The western portion of the Johnstone Strait lies within the identified critical habitat area for northern resident (fish-eating) killer whales, and makes up much of the core patrol range for the Straitwatch North program. The salmon runs through this area make it one of the best places in the world to view killer whales in the summer time, and these whales, along with a myriad other species of wildlife ( seals, sea lions, bald eagles, minke whales, humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, and many seabirds) attract tourists from around the world.
In recent years, tarps, tents, and colourful kayaks have started to line the shores of the western Johnstone Strait as well. Paddlers come here for the opportunity to camp and kayak along BC’s rocky and forested coastlines, and, if they are lucky, to see whales and other marine mammals from a very unique vantage point.
Kayaking can be a low-impact (and exciting!) way to view killer whales and other wildlife… as long as paddlers stick the Be Whale Wise guidelines. These guidelines aim to ensure that paddlers do not interfere with whales’ abilities to hunt, catch, and share fish, or rest and travel – especially when the whales are close to shore. Resident killer whales are picky eaters; while in the Johnstone Strait area, they eat almost exclusively salmon, and the vast majority of their prey is Chinook salmon (the biggest and highest-energy of the 5 salmon species in the North Pacific). Often, these killer whales hunt their prey very close to the shoreline, and they need a shoreline free of obstacles to give them the best chance of being able to catch enough food.
The very best place for kayakers to watch whales is from the beach… seeing whales foraging from onshore often allows for incredible viewing opportunities, while having no impact at all on the whales. But if making it to the beach is not an option, kayakers can still keep themselves from being obstacles by rafting up and staying at least 100m away, on the offshore side of foraging whales. By rafting (pulling all the kayaks in one group close to one another), the whales are disturbed less, as they view the raft as a single, large obstacle, as opposed to several smaller ones. Moreover, staying on the offshore side of the whales as they forage allows the whales to travel along their natural path, and see or hear what they need to in order to be able to find food.
Thanks to kayaks donated to the Cetus Research and Conservation Society by Atlantis Kayaks in Ladysmith, BC. Straitwatch North is doing some of our outreach and education about the Be Whale Wise guidelines fromthese kayaks. Staff members Megan Baker, Elke Van Breemen, and Christie McMillan have each taken opportunities to share information about whales, guidelines, and threats to marine mammals with kayakers from our Straitwatch kayaks, often prompting great discussions and requests for further information. We also visit popular kayaking launch points and campsites, taking opportunities to chat with paddlers while they are on shore. This week, Megan and Elke even camped at Kaikash, one of the area’s preferred camping spots for both commercial and non-guided kayak trips. They spent the evening doing presentations for the groups camped there, and even got to watch as a group of fish-eating killer whales swam by the beach just as the sun sent over the Johnstone Strait!
Sharing information from kayaks has been a fantastic way for Straitwatch to educate more people, and a great complement to the education and monitoring we do from our Zodiac.
For more information about Be Whale Wise guidelines for both power boaters and kayakers, please see www.straitwatch.org, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Christie McMillan, Straitwatch North Coordinator