D. Robert Hardy
© Copyright 2019 - Don Hardy
KILLER WHALES IN THE FOG
The next day the early morning damp penetrated the hull. Outside, the fog was so thick you couldn’t distinguish the entrance to the inlet from the head of the inlet. A sermon from an old fisherman came back to me, “Beware greenhorn … once you get past the top end of the island there will be no turning back. That creeping sea smoke will slither in across the waves and … it’s a foreign land, and like quicksand – once you’re in, you are in and there’s no climbing out!” I shuttered at the thought. It didn’t look good for a day on the water and crossing Queen Charlotte Strait.
The morning tide ebbed and flooded as I listened to weather report after weather report. “Visibility will be less than half a mile, …” the Coast Guard announcer said. This could be a very long day of waiting and listening.
I had another cup of tea and began taking inventory of my situation. I was supposed to be in Bella Bella today but I had milked my plan prepping and travelling with little time to spare. If I arrived late they could hire someone else and I would have spent all this time and money to be a day short of my quest. I had to make contact with the Fisheries some how.
Bull Harbour was the closest Coast Guard station just a few islands over, but there were mountains between my VHF transmitter and the station. A VHF radio is a line of sight radio. It broadcasts and receives best if there aren’t any mountains in the way.
I reviewed my overview chart. The lighthouse at Egg Island had the best line of sight for the VHF signal. I could call the lighthouse keeper, they could contact the Fisheries office in Bella Bella and let them know I was on my way but held up by fog.
A cup of tea in hand I went up into the wheelhouse and turned the dial on the VHF radio over to channel 16. Although it was considered the distress channel, you could use it to contact lighthouse keepers and relay messages. The procedure was simple, make contact on channel 16, and then ask them to dial over to a common channel to relay a message. So I had two things to do. Find a common channel that was clear with no one was using it, and then listen to channel 16 to be sure there wasn’t a marine emergency in progress. Both channels were clear.
I sent out a request to Egg Island on Channel 16, but was greeted with silence. “Egg Island, Egg Island, Egg Island, this is the Guinevere, the Guinevere, the Guinevere on Channel 16, over.” I repeated my message three times with no return. I stewed in my dilemma - stirring in a few negative thoughts for extra spice.
I was not equipped to cross a large body of water in the fog. My compass was not dependable; I had no radar, no radar reflector – a little detail I forgot to include as a must have. If the Coast Guard ever asked me what navigation equipment I had onboard they would have turned me back saying, “Go home to your safe haven, this is for professional mariners” and they would be right. So not to make a rash decision at the end of a long day, I climbed into my damp bunk and shivered myself to sleep.
In the morning I meditated in the fog, not that it mattered – I had my eyes closed anyway. I had come this far and had to continue, even if I told them I tried.
The sun’s heat began melting off the morning mist in my little bay. I now called it “my little bay” as I had laid claim to it. I figured if you stayed longer than two nights, it was home.
I was becoming familiar with the fogs daily routine. It always started as lengths of dense cotton hovering over the surface of the water, then by noon it would break up around the rocky shoreline, exposing the trees through sparse billowing wisps. Then suddenly, it would be gone. Today I decided to venture out to see how far I could go.
I pulled into Browning Passage. The freckled grey rocks on shore were now black with the morning damp. On the breeze was the pungent odour of bull kelp. Hints of mist feathered the tops of the trees as a continuing reminder of the fogs lingering eminence.
I arrived at Cardigan Rocks and I looked north. The fog was still obscuring the top end of Gordon Channel and my gateway to Queen Charlotte Strait. How could such a nasty stretch of water have such a regal name, Queen Charlotte Strait?
I nosed the bow of the boat out further. Gordon Channel was open and inviting us to proceed. I could see the expanse of water across to the mainland with its low-lying roof of mist. It looked threatening but was overhead and not at the waterline. I continued - slowly.
From this vantage point, I could survey north to further my adventure or turn south to beat a retreat to Victoria. It was a fork in the road moment: a passage north with imminent danger and the possibility of no return, or a peaceful easy journey south with plenty of stories. It was a point that had to be resolved.
So, time for tea and a quiet think.
I sipped my #10 blend and considered the direction of home - South. Before me lay a good two mile stretch of open water with lingering puffs of fog. As I put my attention on them they slowly evaporated as if that was all they needed to dissipate and expose the true blue sky of home.
In, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” or “The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States,” the spirit reaches liberation when it realizes the illusion of life and its material existence. As the body lay in decay, the Lama would recite a verse in the ear of the deceased, which is meant to soothe the spirit and guide it to the light of liberation. The choice is a dull familiar light or a clear bright light. To choose the familiar is to repeat life after life. To choose the clear light was to reach our true journey’s end and the great liberation. Although I wasn’t choosing between continued life after life or the great liberation, I felt the pang of remorse and the death of adventure. I realized now I had spent too much time alone and was taking myself too seriously. After all, this was supposed to be fun.
South it would be. I pulled the wheel over and headed south. I felt relieved to have the pressure off. Having to keep driving north into unknown territory, without a detailed chart, was way too much adventure for me. I would leave it to the “pros.”
I had lots of stories, enough for a lifetime - The story of painting the bottom of the Wave Eater, the petroglyphs on Hornby Island, the ocean liner nearly running me down, the chain steering breaking at Kelsey Bay … yes, I had a fish hold full of stories and was heading home to stay alive and get old. The light was dull, but at this point, I needed familiar and was happy to continue with this life. I was not ready for the “Great Liberation” just yet.
I was coming up on the southern tip of Baklava Island heading into Goletas Channel. Port Hardy was just across the way. Another five miles and I could go up the ramp and have some of those “ribs” the attendant was going on about. I could stock up on supplies, maybe even get a chance to dry out my bunk. As this conversation went on, I was feeling like there were two people in my head - Me giving up on the adventure, and Me2 listening in disbelief.
Out of nowhere, a raven dropped down on the bow of the boat. I half expected him to give me a lecture about turning back, but he didn’t say a word. He just flicked his beak around and did his Shaman dance. There is a lot to be said about the power of non-verbal communication. It has been documented that communication is made up of 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal and, to break it down even further, 55% is body language. Well, my trickster friend didn’t have to say a thing to get his message across. He was right, I had gone this far, and I should at least try and get in touch with the Coast Guard to relay a message for me.
After half an hour there was still no response at the Bull Harbour Coast Guard station. I reassured myself, if I arrived a couple of days late, the Fisheries would still have a job for me. So I turned the wheel over and headed back to Port Alexander for another night stay. I wondered if the moorage rate would be the same?
One more day – that was my deadline. If it wasn’t safe to cross I would just head home. I would somehow get a hold of the Fisheries and let them know I couldn’t cross Queen Charlotte Strait. I am sure they would understand.
After a good night’s sleep, a meditation and a good breakfast, I felt ready for the day. But, as usual, the morning wore on with continued weather reports giving me little encouragement for the trip north. Finally, around 1:35 streaks of sunlight dazzled across the water dissipating the fog and breaking up the clouds overhead. A low mist lingered, but visibility was good enough to exit the bay and venture into Browning Passage. With an encouraging weather report from Egg Island, and visibility of about two miles, I poked the bow of my lady into Gordon Channel and my maiden voyage began.
The plan was to stay close to the shore, so I had some place to go if the fog drifted back in. I would keep a close watch on the compass. As long as I was heading north, I was heading in the right general direction. The young attendant at Hardy said “the big island - Calvert island, would be on my left, the next big island would be Hunter, and then you hang a left into Lama Pass at the top end (I liked the sound of that, Lama Pass. ‘Let the young Lama pass’). I think there might even be a sign saying Bella Bella,” he said.
Little did I know that just a few degrees off on a compass could bring disaster.
I can do this. I just have to keep my wits about me and stay focused on the task at hand. Land on the right – China on the left.
At approximately 3:40 PM, all was dead calm as my Lady glided into the entrance of Queen Charlotte Strait. The fog was at a safe distance and we had decent visibility. A light swell was coming in from Japan that pulsed like an extended heart beat and soothed my dormant fears. Everything was so placid and peaceful; I couldn’t imagine anything out of the ordinary would happen. But it did.
At 4:05 three transient Killer Whales surfacing about 300 feet off the bow. I dropped the engine into neutral, and I ventured out on deck. I was thrilled to see such large mammals in the wild. My only experience with Killer Whales was at the Oak Bay Marina and the Vancouver Aquarium where they performed tricks for food. Like all creatures in captivity, I was fascinated with their close proximity, but sad they suffer for it.
I watched them glide along, dipping and surfacing, dipping and surfacing. I was mesmerized by their gentleness and peaceful nature. Suddenly, without warning they turned on a fin and started charging the boat. My thrill turned to real panic. Killer Whales attacking a boat? Had there ever been such a thing? If there were no survivors, no witnesses, how would anyone know?” I was not a threat to them. Yet here I was in mortal danger from charging whales. A paralysis gripped me as I staked out the scene from the bow even though I should have been heading for the dinghy.
