Originally published February 6, 2005
I cannot remember a better day than today.
Today began yesterday, naturally. I packed up Ed the dog and boated south to Dabob Bay, at 30 miles away the nearest location where the ever-elusive transient orcas have been recently sighted. It is also occasionally a restricted military area, as the nice man with the deck-mounted, high caliber machine gun patiently explained to me. After a half hour of weighing my options, I decided to go all the way to Hoodsport, the southernmost location the whales have been spotted, and work my way back north the next day. I found a slip at the absurdly nice Alderbrook Resort in Union, where I slept on the boat Saturday night (room: $300; moorage: 11 bucks). A quick check of my email revealed that the orcas were indeed in Dabob Bay when I was talking to the machine gun. Shit. So I grabbed some breakfast, fell in love with a waitress named Emmy, and hit the water as soon as the fog lifted at 10am. I was watching whales by 10:15. I lowered the hydrophone into the water, and soon the stereo was alive with their cries. They put on quite a show—hunting, playing, spy-hopping, diving. They stayed about 1000 yards away.
Until two of them noticed me.
It happened while I was on the phone with an orca researcher, reporting my sighting. One breeched a mere fifty yards away, coming generally toward me. Then he breeched again, only 20 yards off. Then he and his buddy plowed through the water straight at my port side, not even pretending to want to avoid a collision. You've seen this on nature programs, sure. But from the comfort of your couch, you have no idea how fragile you'll feel. Yeah, you know ahead of time that these animals are 27 feet long and weigh six tons each, and yeah, you've seen them at Sea World or maybe from a large vessel, but when you and your tasty mammalian companion are on a 22 foot, 1800 pound boat being bull-rushed by 24,000 pounds of predator...well, it's an adrenaline rush like none I've ever known. If I'd had time to think about it, I would have lost all bladder control, too.
The whales did not hit me, of course. I braced for it, involuntarily getting low to the floor, but there wasn't so much as a dorsal fin scrape. They even somehow avoided the thin 45-foot hydrophone cable. I don't know how they missed my port side. I never saw them flinch; they disappeared only because eventually, the boat obstructed my view of the water. When close, one of them looked at me, or maybe at Ed. He had the pulpous remains of a fresh kill clenched in his jaws. That lucky seal passed within a yard of my feet as the whales swam under me. A second later, my heart was palpably pounding and the whales were to starboard, swimming away, probably laughing amongst themselves.
My camera, sadly, has a 30-second limitation on the length of its video clips. It's never been more aggravating than today, and you'll see why: I missed filming my close encounter. I did, however, get footage of a breach and of the beginning of the charge. And of my idiot dog's schnozz.