Paddling the Alaskan Food Chain

On the flat icy surface of Alaska’s Inside Passage, sound skips across the water like a stone, distorting distance and betraying those who would move silently through the morning fog.

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

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 begin to jump, a sure sign larger hunters are about. My breath hangs visibly white on the air and I zip my fleece up under my nose.

The calm is broken when a young harbor seal shatters the surface, lunging for my boat and startling me into action.

In another time and place I might let him rest there, but I sense 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, fighting to get back into the water. Then one fish after another begins to strike the side of my boat.

Suddenly a black dorsal cuts the water like a periscope, 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, and before I can react, I am encircled by hungry hunters.

The pod is herding a school of salmon, driving them against a rock wall 20 yards to my port. The pod is arrayed in a semicircle from 12 to 6 o’clock around my boat and it has the salmon cornered. The fish are running in total panic as shiny black fins cut the water like knives, churning it a crimson red as the orcas take their prey. The salmon are slamming head first into the wall, knocking themselves senseless. Of all the places I could be paddling right now, I have found the eye of the storm.

These carnivores have been around my boat on numerous occasions and have always shown themselves to be curious and friendly. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a recorded attack on a human or boat. They are ruthless when it comes to taking prey, yet gentle when in contact with man. Still, I fight the urge to panic and sit quietly in awe as a deadly ballet plays out around me.

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 in spite of my presence.

The whales pass within inches, some lightly grazing my boat, but they know where I am and avoid any solid collisions. I sit still, not wishing to press my luck, when it suddenly occurs to me that the whales are actually using my boat, driving some fish against it as a barrier, stopping them just long enough to be taken.

I am soaking wet from blow and covered with bloody scales. Twice, I must brace against the churning, and carefully push a meaty hunk of salmon off my deck with my paddle blade, not wishing it to tempt a hungry whale.

For most of an hour the whales take fish, then gradually, the action slows. They have eaten their fill and I see Dall’s porpoises moving about, taking the few stragglers. Orcas often allow their smaller cousins to join them near the end of a hunt to clean up leftovers.

The final touch is something I have never seen.

Half of the pod forms a single line, parallel to the wall, and then 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 porpoises take down what is left. It is the final act.

In a few moments they go from a feeding frenzy to total lethargy, logging on the surface, gorged and happy like large black sausages floating around my boat.

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 who stands as protector, and this hunt was sanctioned on his watch. I know he is nearby.

I try to imagine where I would place myself as the bodyguard of a dozen feeding whales, and paddle farther 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 toward me in a mist, and I am sitting by the great whale no more than 30 feet away.

He has surfaced gently, and his black dorsal towers over me by five feet. Sunlight twinkles on his ebony back and his saddle patch reflects like an alpine glacier. His dorsal has a slight bend to it and a missing chunk tells me he has met at least one large shark. He is half again as long as my boat and outweighs me by nine tons. He is a flesh eater whose teeth can shred a great white. I am sitting alone next to the greatest predator ever to rule the ocean.

He has not surfaced by chance as he is too wise for this to be a random happening. He chose the time and place to show himself and is now making a statement.

I am not alive by accident, for if he thought me a threat to his pod, I would have been the first victim. 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.

My boat sits between him and his pod; a position he would never allow an enemy to reach.

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.

For a moment I feel quite dumb, lacking the ability to understand what this animal would tell me.

Fearing an overstay of my visit, I dip my paddle slowly and begin to push away. As I do, the bull moves forward, inching ahead at minimum speed.

I paddle a little harder and he is with me, so I dig in and begin to push shovelfuls of water behind me as my bow starts to cut a wake. The bull starts to pull away, 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 saying, “stay with me.” He is allowing me to paddle with him and I take up the challenge. My heart is racing and tears begin to cloud my vision.

Even in his lowest gear it is hard for me to keep pace, but I am now part of his pod, and he is my leader, and this will never happen again. I pull my paddle now, abandoning technique, trying to maintain speed. My arms scream with pain but time has slowed. All that matters now is that I stay with this great beast.

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, and soon I can go no farther. I lay my paddle across the cowling 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 me, and then he dives. For a few seconds I am totally alone in deafening silence. I look around and feel very small.

The bull surfaces in the distance where the pod is reforming. He is probably reporting to the matriarch, telling her of the strange creature who entered their space. 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, while I sit, sucking air, taking in what has just happened.

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

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