If a breaching whale comes down on you, you will die.
The smiles ringing the group slip slightly. A woman who was already visibly apprehensive about the whole venture sucks in her breath and shoots her husband a tight-lipped sideways glance.
“I’m sorry, but that’s just a fact. I don’t want to tell you this is 100% safe when it isn’t.” Dave, a tan man on the short side (“Makes for a more stable center of gravity in the kayak!”) with a white soul patch and shaggy gray-streaked hair, glances around the group to let that sink in a moment before concluding with an abrupt about-face—“But don’t worry too much, that’s pretty unlikely. Just listen to my instructions and you should be fine. Now let’s go see some whales!” With that, he heads to his van spilling over with paddles and faded life jackets and starts doling out gear to the group.
Dave holds the kayak steady as I plop inside, and attaches the skirt before giving me a swift shove from the dock with his sandaled foot. Having signed onto this outing believing I was more than capable of handling a kayak (stroke right, stroke left, repeat—what else is there to know?), I’m quite surprised to discover the different beast that is sea kayaking. A rudder with foot pedals sends me zigging and zagging, causing the harbor seals sleeping on a nearby strip of sand to cock their heads and stare at me with big, blinking black eyes and twitching whiskers.
Once amassed, our group—eleven of us, including Dave—paddles toward the mouth of the harbor under a sky heavy with gray clouds. Waves slap and jostle the kayak and I alternate between pumps of the rudder pedals and angular paddle digging, fighting my brain’s inability to reconcile the laws of physics governing propulsion versus steering. Loud splashes dot the water as gulls and cormorants dive-bomb the surface and reemerge gulping down their catch. Atop a jetty of rocks buffeted by the surging sea, sea lions dance and bark madly, ushering us out to the open water.
Spouts appear on the horizon, fueling paddling swift and furious among the group. Whales! We’re going to see whales! Already my shoulders ache from poor paddling (“Hands closer together! Don’t bring your paddle so high!”—Dave’s instructions fall on ears rendered deaf through whale mania). Paddling, paddling, out further into the open water.
A half-mile out we hold steady, our kayaks bobbing in rhythm with the swells rippling toward shore, our eyes fixed intently on the undulating surface.
FFFSSSSSSSST! A powerful spray breaks the surface not more than 100 yards away. Beneath the settling mist, a massive body the color of the steely dark sea cuts the water in a delicate curve. A sound like a trumpet blast vibrates through the water as a nubby-skinned companion skims the surface and dives down with a flourish of flukes.
Setting our rudders left, we paddle toward the pod of Humpbacks. Waiting, we watch the water. Off to the right, another pod breaks the surface with a multitude of spouts and spray. Our kayaks bobble in the wakes of tour vessels chugging past, their decks lined with bodies pressed against rails. Further out, we see a frenzy of sea lions churning and slapping the water. Dave tells us they’re herding fish—an action that brings the whales in droves, eager to gobble the conveniently corralled meal.
Soon we don’t have to chase the whales. Pods are popping up with dizzying frequency, and we drum the sides of our kayaks periodically to alert of our presence to any pod zipping too close. A fluke bursts out of the water fifteen feet (!) from a couple in a double kayak, raining down the torrent of sea it carried with it. Less than 50 yards away, the barnacle-encrusted backs of four Humpbacks skim the water, diving right toward my bobbing kayak. “Back paddle!” Back paddle!” shouts Dave. Slashing, water splashing, rudder zig-zagging, I’m engulfed in a cold, flailing terror.
Out of the immediate path of surging pods, I rest my paddle and continue to bob. And bob. Rising, falling. Brine fills my nostrils and condenses inside my head. Like a buoy, my stomach flows and tumbles with each swell. Body of jelly. Rising, falling. Rising, falling. Rising, rising, rising… up comes my stomach over the side of the kayak. Again, and then again.
Whales continue to trumpet and to playfully flick their flukes. Although woozy, it’s hard to resist joining them one last time, skimming and splashing, before our pod of kayaks heads back to harbor.
Venture Quest Kayaking offers kayak rentals and a variety of kayak tours. The Summertime Humpback Whale tour also includes an afternoon paddling through the Elkhorn Slough estuary, home to an abundance of wildlife such as sea otters, sea lions, pelicans, and cormorants.