One of my favorite activities aboard AVATAR is kayaking in calm conditions with my camera, sneaking up on wildlife. It’s a bit of a process. In the South Pacific’s warm waters, I just went on my way wearing a swimsuit, knowing I could swim to shore, but here in the frigid northern waters, running somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a kayaker’s life vest is a must. It doesn’t take long submerged in water that cold before arms and legs stop working efficiently. Knock on wood, I’ve never capsized in my kayak – not counting the occasional misstep when climbing in or out a bit too casually from AVATAR’s swim step. Here I take the balancing act seriously.
The fact that I am carting around a multi-thousand-dollar camera system also invites caution. I stash the camera in a sealed dry bag and don’t bring it aboard until I’m settled securely myself. And I never untie the painter from AVATAR’s cleat until my paddle is clutched safely in hand as well. But once organized, as long as the water is calm, no problem. Wind and waves screw up the photography anyhow making it not worth the bother. Wind blows the kayak past my subject before I can frame a shot, and waves slosh the little boat up and down making focusing a challenge, plus it’s hard work paddling upwind back to home base!
My kayak is an inflatable model, soft and squishy, comfortable as a pair of old slippers, and not particularly tippy. I’ve scraped bottom on coral and rock and it seems impervious to punctures. They don’t make the model I have anymore. I wore out my first one and found an identical replacement on Craig’s List, but I don’t know what I’ll do when this one bites the dust. It’s already past its prime. Every model I’ve tried for a backup has not lived up to the comfort level and ease of handling of my little orange and black transport.
With all the windy weather, we spent a fair amount of time hiding out in protected coves where you would never have guessed it was howling in the Johnstone Strait. My favorite spot was a little channel in the Octopus Islands, only navigable at high tide. At low tide it was a dry rock gully. I cruised through three days in a row, twice in my kayak and once in the small dinghy with Mike along for company. Each time I encountered the same raccoon, identifiable by a white scar on her nose, foraging at water’s edge for seaweed and shellfish. She seemed habituated to human sightseers and was quite tolerant of being followed and photographed. On the last day we heard a lot of chatter in the forest and eventually a pair of kits made an appearance as well. The youngsters were much more wide-eyed at the sight of a foreign object floating near their beach.
Another favorite spot was Boat Bay where I was able to get close to an oystercatcher late in the day during the aptly named ‘Golden Hour’. This time of year here in the northern latitudes the light is prettiest beginning around 8 p.m. until sunset as late as 10. The majority of mornings were grey and foggy, especially as we traveled north to the Broughtons, eliminating any opportunity for early morning sunrise shoots. As a result we mostly relaxed and slept in. I developed a pattern of waking to the light, climbing up the stairs from our master cabin to the great room to check the weather conditions in hopes of a clear sky, and then going back to bed for another hour or two of sleep.
This habit gave provided an extremely lucky break one morning when we were anchored in Laura Bay. Kayaking the night before had been a bit of a disappointment – the shoreline unvaried with a ledge of rock exposed by low tide and topped by drooping evergreen boughs but without a living creature in sight for subject matter except one shy duck. But next morning as I took my usual quick peek out the windows, I saw a froth of white water stretching across the mouth of the bay where it opened into the channel.
I grabbed the binoculars, thinking that the current was racing much more strongly than expected. Instead it turned out to be a ‘stampede’ of perhaps a hundred or more Pacific white-sided dolphins racing headlong directly into our anchorage, churning up a tsunami-like wave accompanied by the roaring noise of turbulent water. The dolphins headed straight towards AVATAR where we were anchored and sped past, made a wide U-turn when the bay turned shallow and then rushed out again, still at full speed, until they disappeared down the channel.
I’ve always wanted to photograph a fish jumping, but up until now it has been a statistical improbability – not knowing when or where a fish might jump makes it pretty much impossible to be prepared with a camera in time to frame and focus the shot. But here the salmon are arriving early and in droves and they are jumping like crazy, presumably in training for their spawning runs up the local creeks and rivers. Helpfully, a salmon will jump two or three times in a row, offering the chance to spot him on jump one and be focused and ready to take the shot on the next. I’m hoping next trip to be able to photograph the grizzlies upstream as they gorge on the salmon runs come late August, early September.
For the first time ever, in ten years of cruising, I have my really big wildlife lens with me – a 600mm monstrosity too heavy to hand hold. It weighs more than 11 pounds and measures 17.5″ long x 6.5″ wide. Too big to carry on international flights to the South Pacific, it wasn’t until AVATAR arrived this past fall in San Diego that we were able to drive from Tucson in our car and bring the lens aboard. As it turns out, AVATAR’s uncluttered foredeck makes a great tripod platform for photographing sea life when the sea is smooth, or birds on a quiet morning. I’m still hoping for bears, wolves, cougars or deer – all abundant in this part of the world.
In Blackfish Sound, blackfish being the historical name originally applied to Orcas (killer whales), we spent a late afternoon pursuing humpbacks. While I scout and shoot from the foredeck, Mike patiently drives the boat following my hand signals through the windshield – fast, slow, left, right, stop. He even figured out my 3 gesture signing that meant ‘boat – really big – behind you!’ which turned out to be a cruise ship, already showing up on our electronics.
From a distance usually the first sign of a whale is the spout, or blow as we’ve learned to call it, in the distance. But in Blackfish Sound they were so close that often it was the loud “whoosh” of their expelled breath that alerted us to their presence. That sound never fails to give me a thrill – there is something very personal about hearing a whale breathe. Sometimes we hear the dolphins breathing as well when they are quietly feeding – a quick much softer “poof” of sound.
The following morning was our final day cruising as Mike set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. Our passage was optimally timed to navigate 80 nautical miles down the Johnstone Strait through Race Rapids and the dreaded Seymour Narrows to our reserved marina berth in Campbell River. I complained bitterly when he woke up early and decided to get underway an hour ahead of schedule – but it turned into a hugely successful departure as we glided through reflective glassy water, surrounded by foraging Orcas and not a whale-watching tourist boat to avoid at that early hour! The killer whales (they are actually oversized members of the dolphin family) were beside us, in front of us, behind us, and to the left and right. We lingered for that entire extra hour while I photographed them with my 600 from the foredeck wearing sweats and wet socks and shivering in the early morning chill.
The gallery below contains the blog photos and some additions, playable as a slideshow.