Saturday, February 18, 2006

a whale of a tale

photo  no bull
from the cockpit of a sea kayak, the
dorsal fin of a bull orca looks like a sailboard.

the first time i saw orcas in the wild, off the west coast of san juan island, the lead male was about a half mile away. looking up from my paddling hypnosis, my eyeballs registered this data and dutifully passed it on to my brain. my brain, not adept at processing such things said, "sailboard."

and for a moment i actually went back to paddling.

then i performed a perfect cartoon double-take and stopped moving (i'm pretty sure i stopped breathing, as well).

as the kayak continued drifting forward, the orca pod (i counted 12 of them, but there may have been a million, or 5), tracked an intercept course with my little boat.

i considered panicking, but decided i didn't have time.

an unusually large bolus of adrenaline entered my cardiovascular system. my pupils dilated. water dripped off the end of my motionless paddle. i could feel it hit the water.

i looked toward shore, but it was a good 200 yards away--and the huge, crazed, roaring beasts were closing. i quickly went through the five stages of grief for my impending demise (angerdenialbargainingdepressionacceptance), and just as quickly became calm.

it is the same calm, i suspect, experienced by all prey moments before they pay for their unfortunate place on the food chain. can't fight, can't flee. may as well start planning for the next life.

map  map
my brain, rallying to its familiar semi-functional state, remembered reading, "...there has never been a documented attack by an orca on a human being." what does this mean, "documented"? that no one has survived to do the documenting? that they won't eat me unless i jump in the water and start making seal sounds?

suddenly this was important information.

illus  orca

meanwhile, i was about to become one with the pod.

in the brief time it took for the orcas to erase the distance betwen us, my kayak had turned perpendicular with their path. i had a spectacular view of a large whale zeroing in on the middle of the boat. he submerged about 20 yards away, and by my calculations he would resurface directly underneath me, capsizing the boat and turning me into the world's first water runner. i pulled back my paddle and peered into the depths, waiting for the inevitable.

dumb, silly human.

orcas, see, are intelligent creatures. they don't randomly run into objects drifting on the water. they swim under them, or around them, or jump right the fuck over them. but they don't run into them.

i felt more foolish than usual when the whale surfaced 20 yards past and well to the west of me. i turned to follow his path and realized that the pod was blowing past. not only did they not want to devour me, they weren't even slowing down to say, "hey."

i transitioned from alarmed to beruded. what's the hurry? where are you going?

i jammed my paddle in the water and stomped on the rudder pedal. turning directly into the current, i gave spirited chase to a pod of orcas. i don't know why i did this. it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

i paddled like i had never paddled before. i dug in and pulled, dug in and pulled. i liked being one with the orcas, and i wasn't going to give them up easily. guys, wait for me...!

photo  orca II
size counts
me + kayak: 275 lbs.
orca: 18,000 lbs.

i didn't really make any forward progress at all. did i mention i was going against the current?

the pod was pulling away faster than they had approached. going. going...


and i was alone. the silence on the water and in my head was deafening.

the whole event had taken maybe 7 or 8 minutes. the most exciting 7 or 8 minutes of my life.

next week is spring break. i think it's time my son and i did some kayaking together.