience.


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