Now within striking distance, they slipped into an arrowhead formation just below the surface. If the pack leader didn’t bring the boat down his flanks would.
At about 20 feet off the bow, the front-runner broke the surface, peeling waves off his rostrum as it continued its commitment to engage.
Bracing for impact, my hands squeezed into the railing, but as swiftly as the whales wheeled to intercept my course, the leader dipped and glided under the boat rolling over to look up at me as if to see my reaction. Its black outline and sleek body suspended in the tinted green ocean was stunning; he was showing me how beautiful he was. As the leader passed under the boat, the other two crossed his path arcing into a curve, like acrobatic jets in an underwater sky. This was their natural habitat and their way of having fun. I wasn’t sure if this was for me or if they were enticing my lady to play, but it was spectacular.
The late afternoon show evolved as they continually intersected under the boat, dodging, dipping and curving, swerving and swaying, arcing and returning. It was my own personal whale show out in the vast ocean.
Time ceased to exist amid their play, and I wondered if they had recently escaped from a Sea World compound or some underwater circus. Then again, I don’t believe humans could have choreographed anything so complex. Like the Sandpiper birds off Newcastle Island, their communication was instant and perfect. The difference was their working interdependence, not as one wave of a wing but three individuals playing together to create something spellbinding.
The marine acrobats slowly drifted back into travel formation and glided to the surface. My attention followed them up, and there it was - fog; the gloomy nebula of obscurity had stolen in and wrapped itself quietly around me, cloaking my retreat with no reference for escape.
I desperately searched for some erratic design poised above the water - some dull, grey landmass announcing its presence. Once again the echoes of the wise, old fisherman came back, “... that sea smoke, it will swallow you whole; boat and soul. You won’t have a chance!”
Crumpling to the deck, my excitement failed as I watched the fog close in behind the whales. Panic soaked my skin. Scattered thoughts staggered, one over another in an effort to find a way out. Finally, the only solution was - a cup of tea. I went below deck. The galley became my safe haven and the teakettle my salvation.
My thoughts turned bad as I recalled the stealthiness by which the ocean liner had crept up on me in Johnstone Strait. If it followed its course it would take me out without a notice from the bridge, “Did you hear that? Did we just hit a log? It was nothing. Carry on your course, we have to be in Prince Rupert in the morning.”
I would be reported missing and bits of my Lady would show up on Egg Island, or some other desolate beach like pieces of a puzzle scattered along the coast without notice for years. It was a depressing thought. “Was this it for me?” There are moments in our lives when we come up against the “big question.” What was the point? What happens next? Is this how it ends for me? But, I always felt an intense sense of purpose …
There was a moment in my life that defined me and set a course I could never deviate from. I was six years old.
It was 1956 and my family was living in Truro, Nova Scotia at the time. I was in school sitting at my desk. It was one of those old fashioned schoolrooms with paneled tongue-in-groove walls and dark shiplap wooden floors. In a rush to modernize, the walls had been whitewashed but were blotchy with yellow stains bleeding through in spots; evidence the walls were dark wood as well. I suppose they did this to make the room less gloomy and keep the inmates from falling asleep.
The window side of the wall was a collection of small, wood framed glass. A long pole with a hook could be used to unlatch the clasp at the top and open the upper windows allowing the heat from the morning sun to drift out of the classroom at its leisure.
A new, hot water radiator obscured my view of the schoolyard so I settled for blue sky; a sight I spent most of my time viewing as I waited for the next cloud or bird to drift past. All in all it was a pleasant room but it did not encourage learning.
It was mid-afternoon when my view of the world changed completely. I was sitting behind a girl with pigtails in her hair. I remembered this because, although we had modern desks, there were still holes in the top right corner for the ink well and dipping pigtails in the ink well was no longer a popular pass time.
The girl with the pigtails swished her head around and asked to borrow my eraser. I leaned forward and handed it to her. Within seconds of it parting my fingers my heart exploded in euphoric ecstasy. Not because I had a crush on the girl but as I realized years later, from the act of unconditional giving. For me, to help or give to others was to become my reason for living. What I was meant to do with my life. The act of giving her the eraser was that final snowflake that sparked an avalanche and opened my floodgates of tenderness.
