Pelagic terrors in Victoria’s warm embrace

I love being next to the ocean.

I love being on the ocean.

But I have a mortal fear of being in the ocean.

It’s dark and brooding. There are monsters, myths, and the shadows of unknown terrors. Of all those who go into it, slightly fewer come out of it. And I confidently swim only slightly further than a small, spherical nugget of lead can. And even that’s assuming conditions are flat calm.

Beneath the bustle of the water taxis, yatchs, sea planes, and ferries to and from the USA, the waters of the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia are clear. Swarms of juvenile fish shimmer around the legs of pontoons where starfish of various shapes and shades of purple, red, green, and brown clamber rudely over clusters of mussels, barnacles, and sea anemones of differing sizes and colours.

I have been lucky in my relationship with Victoria. She has welcomed me with warmth and Autumn sunshine into her inner harbour each September for the last few years, visiting for an annual week of business meetings at a harbour front software company. The Pacific North West is rich in vistas and wildlife and Victoria, at the southern tip not just of Vancouver Island, but also of British Columbia and Canada itself, is a perfect doorway into it. 

Ahead of each visit I have routinely promised myself that, this time, I will explore the waters close up. By kayak. And like a scaredy squirrel, I have bottled out of it each time, failing absolutely to pluck up the courage to overcome the irrational fear of ending up wetter than planned. Until the last visit.

This time, instead of just the usual pre-trip promise to myself, I had hatched a cunning plan. I had not only talked a colleague into joining me for a 3 hour guided paddle out of the harbour and up the coast, but had gone ahead and pre-booked and paid for it from afar, having first checked all the reviews of previous clients for any evidence of even mild jeopardy. After a 19 hour trip and blessed with an 8 hour timezone lag, we wandered rather early out along the David Foster Harbour Pathway, through the park at Laurel Point, and down onto the floating boardwalk of Fisherman’s Wharf to where Kelp Reef Adventures ply their trade in “active kayak tours“. “Adventure” and “active”. Two words that together in the context of the words “sea”, “on”, and “in” don’t really gel well for me.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a floating village, although not a very big one. It is, however, fascinating. There are 3 streets of houses of differing colours and quirks, a water taxi rank, some food shacks, a fish monger, public toilets, a yacht marina, and, at the far end, a rustic collection of apparently sea worthy fishing boats and other small, aging commercial craft of unclear purposes but clearly hoarding a whole load of stories to tell. Belted kingfishers sit squatly on wharf pillars, whilst great blue herons stand motionless in the shallows over by the shoreline, frozen and staring into the last minutes of the rising tide. In the blue and orange glare of a September sunrise, with the waters a glassy calm, it’s a sublime place to wait for the day to catch up before charging headlong into a new, late season day of outdoor adventure. 

Breaking the tranquility, my colleague’s phone rang and off he scurried to deal with some unplanned and not discussed family matter. And that meant it was just me. But all would be fine. I would not be alone, as I was booked on a guided tour. And that sounded pretty plural to me. There would surely be at least 10 keen novices despite the season drawing to a close that week. The morning tours are, as clearly stated on the web site, “the best time to venture out of the harbour for a tour of Victoria’s coastline and nearby islands because the wind is typically at its lightest”. September is also still the pupping season for harbour seals, so I was probably lucky to have secured a place at such short notice, on such a beautiful morning, so late in the season.

As it turned out, I was the first to arrive at the office at the end of the boardwalk. You see, jet lag can have its plus side. Having thoroughly read, absorbed, accepted, and signed a waiver, a disclaimer, a limit of liability, or whatever it was – which, for those of us with certain pelagic immersion anxieties, could have been more reassuringly called a Guarantee of Total Safety, Enjoyment, and Dryness – I was kitted out with all the kayaking equipment I would need. Pondering the lack of anyone else in the queue, the answer was  somewhere in my guide’s question as he shuffled the paperwork away and got straight to it: “As there’s just the 2 of us today, would you prefer to go out in solo kayaks, or double up?”. Had he not read of my limited, although not total lack of, experience? One double kayak, a safety briefing, and a brave face later, and we slid ourselves into the kayak on the “jetdock” – a small pontoon which allows kayaks to enter and exit the water without the need to get wet feet or, indeed, any version of unplanned, badly weight-distributed total immersion. And so off we dryly glided.

