I felt like a five year old in her big sister’s clothes. The leggings were too long. They came up to my collarbone, and dragged on the ground. The coat, a combination of raingear and personal flotation device (lifejacket for those of us who don’t like techhie terms) hung way past my fingertips and felt lined with lead. But it was bright red, which I liked, and before the afternoon was over, I was really glad I had them. We climbed aboard the boat, and it cruised out of the harbour. I tried to pinpoint the landmarks I knew so well from the landward side of the city. As we cleared the last of the harbour and moved out into the open water, my attention was taken by the sky. It was a cloudy day promising rain, and the cover was layered and multifaceted. To the west, heavy black clouds blotted out most of coastal Washington, and dimmed the light of the day. To the north east the sky lightened and brilliant sun shone in a clear blue sky, its light winking and shattering on the sea. Between them, almost over us, in a thick grey spear, a lower cloud layer pointed straight at the Port Angeles coastline, slanting down to sea level at its apex, just on the coast.
We skimmed over the water for an endless time – a time of simply being – seeing the sky and the dull grey water, the land misty and distant, smelling salt and engine oil, hearing the roar of the engine and the occasional voices of the others on the boat, feeling the wind on my face – not a gentle breeze, not at 30 kph or so, this was a hard stream of air buffeting my cheeks and forehead. The salt spray tasted like cold tears when I licked my lips. It was as if I were back in my childhood, sitting in the boat on the way to the cottage. I had forgotten the peace of those trips, how serene it was to be on the water, away from everything but the senses.
We noticed a flotilla of zodiacs in the distance to the west of us, travelling at speed, and our captain, Chris, slowed down to let them pass in front of us, then swung round so our course followed theirs. Al and I speculated about what they were – they were far enough that we couldn’t see any markings, just stick figures in them – black and white and grey at that distance. Then we noticed the helicopters circling an anchored, unmarked ship – the zodiacs were headed for them. We’d stumbled upon some kind of military boarding exercise, and watched in fascination as the zodiacs circled and the helis dropped down close to the deck of the ship. The heli’s underside dropped strands with swarming, sliding figures and within seconds, the men were down and moving around on the ship, the heli lifting away and the second chopper moved in to drop its load.
We kept moving until they were dots in the far distance and according to the map, we were just a little past Oak Bay – our naturalist pointed out San Juan Island ahead of us. We slowed down, then stopped and the engines cut out. We drifted, waiting, and I counted four other whale watching boats in the area. I could see nothing – no dorsal fins cut the surface, no massive breaching or sprays. But I didn’t care. Just being out here and enjoying the day was enough – whales would be icing on the cake. Then the woman next to me nudged her partner and said she’d seen an Orca swim under the boat. The naturalist confirmed it, and sure enough, a few yards out, a dorsal fin and part of a black and white back broke the surface. After that, we saw a number of them – two or three popped out to take a look around and a few breached – leaped out of the water and smashed back down, sending spray everywhere.
As the weather caught up with us, we turned and headed back the way we came. The wind came first, adding to that caused by our speed, and colder than it had been since we left the harbour. The sea roughened up and we bounced hard over the swells, up and down, to and fro, our bodies swaying and lifting as the boat traveled over the water. I was glad when the naturalist handed out the wool caps. Even with that, and the heavy rain gear, with my own layers underneath, the cold seeped through and my fingers were red and stiff. The rain felt like hail on my face as we traveled west and south, past the entrance to the harbour, and kept on toward, on land, Metchosin and Sooke. After another endless colder time we slowed again. Looking for humpbacks this time. I was sure I wouldn’t catch sight of them when they broke the surface, they are a dull brown, almost the same colour as the water, and their dorsal fins are small and close to their backs. And it seemed so, since all the others were catching glimpses and seeing the fins, but I still didn’t care – I’d seen the Orcas, how much more joy could you fit into one afternoon? Yet, I did see two or three, and caught the tail of one as it dove deep – the flutes flipping up and then slipping into the water as it dove deep.
There was one more gift – one the crew didn’t expect. On the last leg toward Race Rocks, we could hear seagulls screaming in the distance, and a boil of them on the surface of the water. It was a herring run, and thousands of seabirds had gathered to feast on them. So Chris slowly and carefully piloted the boat into the mass of birds – birds overhead, on the water, lifting off and settling down. Never staying still for a moment – it was a literal boil of birds. At the epicentre, in a tiny circle no more than three or four birds across, we could see the silver fish flipping and darting below the surface – all this for two feet of fish? I wondered how deep the school went, or if these were the final survivors after hours of feeding frenzy. Still, we pulled away and within minutes we were literally covered by gulls. They flew only three or four feet above our heads, and were so thick we couldn’t see the sky for them.
Race Rocks was another joy – California sea lions and Arctic? Sea Lions on their migrations – this is one of two areas in the world where the migration routes overlap. They lolled on the islands, huge fur covered mound of blubber looking awkward and clumsy and regal. But swimming, they were dancers, darting, gliding twisting or just cutting through the fast currents as if they owned the sea.
After that it was back to the harbour, and a cup of hot chocolate waiting for us. Tired, wind burned and full of serene joy at the glory of the day.