I fell back in my desk paralyzed with ecstatic bliss. I felt like I was the total expression of love. Boundless bliss.
To get an understanding of the physical sensation I was experiencing imagine giving a six-year-old boy a shot of whiskey. I looked around in awe and rapture of my new world and wondered, as only a six-year old boy could - how was I going to get home?
The sound of the kettle’s steady rising bubbles brought me back to my pressing fate. Another sound caught my attention - the sound of the whales through the hull of the boat. Were they calling me?
I stepped lightly into the wheelhouse, searching the horizon. There they were, on the cusp of the fog, all three heads smiling and nodding. They slipped back into formation and their wake fanned out ahead. “Did they return to guide me?”
I nudged the motor into gear and followed them instinctively. “Where were they headed?” I prayed they weren’t off to China on some diplomatic mission.
My compass heading was in the same general direction as north. But then again I didn’t have my compass checked before I left Victoria so it could be an excellent example of opposites attract, north for south.
The trio stayed close and my deliverance depended on chumming along. Swells started to build in from the Pacific; we must have passed Hope Island. It was impossible not to reflect on the irony and significance of this island’s name, my last hope. My only hope!
Watching the vast green surges from the Pacific intensify and spread out on the surface created a sense of awe for the majesty of creation. It was like slowly sliding up a watery hill, arriving at the top and being suspended with a bird’s eye view of the fog white barricade surrounding us; then suddenly plunging down into a green-lit wall streaked with bull kelp and seaweed. At the peak, the whales were in sight and they gave me courage, but in the trough, my soul petitioned to a higher being that they would not sound and be gone.
The swells became steeper and my Lady lully-rolled from side to side. Suddenly, the engine alarm rang out. In a panic I dropped the RPM’s down on the motor. My speed slowed on the crest of a wave and I was in danger of rolling the boat over. I looked at the motor’s monitoring gauges. The engine was over heating. Questions began to file through my restricted thoughts and then the oddest thing came to mind.
Shortly after I had secured ownership of my Lady, a passerby mentioned to me, “she was built for sheltered waters, the hull could take a pounding, but the water intake for the motor is too close to the surface.” Then I had a flash of insight “the water pump was sucking air and causing the engine to overheat.” Every time the boat went over on her side the water intake would be exposed and gasping air (not a good thing). Why hadn’t this happen before? It must be the big waves continuously rolling her to her furthest beam. It was imperative I stop her from rolling, which meant changing direction to take the waves closer to the back of the boat.
Now at a reduced speed of about 4 knots, it would take me twice as long to cross the Strait and … “Could I keep up with the whales? Would they tire of waiting for me and sound?”
Somehow they knew I was in trouble, and they kept adjusting their speed and direction to match mine.
After five hours of riding the sea coaster blind, the big swells were losing their gait; we must be passing Cape Calvert, and entering Fitzhugh Sound, which meant … rocks!
Surveying the chart, it was clear that at the bottom of Calvert Island there was an array of pinnacles peppering the surface, but the ones lurking just below the surface were my biggest concern.
A denser fog was drifting in, as we were close-hauled to hard land. A tight grip on the wheel and a vigilant eye on the whales were needed now. It would only take one moment’s inattention to hole the boat and all would be lost.
The ambient light from the sun was fading, and only my searchlight could spot the whales as they sprayed the surface ahead. The water slowly transformed into a placid shiny black and mirrored the overhead stars. The white roof of fog had lifted and slowly it became spindly and sparse and Calvert Island’s crisp edge of evergreens defined the nocturnal sky. The light at Clark Point, off the cape, and the flashing light at Major Brown rock came on as if nature had flipped the switch.
This gave me a fix and a bearing, so I could approximate where we were and where we were going on the chart. Although I could still see the whales in the distance, they were slowly moving ahead. I didn’t know if they knew I was in safe waters now, or perhaps they were just navigating their own course without any thought of me at all. Had I imagined their continued guidance? It didn’t matter I was thankful they gave me something to follow.
My searchlight scoured the rocks on the left side and without warning the land curved back into a dark tunnel. Sparkling lights began dotting the entrance way like a sky full of stars had suddenly dropped into the bay. A densely populated floating village of like-minded mariners lay at anchor. I found the spot on the chart; it was Safety Cove.
I flipped my light around to find my guides; but they were gone. They had sounded without a splash, requiring no thank you from me to leave. Momentarily overwhelmed and pondering this miraculous adventure, it confirmed my continuous question, “Are we connected to all living things?” I was touched by the thought.