Bottom of the Food Chain

by James Michael Dorsey

Sound skims over the water like a flat stone, distorting distance while betraying those who would move silently through the morning fog of the inside passage.

The blow of several Orcas filters through the mist, and I sense they are near.

It is summer in British Columbia, and transient whales are following schools of Salmon heading north to spawn. In my kayak, I am just one more errant log floating through their domain.

One year ago while paddling near this very spot, I watched these animals conducting a funeral. The morning was a dull grey through a perpetual mist that merged water and sky, setting the mood for what I was to witness.

I was powering my way through a raft of bull kelp when the first blow reached my ears. A large bull led the way, cruising through the mist like an apparition, bearing a stillborn calf across his rostrum. The calf, still bright pink, slumped over his snout like a limp rag, its head and flukes trailing under the surface. The bull moved slowly, not blowing, and five smaller whales followed in single order until they reached deep water in the center of the channel. The bull stopped, holding his silent charge, while the other whales drew alongside. The bull slowly lowered his head, and the stillborn whale sank into the depths.

The pain of their loss hung in the air, thicker than the fog.

An old female, most likely the matriarch, lob tailed the water twice, perhaps in silent goodbye, or maybe just a signal that they were finished, but as she did this, all six Orcas sounded in unison. They knew I was there and ignored me.

That moment was a gift; a point of connection between two species that share the planet, but rarely meet. It is the silence of a kayak that allows me to enter their world, and whenever I do, I feel the inferior one.

In these grey northern waters I am so small compared to all that surrounds me, so insignificant. It is easy to lose myself here to thought and memory. It was in these waters that I first felt truly free and it is still to them that I retreat whenever city life threatens to overwhelm me.

I stop paddling and scan the fog bank. Whales are close.

It is cold this morning and calm. The sun has tried to break through twice without success. The silence is broken only by the cry of a lone eagle taking fish from the littoral. Minnows are jumping; a sure sign larger predators are about. My breath hangs visibly white on the air and I zip my fleece up higher.

The silence is broken when a young harbor seal shatters the surface, lunging for my boat and startling me into action. He is clearly terrified, seeking refuge on my bow. In another time and place I might let him rest there, but I know what is coming and he cannot stay. I slap the water hard, and he veers off, only for a second, but this animal is panic driven and will not be easily deterred. He approaches a second time and I fend him off with the flat of my blade, watching his pleading eyes as he arches for a final dive. He disappears behind a trail of bubbles.

A brief silver flash passes under my boat, and a second later I am hit square in my flotation vest by a young Salmon. It flops onto my spray skirt, flailing to get back in the water. Then one fish after another begins to strike the side of my boat.

Suddenly a black dorsal cuts the fog like a periscope, leaving a white wake, bearing down on me. A quick look around tells me I am surrounded.

The first Orca crosses my bow, lunging as it takes a fish in midair.

The pod is herding a school of Salmon, driving them against a rock wall twenty yards to my port. The pod is arrayed in a semi-circle from twelve to six o’clock around my boat and they have the Salmon cornered. Shiny black dorsal fins slice the water all around me, churning it a crimson red as they take their prey. The Salmon, in total panic, are slamming head first into the wall, knocking themselves senseless, unable to flee.

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Image by James Michael Dorsey

Killer Whales,(Orcinus Orca) have been around my boat on many occasions and have always shown themselves to be curious and friendly. Even though they are the alpha predator of this planet, to the best of my knowledge there has never been a recorded attack by one of them on a man or boat. They are ruthless when it comes to the hunt, raiding in packs, yet gentle when in contact with man. Still, as always in their majestic presence I fight the urge to panic and must brace continuously to keep their wakes from rolling me over. Even in the middle of this blood frenzy, they know exactly where I am and never so much as nudge my boat. Adrenalin is pumping and my body switches to automatic, giving muscle memory its head as there is no time to think logically. Constant reaction is necessary to stay upright with the water so churned. I have become a dancer in the ballet of death that surrounds me.

I know these are resident whales because transients only eat mammals, and then I flash on what a silly thought that is at the moment, since I am a mammal.

A white saddle patch zips under the boat, rolling at the last second to clear my keel while another whale passes parallel, showering me with blow as it moves in for a kill. Glistening dorsals cross left and right, parting the water like torpedoes. I can feel their clicks and squeals echoing through the fiberglass hull of my boat. They are executing a perfectly coordinated hunt, calling to each other, giving orders, and all of it with the knowledge that I am here.

