A ride on a whale (almost)

Per-Henrik Norman recounts his 2018 row around Hinton Island

By Per-Henrik Norman

Rowing along ocean shores is one of may favourite pastimes, and this is about what happened in 2018 when I rowed around Hinton Island, which lies 95 kilometers to the southwest of Kitimat.

I was six days out on a fishing and adventure trip in September on my boat and had spent the last three days holed up in Union Passage waiting for the steady rain to cease. I have lots to keep busy with onboard, in good weather and bad, but it was time to move on. My boat is slow, and when I travel an eight foot Walker Bay dinghy trails behind on a 15 foot rope, or is hauled into the cockpit in rough seas.

Rowing the Walker Bay is like going for a walk. When my wife comes along, we often take it for leisurely rides in anchorages. When alone I go for longer expeditions.

Some time ago I took to rowing around islands on the coast out from Kitimat. Fin was first in 2007 on a 6.5 hour counter clockwise tour. Since then I have done Loretta, Kitsaway, Dorothy, Emilia and Coste islands, and also Langthorne on the west side of Campania, twice. Until summer of 2018 there were still islands on my list to check off, including Hinton, and on the above mentioned trip I got a chance to do that.

September 11 dawned to clearing skies and I relocated to Mitchell Bay and embarked on the circumnavigation of Hinton Island in the dinghy.

I touched the trunk of a windfall that lay partly in the water and started out clockwise. I would touch the same tree again coming from the opposite direction to conclude the adventure.

The camera box, dry bags and the oars are tied to the boat with strings, and I am always tethered with a 50 foot poly line.

There are no hazards to be wary of in good weather, I used to think. But, sea lions that pop up close by can be a little intimidating. Usually they go about their business unless they think I have something interesting, like fish, in the boat. I ignore them and calmly keep rowing, hoping they would also ignore me.

On the east side of Hinton, the side facing the top end of Squally Channel, I rested the oars and observed an upwelling of water near the rocks to my left. I wondered if it was from a sea lion that had just dived when one reared its head a short distance over the stern. But my attention turned to a loud whooshing sound coming from the right and a little behind me.

A big humpback whale just surfaced and was gaining speed as it moved away from shore. It had a purple sheen seen against the sunlight. After it submerged I waited for it to come up again, but continued rowing before seeing it. The sight of this whale somehow made me feel more secure with the sea lions around. I paused here and there to take pictures, and then, again I spotted a whale up ahead, which was also moving away from the shore.

Some time later, beyond these whales, I come to a headland where the shore forms a bay behind it. There I stopped to photograph the scenery. This is where it happened.

I put the camera down on the stern seat, grabbed the oars and looked over my left shoulder for what lay ahead. At this moment the boat started moving – rocking and tilting, slightly at first, and the right oar pulled out of my hand. It took me a second to perceive that the boat was indeed moving. I could only see dark water below. In another second the boat lifted up on the port side and the aft swung to the left. Now I could make out the broad back of a humpback coming up, and I was right on top of it. As the whale rose it lifted the boat, severely tilting it. Confusion changed to alarm. I was hanging on and braced myself for a sideways launch. The whale seemed to have been trying to turn at this point, but before long it sank a little in the water, which caused the boat to float off. I felt relief, and sat watching as the whale headed for open waters. I never saw the tail or the flukes while it was under the boat.

It took a minute or two before I resumed my voyage, a bit shaken. It isn’t just sea lions that can be a danger out here, I realized. Eventually I saw that “my” whale had joined with another, and the two were swimming southward a few hundred feet out.

What should I tell my wife when I text her tonight? The episode replayed itself occasionally the rest of the day. I was glad that the encounter didn’t end badly. A small boat is no match to the flukes and tail of a big whale. But this was a careful whale. It must have felt the boat on top and tried to get away from it. The white stationary hull might have been hard to see from below.

Initially, it seemed to have been a single whale going back and forth to shore as if carrying out a specific task. But more likely, it was several humpbacks resting along the shore and moved out when I came along. Back home I looked at some of my pictures for signs of any of them – none.

On my next island perimeter trip I will look ahead more frequently, and will have learnt more about sea lions.

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