We walked down the dock, life jackets in our hands, waiting for instructions, unsure of what we were supposed to do, but excited nonetheless. We could smell the salt of the ocean and feel the sun on our faces. It was a beautiful summer day on San Juan Island, Washington; the weather was the best we had all week. We had been waiting for this day for almost a year, and we could hardly believe it was finally here.
Once we got to our boats, our guide explained the procedures: the person in the back gets in first, then holds the kayak steady while the other person gets in. We packed our belongings into waterproof compartments, slowly entered the bright orange kayaks, and hoped we didn’t look as foolish as we felt.
When we had all boarded our respective kayaks, we chatted excitedly among ourselves and waited for our guide to give us instructions. Once we were given our crash course on kayaking and our oars, we were ready to leave. As we pushed off the dock and headed into the harbor, our excitement was uncontainable.
I whispered to my mom, “Will we really get to see them?”
She replied, “They can’t guarantee anything, honey, but they do this for a living. They’re gonna do the best they can to get us as close as they can.” She looked back at me earnestly, and I could see in her eyes that she wanted to see them as desperately as I did.
Getting out of the harbor and into the ocean was tricky. We were a large group of around ten kayaks, and we all had to stick together and watch out for bigger boats. Each channel crossing weeded out the experienced kayakers from the beginners. Those of us with more experience were often in kayaks together, making us a great deal faster and giving us ample time to splash around and enjoy the views while we waited for the novices to catch up.
Once we all finally got into open water and away from boat traffic, our guide explained procedures on the water. When we got where we were going, there would not be much time to explain technicalities. The most important procedure to remember was rafting. This meant that when she signaled us, we had to get together and hold on to one another’s kayaks side-by-side in a neat line. She explained that the rafting position was important for ensuring that we wouldn’t drift away when we stopped paddling.
We paddled around the island for a long time, spotting sea otters, marvelling at bald eagles, observing various fish underneath us, and enjoying the beautiful day, but we were not satisfied. We listened intently every time the guide’s radio buzzed, hoping to hear that we were close. Almost an hour in, with our arms starting to burn and our faith weaning, we stopped for a quick snack. We rafted up and got out some of the food we packed. Soon after we finished eating, we heard the words that we had been waiting for all along.
“Orcas were just spotted almost a quarter mile from us, and they’re headed our way. We’re going to kayak a little farther down and then raft up.”
I couldn’t believe it; the moment I was waiting for had finally arrived. I was about to be in the water alongside the most majestic creature in the ocean. I kayaked as quickly as I could in the direction the guide said they were in; I wanted to be the first one to see them. I was forgetting, of course, that before they even got near us we would have to raft up, which meant we would all see them at the exact same time.
We kayaked a little farther until we got to an area near the shore with long reeds under the water. The guide told us that this area would allow us to watch the orcas without getting in their way. I wasn’t happy with this. I wanted to go directly to them. I wanted to kayak right next to them. I wanted to be a part of their pod and feel the water they spit in the air when they breached. Rafting up and waiting was not what I wanted to do, but I did it, partially because I have a great respect for the animals and partially because my mom was in the kayak with me and would have negated any effort I made.
A few minutes passed, and we saw the boats on the horizon slowly moving toward us. Groups of boats in San Juan almost always signal that there are orcas nearby. One lady in the back of a kayak started yelling about how unfair it was and that she couldn’t see them. She huffed that she came to the island exclusively to see orcas and because of her position she was going to miss her opportunity. Our guide shifted her around until she was content, which inconvenienced everyone since we were currently rafted together, but her dissatisfaction distracted us for only a moment.
Then we heard it, the sound of their breaching: a sound which I can only describe as a combination of a roaring waterfall and an intense gasp magnified by both the force of the whale blowing out and our sheer excitement. Before you saw an orca, you heard it.
A fraction of a moment after the initial gasp, we saw them. They were probably a couple hundred yards away. This was not necessarily reach-out-and-touch-them distance, but they were close. We were sharing their ocean, sitting on top of the water they were swimming in, and being awed by the sight of them.
Simply seeing an orca breaching the surface is amazing, but these orcas weren’t just coming up for air. They were playing: spyhopping and tail-slapping. Every action was breathtaking, and I cried at the sight of them. Every time one came up, I would scream and point towards it. I wasn’t the only one.
“Did you see that? It was spyhopping!”
“Look over there! It’s a baby one!”
“Look at it slapping its tail, that is so cute!”
“Look, all three of them came up at once! It’s a whole family!”
“Look at the dorsal fin on that male! It’s huge!”
That was a question that got asked a lot. Someone would yell about an orca here or an orca there and someone else would ask where. Of course, by the time the spotter tried to explain where the action was happening, the orca was back underwater. Every ocra missed felt like a stab in the heart, but every orca spotted brought us to the verge of tears. Eventually, the orcas passed us. The last orca passed the horizon line, and we all took our first breath since we saw them.
The trip was only a little over halfway over at that point, so there was still a good hour and half of time left in the water. We all secretly hoped to spot another pod, although we new the chances were slim to none. We wanted desperately to feel the exhilaration run through our bodies again.
We finished our loop around the island without another orca sighting. We arrived back to the docks, exited our kayaks, and returned our vests. We went back to our cars, back to the mainland, back to our houses, and back to our lives. We left the orcas… but the orcas never left us.