Salmon lunge in all directions, clearing the water with great leaps. Large black heads break the surface taking fish down from midair. One whale is coming hard, broadside, and I instinctively brace for the crash as he breaks hard left, taking a Salmon as he dives, his backwash causing me to brace the other side. I am soaking wet from blow and covered with bloody scales. I carefully push a meaty hunk of Salmon off my deck with my paddle blade, not wishing it to tempt a hungry whale.

For infinite minutes the whales take fish, then gradually, the actions slows. They have eaten their fill and I see Dalls Porpoise moving about, taking the stragglers. Orcas often allow their smaller cousins to join them near the end of a hunt to clean up leftovers, but the final touch is something I have never seen.

Half of the pod forms a single line, parallel to the wall, and turn their flukes toward it. They begin to slowly lob tail, causing waves to break against the rock. They are dislodging the few scared Salmon that have taken refuge in the cracks and crevices while the rest of the whales and the porpoise take them when they break cover. It is the final act.

In a few moments the whales go from a feeding frenzy to total lethargy, logging on the surface, gorged and happy like large black sausages. The sudden calm allows me to take a headcount and I realize they are all females or juvenile males; not one mature bull among them.

While Orcas are a matriarchal society, it is the alpha bull that stands as protector, and this hunt was sanctioned on his watch or it never would have happened. He is nearby. I try to imagine where I would place myself as the bodyguard of a dozen feeding whales, and paddle further into the channel to sit and wait him out.

Within a minute the tip of his tall black dorsal rises slowly; there is a soft blow that the wind carries towards me covering me with the finest mist, and I am sitting by the great whale no more than thirty feet away.

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Image by James Michael Dorsey

 

He has surfaced slowly like an island being born, and his back fin towers over me by five feet. Sunlight dances on his ebony back and his saddle patch reflects light like an alpine glacier. His dorsal has a slight bend to it and a missing chunk tells me he has met at least one great shark. He is half again as long as my boat and outweighs me by nine tons; a flesh eater; the mightiest predator since dinosaurs, and now, I am alone next to him.

He logs on the surface like a great submarine, leisurely, sure of his power, in control of his domain. I am an insignificant interloper, here by his indulgence. He has not surfaced by chance as he is too wise for this to be a random happening. He has chosen the time and place to show himself and is now making a statement. I am not here by accident. My boat sits between him and his pod; a position he would never allow an enemy to reach.

He knew of my presence long before the hunt began and not only tolerated me, but allowed me to bear witness. I feel this as strongly as if he were talking to me.

Perhaps I have been demoted to a curiosity, but I choose to think of it as communication. His black eye, no larger than the tip of my thumb, is fixed on me as I try to fathom the thoughts behind it. Once again, I feel myself the inferior one, lacking the ability to understand what this animal would tell me.

I dip my paddle slowly, not wishing to spook or provoke him in any way and begin to push away. As I do, the bull moves forward, inching ahead in low gear.

I paddle a little harder and he is with me, so I dig in and begin to push the water behind me as my bow rises. The bull starts to pull ahead, then senses my frailty and checks his speed, matching mine, even and steady.

His head rises and falls, eye just under the waterline, watching me, urging me on. In my head, I hear him say, “Stay with me” He is allowing me to paddle with him and I take up the challenge. My heart is racing and emotional tears start to cloud my vision.

Even at his lowest speed it is hard for me to keep pace, but I am now part of his pod, and he is my leader, and this merging of divergent species will never happen again. I pull my paddle now, abandoning technique in an all-out effort to maintain speed. My arms scream with pain but time has stopped. I have entered a different reality and all that matters now is that I stay with this great beast.

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Image by James Michael Dorsey

For a brief time there is nothing but the two of us, moving as one, and if ever an animal gave a gift to man, this is mine. I have no idea how far we have come, but soon I can go no further. I lay my paddle across the cockpit and glide to a halt. I am cold, wet, exhausted, and have never felt more alive.

The great whale sees I have stopped and logs a moment, his black eye fixed on mine, and then he raises his flukes and is gone. For a few seconds I am totally alone and the silence is deafening. I look all around and the immensity of the landscape slams into me. I let out a primal scream whose origin comes from a place inside I have never reached before and listen as it echoes across the flat waters before gradually disappearing into the forest beyond. I am just sitting in my boat, the last man on earth.

In the distance I see the bull surface where the pod is reforming.  He is probably reporting to the matriarch, telling her about the strange creature that swam with him. They turn their flukes toward me and begin to swim.

The fog closes slowly and I watch dorsals fade into it like a movie ending. Tears are streaming down my cheeks and I know it will take a while for the day to seem real.

I hear the cry of an eagle in the distance and turn my bow towards land to paddle home.

 

James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting remote cultures around the world. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available from LULU.COM. He is a 13 time SOLAS AWARD category winner. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.

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