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As I wait for the whales I see that the ancient sandstone of this West Coast island has been carved by the sea into strange beehives. I scan the spit-topped ocean waves and hope. My behind is rock-imprinted, my patience fading, and I think about moving on. But I keep waiting, because I know they’ll come again.
The waves splish-splash and patter on the rocks. A salty breeze stirs the air and the sea slips along its inevitable way to wherever it goes. Driven by the tides, the waters slide onto another stippled shore, down another murky inlet, and from one gurgling ocean cave to another.
Every spring, after a dreary and too-long winter, my partner and I rent a cottage on Saturna in British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands.
We are dreamers, urban prisoners of Vancouver, and in between forest hikes, beachcombing and wildlife viewing we share fantasies about which seaside home we would buy or what piece of land would be best for growing wild mushrooms to sell at farmers’ markets.
When we win the lottery, I say, I’ll take that two-bedroom cabin, the one with the crazy tilting patio, the moss-textured roof and the view I would gladly view forever.
But our biggest dream is always about when we’ll see a pod of the southern resident orca once again come down the channel, close to the shore.
The last time we saw the whales, we were following our morning routine, happily sipping coffee on a wooden bench on a grassy hill in the lighthouse park overlooking the Salish Sea. We were facing southeast, admiring how the snow-capped peaks of Mount Baker seemed suspended in the clouds.
Suddenly, a small voice in my mind said: Remember, look behind you. The best views are often behind you. So I turned around on the bench and there they were, about a half-kilometre away to the north, coming down the channel between Saturna and Tumbo Island.
Their black-and-white bodies looked like speckled flecks at first, sliding through the ocean’s deep blue surface.
As the pod came closer, the big whales breached occasionally, causing great splashes, but mostly they all simply cut through the water so intently that the ocean seemed to part voluntarily to make it easier for them.
There were about 14 in the pod – mothers, babies, fathers, uncles, aunts, sisters – all slipping though the sea with a weight and grace so solid yet so ephemeral that I wondered if I was dreaming. We couldn’t hear them yet, so it was a grand silent procession approaching from the distance.
The waters off the tip of the island are deep at high tide, and a smaller channel separates the shore from a rocky outcropping where seals and grumbling sea lions congregate.
The whales whooshed through this small channel, barely 10 metres from the shore. When they surfaced, their breath exploded through their blowholes.
They were so close, I could feel the weight of their bodies as they rose effortlessly from the water and breached gracefully – their stiff dorsal fins set like flags in a high wind – then landed with powerful thumps on the waves.
It was an extraordinary performance, and we had front-row seats. By then, more than a dozen other people had arrived and we all applauded, waved our arms, jumped up and down and cried to the whales: “Hello, we love you, stay longer!”
But the orcas swam and swooshed by without pausing, all 14 of them, from large to small to in-between, ignoring the tiny, multicoloured humans bouncing around on the shore like demented circus bears.
The whales disappeared around the next point, out of our view, and the water settled behind them.
The quiet returned and my heart slowed to a normal rhythm. I smiled for a long time after that, reliving the spectacle I had just witnessed.
I am here, once again, waiting for the whales. I believe that seeing them again will be the pinnacle of my experience here, and that if they come I will be content.
Suddenly, the glossy chestnut back of a bull sea lion breaks the water’s surface and he snorts wetly. For a moment I’m excited, thinking it’s the orcas’ whooshing breath, and then I’m disappointed to find out it’s not. It startles me into reflecting on what is here right now, right in front of me.
As I wait for the whales, two cackling eagles spiral down through the clouds to a stone-and-kelp outcropping that cradles six languorous seals and a flock of squealing gulls fighting over a fish carcass.
As I wait for the whales, a trio of clown-striped Harlequin ducks, their whistling call like a sad Irish air, lands on the point beside an inky cormorant with wings open, crucifixion-like, to capture stray rays of sun.
Ravens croak a greeting and swallows dip and lilt across the grassy field behind me, snapping up insects on the wing, their forked tails slashing through the air.
The evening light turns gold and the sun settles behind the dark shoulders of the neighbouring islands.
Earlier in the day, a fine mist caused a rainbow over those same islands. And the day before, a crisp aquamarine sky challenged the dense green of cedar trees and the shy rosy skin of half-naked arbutus.
I wonder what tomorrow will hold. Then I breathe in the cool, salt-licked air, breathe out my own warm version of that air, and realize that I am no longer waiting.
Christy Costello lives in Vancouver.