Close encounters with orcas

Kayaking Canada’s Johnstone Strait offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a rare ritual among its resident orcas

Kayaking Canada’s Johnstone Strait offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a rare ritual among its resident orcas

By Diane Selkirk

Note: A version of this article first appeared in Boundless

I hear their echoing huffs of breath before I see them. Gradually out of the sunset glow, dorsal fins appear: the males’ upright and as tall as a man, the females’ smaller with a gentle curve, and the orca calf’s fin so tiny, it reminds me of a cute toddler trying to keep up. As the sky shifts to pink, the orcas race across the strait. Each time one dives beneath the surface I hold my breath, exhaling gleefully when it surfaces still closer, breathing out a fine whispering mist that shimmers in the evening light.

Before setting off on a multi-day kayaking trip in the Johnstone Strait off northern Vancouver Island, my guides Joshua Ariano and Alicia Mildner, of tour operator At the Water’s Edge Adventures, ­give a full orientation to the region and our gear. The strait is a narrow, glacier-carved passage that offers perfect kayaking conditions thanks to its sheltered waters and is among the very best places in the world to see wild orcas. Still, even though I’m here in summer, and June through September is the strait’s peak season to see orcas, my guides explain that spotting whales isn’t guaranteed. But thanks to nutrient-rich currents circulating through this gentle landscape of islets and inlets, there would be seabirds, dolphins, seals and even bioluminescence, an algae that lends the area’s winding sea passages a neon-bright glow at night.

The whales, however, have their own ideas. On the first night out, I watch in stunned amazement as a pod of five or six whales swim toward our campsite. Just meters from the steep beach, they dive and swiftly begin emitting a muffled rumbling sound. The guides explain the orcas are rubbing their bellies over the strait’s rocky depths. As the night grows darker, this unusual ritual continues — the persistent rumbling alternating with the puff of surface exhalations. Quietly, as white moonlight replaces the sunset’s final pink hues, Ariano tells me more about the belly rubbing.

British Columbia sees four unique populations of orca migrating through its coastal passages: Northern and Southern Residents; Offshore orcas; and Bigg’s/Transients. While the orcas’ territories overlap, each ecotype is distinct: they vary in appearance, diet and behavior, and never cross-mate. Each population also has its own culture. Belly rubbing is unique to Northern Residents, Ariano explains: They’re the only whales known to rub their bodies over sloping shelves of smooth rocks.

Here, in the traditional territories of three indigenous nations — the ‘Namgis (NOM-gees), Mamalilikulla (Mamma-leel-eh-quala) and Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis (Kweek-soo-tain-nuk-an-kwa-a-meesh) — the rubbing behavior has been known for centuries. According to one ancient myth, a whale spotted swimming near shore was a human transformed into a whale — now trying to communicate with his family via the sound of his belly rubbing against the rocks.

Scientists don’t know why orcas rub their bellies, but they do know each family group has favorite beaches for practicing their unique custom. My guides say they are aware of several rubbing beaches in the area, but it’s unpredictable, so this is a special thing for us to see and hear.

As the night grows cool, I head to my tent. The orcas are still rubbing and I fall asleep to their hypnotic whooshes of breath. In the morning, we pack up our kayaks and paddle deeper into the islands, into passages that wind through the traditional territory of the Mamalilikulla and ‘Namgis people.

Credits: Shayd Johnson
Credits: Shayd Johnson

Coming around one bend, we again catch sight of the orca pod in the distance. We stop paddling and watch as they forage and play. Finally, they swim away. When all that’s left is the fine mist of breath drifting above the water, we paddle on. 

Canada’s best whale watching


The Johnstone Strait is the best spot to see orcas, but you can find more wild whale encounters further afield.

Credits: CoPilot Collective courtesy of Travel Manitoba
Credits: CoPilot Collective courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Where to see: Belugas

The best place to see belugas — those white whales with distinctively bulbous foreheads — is Canada’s remote subarctic tundra, where the rugged yet pristine terrain is freckled with shocks of pink fireweed. Churchill, Manitoba offers a distinctly Canadian safari, as more than 3,000 beluga whales come to summer in the town’s Churchill River and Seal River estuaries. Boat and kayak tours will give you the thrill of seeing and hearing beluga whales from a close, yet respectful distance as they congregate to birth, feed and raise their young. Though this experience alone is worth the trip, Churchill is also one of the best places in the world to see polar bears.

Best time to go: The second half of July and the month of August are peak times for beluga whales to gather here.

Credits: Dylan Fur
Credits: Dylan Fur

Where to see: Humpbacks

Newfoundland and Labrador is home to the world’s largest population of humpback whales. Enjoy the view from the rail of a boat as you crest the Atlantic, where a variety of seabirds, icebergs and the scenic Newfoundland coastline all wait to greet you. It’s not unusual to catch sight of whales close by the boat, where you might see them feed or even breach.

Best time to go: Whale-watching is at its best in Newfoundland and Labrador from mid-May to September, with the peak season falling in mid-July to mid-August.

Credits: Reuben Krabbe
Credits: Reuben Krabbe

Canada is calling. We can’t wait to welcome you, with glowing hearts. Visit ForGlowingHearts.com to learn more.