Free Corky— and Stay Out of the Death Vortex… British Columbia Kayak Adventure

 

Sea Kayak Adventures likes to stop for lunch at the beach next to Orca-Lab on Hanson Island.

Sea Kayak Adventures likes to stop for lunch at the beach next to Orca-Lab on Hanson Island. One of the researcher’s cabins is on the left. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

“Paddle, Curt and Peggy, paddle!” Julia yelled at us across the water. The tides of Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia can be ferocious. And we were caught in the current— the death vortex as the guides described it. We had been futzing along behind the group, happily paddling along, and matching strokes. Matching strokes is more efficient in kayaking, and it is certainly more aesthetic. I doubled my efforts and so did Peggy, paddling fast and digging deep, not concerned about style, driven by adrenaline. What seemed like an hour later (mere minutes), we were out of trouble. Afterwards, I continued to be unaesthetic, and we moved up to the head of the line.

The day had started out foggy. In fact the guides were worried about whether the fog would clear. As I mentioned before, sharing a narrow strait in zero visibility with huge cruise ships is at the top of every kayaker’s bad-idea list. The sun came out, however, and, beyond being caught in the death vortex, we had a great day of kayaking. The highlight, from my perspective, was visiting the site of the Orca-Lab.

A side view of the Orca-Lab and an out buildings. Tents were located behind these buildings, which I assumed housed some of the volunteers who come fro all over the world to work at the research facility.

A side view of the Orca-Lab and an out building. Tents were located behind these buildings, which I assumed housed some of the volunteers who come from all over the world to work at the research facility.

Some 150 orcas live and travel in Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound during the summer and fall months when the salmon are running. Orcas are quite social with the primary grouping built around the mother. She and her children stay together for life. Maternal groups form pods of extended family members and, beyond that, join together in clans, who more or less speak the same language: they share common calls.

Dr. Paul Spong established Orca-Lab on Hanson Island in 1970. It has been functioning ever since to study the local whale population. A number of hydrophones (underwater listening devices) are positioned around the Orcas’ territory to listen in on their ‘discussions.’ These sonic recordings are supplemented by visual sightings of orcas as they pass by Orca-Lab and from other land-based locations in Johnstone Strait.

Julia drops a hydrophone into the water to see if we can pick up any orca calls. Is that a huge orca photo bombing the picture under her arm??? No, unfortunately, it was a view of a peninsula modified by Julia's shirt. I was excited for a second, though.

Julia drops a hydrophone into the water to see if we can pick up any orca calls. Is that a huge orca photo bombing the picture next to her waist??? Nope, it was a view of a peninsula modified by Julia’s shirt. I was excited for a second, though… (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

In addition to Orca-Lab’s ongoing scientific studies, it works to improve whale habitat, free captive whales, and oppose whale hunting. Number one on its “Free Willy” type campaign is Free Corky. She was captured when she was four years old and has now been in captivity for 42 years. You are more likely to know her as Shamu of Sea World in San Diego. Orca-Lab wants her reunited with her family.

A frontal view of the Orca Lab with a Welcome Home Springer sign. Springer is the poster child of reuniting orca whales with their families. Orphaned as a child, she wandered far from home and begin approaching fishing boats for companionship. Close to starving, she was captured, fed and returned to her pod where family members adopted her— and taught her to stay away  from fishing boats. Each year, she returns to Johnstone Strait.

A frontal view of the Orca Lab with a Welcome Home Springer sign. Springer is the poster child of reuniting orca whales with their families. Orphaned as a child, she wandered far from home and began approaching fishing boats for companionship. Close to starving, she was captured, fed, and returned to her pod where family members adopted her— and taught her to stay away from fishing boats. Each year, she returns to Johnstone Strait. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Orca-Lab beach on Hanson Island, British Columbia. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

There was some very impressive driftwood on the beach at Orca-Lab, including this massive example. One might assume there were some large trees around…

Giant cedar tree on Hanson Island near the Orca Lab in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.

We went for a walk and found this giant tree that the folks at Orca-Lab call Grandma Cedar.

Grandma Cedar on Hanson Island BC near the Orca-Lab. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I took this photo of Grandma Cedar looking up.

Some photographers will go to any length to capture a photo of Grandma Cedar, as David demonstrates here.

Some photographers will go to any length to capture a photo of Grandma Cedar, as David demonstrates here.