Victoria is a busy harbour. Even by the time we were setting off and getting into a gentle rhythm of paddle strokes, the ferry from Port Angeles in Washington State, the MV Coho, had already passed us on its first 90 minute international charge across the Salish Sea’s Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. The seaplanes buzzing back and forth between Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle had already done their early runs of the day, filling corporate meeting rooms with the first business travelers of the working week, and the quiet of the morning was constantly broken by the whining of propellers as the planes taxied out to their takeoff area in the Outer Harbour.

We were into a comfortable stride before we’d even paddled past the last of the wharves with their motley collection of boats. Rounding Shoal Point, where the Canadian Coast Guard has its local base, my guide turned the bow to face Esquimalt on the opposite shore across on the western side of the Outer Harbour. From amid the harbour ripples, a wave of nervous realisation ascended… We had to cross the seaplane takeoff and landing area. By kayak. If it’s possible to dash in a kayak, that’s what was needed – a quick sprint across an active and busy runway in a vessel that, compared to a seaplane, covers the distance painfully slowly and without the aid of rapidly spinning, kayak-chomping propeller blades. We brought the kayak to a halt and my paddling partner explained that “we need to have a good look all around the sky and check back to see what’s coming out of the Inner Harbour”. As we both scanned all around, up, down, and back down the takeoff zone, we cross-checked with each other and then it was a case of “Let’s go. Paddle briskly and in a straight line.” He probably does this 3 or 4 times a day, but I don’t. But calmly and swiftly we crossed, and I admit to being somewhat relieved once we’d successfully come out of the seaplane landing zone close to a rocky hump that was rather grandly titled Berens Island. There’s nothing like a dash in a low, narrow boat across an active airport runway to feel the vague exhilaration of having survived a game of “chicken”. I would do it again only 3 or so hours later.

As we turned to follow the rocky shoreline southwest past some islets and out towards the harbour boundary, an eyeful of scenery wrapped around me. Alongside the deep water cruise ship terminal of Ogden Point was the long breakwater pier. Beyond that the pale blue, smooth, shimmering waters of the Salish Sea and, across the Straits on the far coast, the snow capped peaks and ridges of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. Huge cargo ships at varying distances across the Straits from us were making their lumbering ways out towards the open Pacific headed for such destinations as Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong. Rafts of small birds burst up from the surface to become clouds of whirring murrelets and auklets, whilst little flotillas of surf scoters, possibly freshly arrived from more northerly summer breeding grounds, simply drifted with little intent.

As well as his duel role of chief instructor and guardian angel, my guide was well versed in the wildlife of the area. We talked through the various cetaceans and pinnipeds that are common to the area; from the orca and humpbacks that cruise the Straits, to the California and Steller’s sea lions that clutter the islands a little further out around Race Rocks, noisily shouting at anything or anyone that has the audacity to pass too close. He told me a “friend of mine” story about a kayaker close to this spot being passed by a small group of orca to whom he shouted enthusiastically, only to have his bluff subsequently called when they turned back and headed straight for him. The bull in the group had accelerated and then broken away to the side at the last minute, showering the rather wide eyed kayaker with sea water in what he later claimed to be evidence of practical jokery in another sentient species. There are resident orca in these waters that feed mainly on salmon, and there are transient groups regularly cruising through that hunt seals and sea lions. Although there are no records of any wild orca ever intentionally hurting people, and certainly nothing more than a single bite recorded by a surfer in 1972, probably made in error, the transients do seem to be regarded as beasts around which to be a little more alert when sitting only centimetres above the interface between their world and ours. I suspect the encounter may have had a vaguely laxative effect.

