“Don’t leave me,” I cried out to my paddling partners while kayaking in Nuchatlitz Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “I’m stuck.”
I wasn’t exaggerating. My kayak was firmly lodged in wide strands of bull kelp, a brown seaweed that forms a thick canopy on the ocean surface and is often referred to as forest. “You could walk on water here,” was how David, one of my companions, had put it moments earlier. After rocking my kayak sideways and digging in hard with my paddle, I finally managed to work myself free.
Kelp forests can easily trap kayakers – they’ve even been known to stop large ships in their tracks – but where there’s kelp, there’s usually a rich marine life. Fish seek it out for shelter during storms and to escape prey. And sea otters – which I’ve come in search of – attach themselves to kelp fronds when eating.
I’ve wanted to view otters in the wild ever since meeting YouTube stars Milo and Nyac at the Vancouver Aquarium 10 years ago. (I was smitten by their whiskered faces, black noses and human-like behaviour – the way they floated while holding “hands.”) One of the best places to do so is Nuchatlitz Inlet, where otters have been reproducing successfully after 89 adults were relocated from Alaska in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This part of the coast is about as isolated today as it was in 1778 when Captain James Cook landed here and began trading with aboriginal people for otter skins. The thick fur was so popular in Europe that the small mammals were hunted almost to extinction. While Sheldon, our guide from Spirit of the West Adventures, prepares dinner over a campfire, the rest of us explore Island 44. I’m so bedazzled by the lime green and pink tipped sea anemones in a rocky tidal pool that I don’t immediately notice the “raft” of sea otters that has formed in the kelp about 30 metres offshore.
When I finally see the jumbled mass, all bobbing on their backs, webbed paws sticking out of the water, I laugh out loud. No wonder they’re called the “clowns of the ocean.” I grab my binoculars for a better look. I count at least 50, but it’s hard to tell with all the commotion. They’re grooming, and every so often they shake their heads, much like dogs drying off after a bath.
Suddenly, as if on cue, they all “clap” their front paws and begin to swim away. I wonder if a predator has arrived. Orcas and sea lions can strike from below and bald eagles are known to swoop down and fly off with baby otters. But no threat materializes. Within minutes they’re back.
That evening the sky becomes an artist’s palette of glorious pink and purple as the sun sets. I can still make out a dark mass on the water when I crawl into my tent for the night. The next morning the otters are gone. We won’t see another large group all week, but often we see individuals swimming alone.
My appetite for otters sated, I’m ready to explore. “Want a little challenge?” asks Sheldon over a breakfast of granola and fruit. Just offshore, waves crash against exposed rocks. Sheldon calls them “boomers.” They look dangerous. Further out, the ocean is calm with only gentle swells.
The six of us paddle out, carefully avoiding the boomers. The brute force of the ocean is mesmerizing. I slow down and watch in awe as each wave explodes in a spray of white water against the rocks, then is sucked away, leaving a gaping hole that another wave surges in to fill.
And that’s when I get stuck in the kelp. Sheldon tells me to paddle hard. After what seems like many minutes, I’m free again. Further out, we enjoy the roll of the swells coming across the open Pacific Ocean. Our kayaks gently rise and fall. We’re far enough out now to get a good look at the forested slopes of Nootka Island and further back, the high, jagged peaks of Vancouver Island.
No wonder the sea otters float on their backs. What a view!
The writer was a guest of Spirit of the West Adventures and they have not reviewed or approved the story.