The majestic creatures known as orca whales, scientifically named Orcinus orca, have long been associated with fear and danger. Commonly referred to as killer whales, these names stem from a lack of understanding of the complex nature of these animals. While it is true that “transient” or mammal-eating orcas exhibit hunting behaviors, consuming marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, whale calves, and dolphins, there is much more to their story.
In reality, orcas have specific dietary preferences. Along the north coast of Vancouver Island, the most common encounters are with “resident” orcas, who are fish-eating. These whales have a selective palette and primarily feast on salmon, with over 92% of their diet consisting of Chinook salmon. They have no interest in anything without gills, including kayakers. Despite decades of kayakers, snorkelers, and scuba divers sharing the waters with orcas worldwide, there has never been a reported incident of orcas attacking humans in the wild.
Sea kayaking tours in the waters of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island have been safely coexisting with orcas for many years. Although encounters with transient orcas are also possible, the most common sightings are with the resident orcas. Engaging in this unique experience allows visitors to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
What It’s Like Paddling With Orcas
Paddling alongside these impressive creatures is both a random and thrilling encounter. The orcas themselves decide whether they will swim near or far from you. During kayak tours, if orcas appear to be heading towards the group, kayaks are grouped together to make them more visible to the orcas while minimizing disruption to their environment. Sometimes, these curious whales glide along the same shores as the kayakers, searching for fish near the kelp. Kayakers may even anchor themselves by holding onto the kelp, providing a front-row seat for the orcas’ journey. Witnessing orcas pass by, often within 10-50 feet (3-15 meters) of the kayaks, is an exhilarating experience that quickens the heart. Other times, the orcas may be seen in the distance, traveling 50-300 yards away, offering a remarkable wildlife encounter. Observing wild animals in their natural habitat on their own terms is always a rewarding experience.
Orca Rubbing Beaches: A Close Encounter from Land
For those seeking a closer view of orcas, the land offers another opportunity. “Rubbing beaches” are locations where orcas can be seen in relative proximity. At Little Kai creek camp, one such rubbing beach is located near a gravel bar just below the water’s surface at high tide. Orca pods are known to frequent this area, using the rocks to scratch their bellies. While scientists are still uncertain of the exact motivation behind this behavior, it is believed that it may simply feel good to the orcas. Lucky visitors may witness a pod utilizing this area, which is only a few yards away from the camp’s rocky outcropping.
Kayaking with Orcas in the Johnstone Strait
Although killer whales inhabit oceans worldwide, there are very few places where kayaking with orcas is possible. Some sightings occur in the Gulf of California during the winter, near Loreto. Occasional sightings have also been reported off the coasts of New Zealand, Norway, and Antarctica.
Undoubtedly, the best place in the world to kayak with orcas is the Johnstone Strait, situated at the northern end of Vancouver Island. Port McNeil, known as the kayaking capital of the area, is home to the largest number of resident orcas globally. Approximately 230 orcas migrate to Johnstone Strait each summer to indulge in their favorite meal, salmon. Circumnavigating the area, covering over 100 miles and encompassing numerous islands, these orcas offer an excellent chance to observe them while kayaking. Many outfitters provide summer trips in the region, with the optimal time for orca sightings ranging from July 10 to mid-September. After this period, the orcas disperse along the coast, continuing their pursuit of chinook salmon, their year-round food source.
Supporting Orcas In Their Natural Habitat
In recent decades, orcas have been held in captivity and displayed for entertainment purposes. At Sea Kayak Adventures, we strongly advocate for observing these magnificent creatures in the wild, respecting their natural habitat. The documentary film “Blackfish” shed light on the controversy surrounding captive orcas, specifically following the story of Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld. This influential film, nominated for a BAFTA award, played a crucial role in sparking a social movement against the captivity of orcas. These highly intelligent and social animals form lifelong family units, making the separation from their families and removal from their natural habitats both tragic and inhumane. Fortunately, there is a global movement pushing for an end to keeping orcas in captivity.
Ongoing Orca Research Near Vancouver Island
Numerous research efforts are currently underway to better understand orcas. The Orca Research Station Orca Lab, located on Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait, employs cameras and hydrophones (underwater microphones) to track the movements and behaviors of orcas. Another research station, Eagle Eye, on nearby West Cracroft Island, focuses on observing and studying orcas at the rubbing beaches in the Robson Bight ecological reserve.
Paddling in the waters of orcas provides a life-enriching experience filled with unique encounters. We invite you to join us on one of our British Columbia sea kayaking tours and witness the wonders of orcas in their natural environment.