We were lucky to spend much of August on Vancouver Island with my parents-in-law, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The celebration should have been last summer, but we’d had to postpone travel due to the risks of covid and changing regulations. This year, plans were easier to make, and my in-laws’ anniversary coincided with our own 20th anniversary, giving us another reason to mark the occasion.
So, we went whale-watching.
I didn’t know what to expect. Tempered by memories of Beachcombers and Danger Bay, I had feelings about what whale watching might be like on the Salish Sea, but no real idea. I thought anything we’d see would be from a great distance. I brought binoculars.
The first hurdle was getting everyone ready. Transport Canada regulations meant that everyone needed to wear an anti-exposure flotation suit, and our youngest was sure he was too small to fit. It took a lot of buckle-adjusting and sympathetic reassuring to convince him that he looked like a brave astronaut and that everything was going to be fine.
The boat was a zodiac with an aluminum hull, and our three generations – with four grandchildren and all the adults – filled the boat. The adventurous cousins sat in the front, and our youngest sat between me and his dad, safely in the middle, as the captain steered south towards Salt Spring Island, and we all kept our eyes peeled.
We saw cormorants skimming the waves, seals in the water and on the rocks, and eagles overhead. Glorious sunshine everywhere. Then a call came on the radio: there were whales spotted to the north, near Texada Island.
“You want to go?” the captain asked.
Unanimous consent. She revved the engine, and we all held on tightly.
We spotted the other whale-watching boat first and its ‘whale-located’ flag. Then we saw a dorsal fin. A mother humpback whale and her calf swam near the surface, not far from our boat. No binoculars required.
Their dark shapes in the water changed the landscape. I was suddenly aware of the great depth beneath us, the height of the sky above and the warmth of the sun, which shone on the surface. Then the mother flashed her fluke, the shape clear and bright, and the guide said she was diving. Typically, when a whale shows her fluke and dives, there will be a long pause before she surfaces again, but this mother surprised us. She crashed up into the air to breach in the sunshine, and her calf followed suit. Such stunning power. It was amazing to see.
The whales stayed near us for a long time, breaching again and rolling on the surface, splashing their pectoral fins. Our guide had only seen humpbacks breach twice before; she was from Saskatchewan and had been on the job for three months. She told us scientists don’t know why whales breach. There are theories about feeding in plentiful waters and about water temperature. Or, she said, it might be for joy.
My mother-in-law liked that idea. She wondered about what it would be like for undersea creatures to leap from their darkness into the warmth of daylight. A flash of glory. A blessing. Then our eldest asked if the mother might be teaching the calf how to breach, and the guide said that was a distinct possibility.
Maybe that’s one of our jobs as parents and grandparents, too. And teachers and elders and friends. Not only to teach survival skills and courage to our children, but also the deep blessing of joy.
“So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves […] And God saw that it was good.”– Gen. 1 :21