On the way back to the beach, I found some strange mushrooms growing along side the trail. On close inspection I discovered they were carved out of wood. My thoughts: the folks at Orca Lab were having a slow day.

On the way back to the beach, I found some strange mushrooms growing alongside the trail. On close inspection, I discovered they were carved out of wood. My thoughts: the folks at Orca-Lab were having a slow day.

Back at the beach I found smiling faces— Wendy and Dennis.

Back at the beach I found smiling faces— Wendy and Dennis…

Dead stump with green growth on beach next to Orca-Lab on Hanson Island, Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.

A stump with green hair. Could it be Treebeard of Hobbit fame… (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Driftwood found next to Orca-Lab on Hanson Island, British Columbia. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

This entwined piece of driftwood…

Old driftwood and rope on Hanson Island near the Orca-Lab.

An interesting combination of old wood and rope…

Sea kayaks of Sea Kayak Adventures waiting on Hanson Island next to Orca-Lab.

And our waiting kayaks. Our’s is third from the left. I was surprised she hadn’t escaped given that we had tried to dump her in the death vortex. It was time to saddle up and head for our last campground. Next Blog: I conclude the kayak adventure in British Columbia.

20 comments on “Free Corky— and Stay Out of the Death Vortex… British Columbia Kayak Adventure

  1. We had a great day in Johnstone Strait one time in a Zodiac boat. We followed a pod of orcas most of the day, in the grey mist. We also saw eagles and a bear cub searching for crabs. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. We were in in heavy sea-weather gear, but mine leaked. I was frozen! When we got in, we ran to a fireplace and a hot toddy!

  2. The trip looks like great fun, and the vortex sounds meeeserable Curt. I’m sorry that in all our time in the Pacific NW, we didn’t see one orca. They are certainly beautiful creatures. Your photos of the driftwood are particularly nice, and the photobomb orca is amazing! What are the chances? ~James

    • Photobombing Orcas… what a kick that would be if it were real. It was certainly one of those trips that will always hang out in our minds… for the beauty, the adventure, and the neat people. –Curt

  3. Great story! I’m not used to being put onto the edge of my seat in the opening lines of a blog post. So glad that you and Pegge and the kayak safely escaped. I like that little cabin in the opening shot, and Grandma Cedar, and the wooden mushroom (it had me fooled). You did a great job with making the tangled roots and rope look artistic and not just a jumble.

  4. Death Vortex, as they say where I come from, “Not your portion!” 🙂

    This post was informative for me, as your posts usually are. Different from my ‘safe’ life. Forty-two years is a long time. Will they make any progress with Free Corky?
    Unusual driftwood and a tree that I could write a story about, that’s how much I enjoyed the photos. Kudos to Peggy.

    • I treated the ‘death vortex’ with humor, but the tides can be dangerous, Timi. Not sure about Corky and her future. As for Grandma Cedar, she fits in well with First Nation/Native American mythology. I suspect she would in West African folk tales as well. I often found offerings to the spirits of forest giants out in the Liberian rainforest. It was the part of the Liberian belief system thai I related most closely to. –Curt

  5. More happy travelling with some excitement thrown in. Somewhere in in Germany I remember canoeing down a ‘flossgasseende’ (Sp?) basically a log escape route past a weir – very exciting. Another German word on the canoeists route that I liked was a ‘saugwirbel’ i.e a suck-wiggle or vortex. Thanks for happy memories.

  6. I have this problem with your posts. I read them, get interested in something and wander off, and then discover when I come back I forgot to leave a comment about what interested me. Hence, this belated response. 🙂

    I’ve heard of Paul Spong. That’s one thing that sent me searching. I really haven’t moved in circles that would have had him as a household name, but there you are. Honestly, I suspect I heard of him when I was cruising Glacier Bay, and we saw the orcas. While sailing was our focus, we certainly paid attention to what was around us, and there were orcas galore.

    I really like the wooden mushroom, and the entwined driftwood. All those smiles aren’t too bad, either.

    • Obviously a man of great passion. I would have liked to have spent more time at Orca-Lab. In fact, I think it would be fun to spend a week or so there. And the setting was incredible.

      It’s good to get sidetracked. I always have had a passion for looking up things, but the Internet makes it so darned easy, Linda, And seductive. Plus your being sidetracked often leads to interesting insights. 🙂

      –Curt

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