Doing it quietly

Kayaks allow wildlife viewers to get up close and intimate

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2004

ROCHE HARBOR, Wash. On a shirt-sleeve day in the scenic San Juan Islands, a kayak slices quietly and efficiently through the flat green water of the Salish Sea.

If there's a more intimate way to experience the area's abundant wildlife, it hasn't been invented.

''We like to say it's the closest thing in the human world to being a marine mammal,'' said Brian Goodremont, a tour guide with San Juan Safaris.

The islands offer exceptional beauty, and each year thousands of tourists flock to see the star wildlife attraction: three resident pods of orca that return between April and September.

The killer whales feed on abundant schools of salmon in the cold waters.

''We have one of the most robust bounties of prey for the orcas,'' said Stephanie Buffumfield, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, an advocacy group. ''The salmon populations have been very consistent.''

Same goes for tourists, as the number of boats ferrying whale watchers has increased in recent years. Including tours from Canadian ports, Buffumfield said there are as many boats as there are whales: 82.

The whales, salmon and other wildlife also face wide-ranging threats from pollution including septic dumps from cruise ships and yachts to anchor drops that destroy the eelgrass where forage fish like herring reside.

''It's death by 1,000 cuts,'' Buffumfield said.

Orca populations have been declining for decades.

In April, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission added orcas to Washington's endangered species list. Federal agencies are considering whether to grant similar protection under the Endangered Species Act.

That's one reason kayaks have become a popular way for visitors to enjoy the islands. Whale watching tours on the noisy motorized boats boast 90 percent success rates, but the kayak differs in its serenity.

''It's great. It's so beautiful,'' said Peter Almirall, a family physician who traveled from Oak Island, N.C., with his wife, Marilyn Ain.

Kayaking is a simple activity for anyone in good health, even for first-timers, comparable to riding a bicycle. It presents an up-close encounter with the spectacular beauty and wildlife interaction.

''We've never done any kayaking where we might have orcas to look at,'' Almirall added. ''It's a lot different from the marsh kayaking we do back East.''

Those who have seen the orcas are awed by their size, making it easy to understand how for centuries human inhabitants of the islands have regarded the great beasts as icons.

Males can grow up to 30 feet and weigh 10 tons, while the females are sometimes 25 feet and five tons. Their breaching behavior, where they break the surface and return with a huge splash, is spectacular.

Even the sound of their muffled breathing instills wonder.

You're not guaranteed to rub flippers with orcas on a kayak. Ten minutes into a loop around Henry Island, guide Brent Molsberry disclosed that the whales were spotted 40 miles away in Canada.

Considering that orcas typically travel about 12 mph and the speediest tourist kayakers maintain roughly 3 mph, the prospects are poor.

''If we run into the orcas, great,'' Molsberry said optimistically. ''But everyone should understand it's a lot easier for them to keep up with us than for us to keep up with them.''

Regardless, there's plenty to see and do.

The area includes the San Juan National Wildlife Refuge, a string of about 80 small islands where access is restricted. Several bird species and animals such as harbor seals are residents.

''They really like to have some privacy. It gives them a place to escape humans,'' Molsberry said.

Visiting unrestricted areas by kayak typically includes numerous encounters with seals sprawled across sun-baked rocks. It's impossible to miss the tiny white jellyfish floating peacefully in the water.

There are forests of bull kelp, with thick stems as solid and round as baseball bats. The flypaper-like fronds flap in the sea, and Molsberry took a bite of the salty plant to demonstrate that it's edible.

''All your vegetables for the day,'' he deadpanned.

Bald eagles, turkey vultures and pelagic cormorants soar, and gulls waddle across rocky beaches. There are river otters and a racoon. In the clear water, purple-white Dungeness crabs scurry for cover from passing kayaks.

One of the most striking things is the absence of wind and the calm, flat water.

''It's hard to believe that a body of water so large could be so flat,'' said Arnie Davis, a San Francisco real estate developer.

Davis and his colleague, Paul Butler, usually kayak in the Bay Area, where they typically face choppier waves that are driven by high winds and the cool air that San Francisco is famous for.

Later, Molsberry showed an advantage to exploring via kayak after arriving at a seaside cave. It seemed tailored for a double kayak, snugly hugging the vessel above glowing orange sea anemones.

''You won't get that on the motorboat tour,'' the guide said.

The sea is alive, too, and Molsberry showed how to navigate the eddies of the channel between Henry Island and San Juan Island. It's like riding a silent go-cart through the water.

A seal popped its head up 40 feet off the kayak's bow, staring curiously before moving along. After returning to the marina, nobody felt cheated that the group encountered no orcas.

''There's no disappointment. I had a great time,'' said Victor Palacios, a nurse from Miami. ''It would have been a bonus to see orcas, but this was a different experience. I have no regrets.''

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