Confidence growing, I became absorbed in conversation on the different bird species that were liberally scattered across all points of the compass – from cormorants commuting along the shoreline to red billed black oystercatchers waiting patiently in pairs on the islets for the tide to ebb. 

Skirting close to some of the islets, the waters became thick and viscous with sea lettuce and the fronds of bull kelp, these often breaking the surface with an alarming writhing, like sea serpents on the vague swell. An icon of the Pacific North West and a favourite habitat of the sea otters which have started to recolonise the coasts of the Salish Sea after decades of absence due to over hunting, the brown kelp fronds spread out across the surface from tough, rubbery stem-like stipes. They form under water forests and each frond can grow at an incredible rate of up to 30-60cm per day. Just like any forest, they form rich and complex ecological communities below the waves. And if bull kelp is good enough for so many other species, it must surely be worth a try? We fished a stem from the surface that had recently been cast adrift, hauled it across the deck of the kayak, and each took a bite, somewhat sceptically in my case. Unsurprisingly, it tasted salty but otherwise was mild in flavour, crunchy, and reminiscent of a rather flavourless radish.

Paddling on, we came up on a cluster of small, rocky, treeless islands separated by a channel and here we planned to put down an anchor to hold us in position whilst we had a bit of lunch. A commotion of splashing and snorting in the channel ahead, however, could not fail to capture our attention. About 30 metres off our bow and squaring off against each other, blissfully unaware of our approach, two male harbour seals were in the throes of dispute. It seemed the primary tactic was to splash intimidatingly and then roll away to the side and briefly below the surface. One of them turned a pair of large, wet, forlorn eyes towards us and quickly decided that this could be settled another day and they simultaneously slid down below, disputes on hold, and were gone. My guide had not seen such a fight this close before. I guess I was not in possession of exclusive rights to all of the day’s new experiences.

Under the watchful and possibly bemused gaze of a couple more harbour seals that were hauled out on the closest islet, no doubt the audience for the bout we’d unintentionally called time on, we set the anchor, secured our paddles across the deck, and tucked in to lunches that had been issued to us back at the wharf. A tidal pull dragged us to the extent of the anchor line, and an occasional slight lurch suggested the anchor was lifting and bumping in the swell that was caused by the current squeezing water into the channel. There is nothing a harbour seal likes more than apes in a kayak, parked up and stuffing their faces with cold meat sandwiches at the end of a long, yellow anchor line stretching out from the bow. Such lines are, of course, toys specifically provided for idle seals for nibbling, chewing, rolling on, and rubbing against. We soon welcomed our first visitor, although where from I couldn’t say. Dewy eyed and probably fighting against his or her better judgement, the seal came within touching distance between frolics around the anchor line, ducking down and under the kayak each time I stretched out a friendly hand, only to reappear and tug at the anchor line before again coming alongside for a closer look.

Lunch finished and, reluctantly, the bow inevitably was turned through 180 degrees and the route retraced in reverse. We had paddled along the coast for about an hour and a half. It felt wild and remote but, to be honest, I suspect we had not really gone far from the harbour entrance. If I’d been able to stand up, I could probably have seen the tops of executive suburban homes just beyond the rocky shoreline. But in that 90 minutes, however far we had voyaged, we had seen a buzzing, whirring, snorting, and splashing of nature. It was all around and in full three dimensions. Despite the proximity to Victoria, even a bald eagle had come out to welcome me to the waters of the Salish Sea, perched atop the skeleton of a dead tree just above the strand line.

In the paddling and the looking and the seeing of this brief adventure I had managed to suspend my fears of the deep, the dark, the shadows, the monsters, myths, and other assorted oceanic terrors that had so often stopped me from walking onto Fisherman’s Wharf, signing the waiver, and grabbing a paddle. I had avoided being in the ocean and found another reason why it’s so good to be on the ocean.      

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