Wildlife encounters

Orca along the Alaskan coast as we paddle the Inside Passage

I wake to rain drops hitting our tent. The first rain we’ve had in an almost unheard of 22 days. The forest is thirsty and it shows. This area averages 19 days and 6 inches of rain in July. We’ve had more difficulty finding water the past week.

Drying ground cover

The ground cover is drying out. The spruce and hemlock are browning and growing cones- a sure sign they are stressed by the lack of water. I can smell the moisture returning to the forest- the dry soil becoming damp, the moss greening again. Almost as if the forest is breathing a long slow sigh of relief and its breath smells like life returning.

We are slow to get up. It’s easy to lay warm under our fluffy quilt and just enjoy the smell and sound of the rain. But we have plans for the morning. We are camped on another small island about a mile off shore. It has two round forested areas connected by a tall sandbar which only is covered by water at the highest tides. We realized after we set up camp that about 50 seals use this sandbar as a resting place. They have begrudgingly allowed us to share it with them. We tucked our tent into the woods and tried to be as little a nuisance to them as possible. During the night we heard them returning to the land. We hope to get up quietly and take a few photos of them before they notice us again and take off back to the safety of the water.

I lead the way, walking as softly as I can. As I come over the sandbar and I see not a group of seals, but a yearling moose walking on the beach. I have heard that moose are starting to move into this area, but we did not expect to find one on that island. He must have swam over from the mainland for some reason. He hears us and turns to give us a look of hesitant interest as if he is just as confused as we are to come upon such strange creatures on this small safe oasis of land. He trots away in the awkward gangly way of young moose and I turn to Jeremy who looks just as pleased as I am with this morning surprise.


We pack up camp and set off. We have 20 miles planned for today and the tides should be with us. As we just pass the tip of our island, a group of sea lions comes to investigate us. One at a time they come closer and closer, swimming covertly under the water then peaking their heads up and looking at us inquisitively. If we return their stare for to long they huff and dive back down. The sea lions break up when their buddy leaps out of the water and catches a fish right in front of us. They swim off after him, probably hoping he’ll share. This is morning just keeps getting better.

Curious sea lions

We round the corner, leaving our inlet and heading North. As we paddle, much of our discussion lately has been about what our next adventure should be. Jeremy interrupts me, whispering urgently- “Orcas!” Two dorsal fins slice through the water, one larger than the other, headed directly towards us. We paddle a bit farther out and sit quietly, watching the scene unfold. As they approach, the larger orca jumps out of the water, slicing its body sideways and diving back in. Our boats rock softly with the wave the 25 foot body makes as it returns to the water. The two whales continue to breach and swim around us. They surface just off our bows, swim under us, then surface again behind us. I realize I have tears in my eyes. I am thoroughly overwhelmed.

Two orcas off my bow

I turn to Jeremy and we just sit quietly, looking at each other, not sure if this morning is real or a dream. Our thoughts are broken by the thunderous clap of another whale slapping its tail against the water. Another, more distant whale replies by slapping his own tail. We look around scanning the horizon and realize there are 17 humpbacks all around us, some nearby, some a mile or so away, breaching, slapping, blowing, feeding. We are near Five Finger Islands which is a known feeding area for humpbacks, but neither of us expected this. For 180 degrees around us there is a humpback everywhere we look. The tail slapper continues, rhythmically jumping out of the water and slapping his tail every 30 seconds with other whales replying each time.

I was torn, almost wishing this wasn’t happening as I wanted to sit with the memory of the orcas for a while longer. But nature doesn’t dole out her gifts with any care to our desires. As with the 22 days of sun, and what would turn out to be 6 straight days of rain, we just try to grasp everything with as much gratitude and joy as we can muster, not letting a single moment slip away unfelt.

Humpback feeding

We watch this cacophony of whales for a while longer and then hear a powerful blow just behind us. While watching, we had drifted to the mouth of a small cove where a humpback was busy feeding. The average humpback weighs 66,000 pounds and is 50 feet long. We are floating on the water watching an animal about the size of a large school bus eat its breakfast. It gracefully surfaces to blow air and then dives down lifting its tail at the last minute as it disappears into the water. I feel incredibly vulnerable.

Humpback feeding

This is the closest we have been to any humpbacks and the sheer size of it is somewhere between terrifying and incomprehensible. We can only see bits of its body at a time hinting at its true size- the tail that can reach 18 feet wide, a mouth which can hold 5,000 gallons of water, the 12 foot long pink tongue, the fins which at 15 feet long are nearly the length of our boats. The rest of the massive body remains hidden in the dark water under us. We sit for a moment, watching it come up to feed on every side of us. We cannot tell where it will surface next. There is a terrifying moment where the water between our kayaks begins to bubble- a sign that typically means the whale is about to feed, coming up with mouth open, grabbing up all the water and krill it can hold. But the whale does not surface. We see the hint of her dark body swimming back down, she surfaces and blows just behind us and them swims away. We look at each other and laugh.

Whale swimming away

I check my watch, realizing that we have spent most of the morning watching nature show off to us. We paddle hard in the still sprinkling rain for a few hours then set up camp on another island in another inlet. As we make dinner we see five whales come into the calm waters behind the island. They seem to be resting, surfacing to blow air only every once in a while. As the sky starts to darken the whales start to sing. The calls are sometimes so loud they echo off the 2,000 foot peaks surrounding this small inlet and reverberate back to us. I can feel them in my chest. In our tent that night as we look at the pictures we had taken and listen to the whales sing we become like little children, giddy with excitement. Seeing the photos we had taken and realizing the ones we had not because we were to overwhelmed with what was happening. Reliving the fear and the excitement and not knowing which feeling to let take over. It feels rarer and rarer in this world to have those intense raw experiences. It’s like falling in love. Terrifying and wonderful and vulnerable and beautiful all at the same time.


  1. Wow what a Morning You had. Such an incredible adventure and experience!! Thanks for sharing. By the way Anna, I have fallen in love with your dog Rud!! OMG he is the best dog ever!!! You can’t have him back!!! Ha Ha!!


  2. It’s hard to imagine having this all happen at once! My adrenaline would be pumping! You two are so lucky. Or maybe it is that you two put yourselves into an adventure very few get to experience, and you totally appreciate that experience. Paddle on!


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