Kayaking Johnstone Strait — whale watching up close and personal

Glide along calm waters, get up close to local marine life, enjoy campfires, sleep on uninhabited islands and experience the beautiful Pacific Northwest at its best while kayaking Johnstone Strait.

Whenever I make plans to visit Canada, I’m drawn to the wild, western province of British Columbia. This same was true last year, when we were researching and booking a cross-Canada rail trip.

As I had already done a little bear watching (a common activity here) the autumn before, I was eager see some of the marine mammals this region is also known for. So, I looked into the options, and allegedly there is no better and more predictable place in the world to see both killer whales and humpback whales than Johnstone Strait.

This narrow passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland (while only 2.5 – 5 km / 1.6 – 3.1 mi wide) is a whopping 110 km / 68 mi long, and offers many protected kayaking routes between the numerous islands that populate the Straight.

I’m not a big fan of those mass whale watching cruises, and was delighted to hear that a couple of outfitters offer guided kayak tours with overnight stays on the islands. We chose Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures — a very eco-minded operation that we heard great things about.

They offer both base camp and expedition style kayak tours ranging from 4 to 6 days, and no previous kayaking experience is needed.

As our schedule was pretty packed, we did not have time to take one of these extended tours, although they looked fantastic. Instead we opted for a nice relaxed trip that provided a nice introduction to this region’s natural wonders.

Setting up camp on Hanson Island

The trip started in Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island’s east coast, where we boarded a small boat and crossed over to our base camp in an old growth rainforest on Hanson Island.

After we had landed on this mostly uninhabited island (OrcaLab has a small research center here), we moved into our temporary homes — large, cozy tents Kingfisher set up for its guests. Though they were not those safari tents one knows from Africa, they were still big enough to stand up inside. And to provide the utmost in comfort while still roughing it, they had home-built wooden beds with the thickest and most comfy sleeping pads one can imagine.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait basecamp Hanson Island

One of the Kingfisher tents in the basecamp on Hanson Island

The camp is pretty modest with only a few tents scattered around, some tucked in the woods and others with a waterfront view. The tent Eric and I had was perched over a little bay looking out towards Vancouver Islands.

I could have sat on the porch and enjoyed the view for hours, but as it is even better when you’re on the water, we got ready to do some kayaking.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait — not a swimmer’s choice

Kingfisher keeps the number of people in each kayak group small. This makes it easier to stay together and more relaxed.

Eric and I decided to share a kayak; this meant one of us could always take a break to rest or take pictures.

There are countless islands and islets around Hanson Bay, so the Strait here is for the most part protected and calm — ideal for kayakers.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait

Kayaking the calm waters of Johnstone Strait

Though the crystal clear water looks very tempting, I was a little shocked when I put my hand in the water to get some underwater video footage of a kelp forest: Man, that water was cold!

And by cold, I mean really cold. Living in Bavaria, with its chilly mountain river and lakes, I’m used to cold water, but this was numbing. My hand didn’t even last for 10 seconds before it started to hurt and I had to stop my underwater filming.

Supposedly the surface water here — even at the height of summer in late July — never gets warmer than 10° C / 50° F. And I’m pretty positive it wasn’t even near that when we were there in late August.

Bubble feeding humpback whale encounters while kayaking Johnstone Strait

The wildlife-rich waters of Johnstone Strait didn’t keep us waiting for long.

Soon after we shoved off, we came across a pod of Dall’s porpoises, which are pretty common here. According to our guide, you can also see harbor porpoises and dolphins here. Of course, as I am not marine biologist, they all look the same to me — simply beautiful.

While crossing from one little island to the next, we saw a huge cloud of birds gathering over the water, and occasionally diving down into it to come up with a fish. While doing research for this trip, I had read that this means there is a large school of feeder fish.

Apparently, humpback whales have also read this book. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge open whale mouth broke the surface just a couple of kayak lengths away from us.

This so-called bubble feeding is the humpback whales preferred eating method, as it gets the most fish into their hungry mouths. The way it works is they locate a large school of fish, circle it either by themselves or with a couple of their mates and create a curtain of bubbles, which “traps” the fish in a kind of tubular “air cage”. The whales then surge through the column of concentrated fish, darting up and surfacing with a huge mouthful of “dinner”.

I didn’t get a video of this, but check this one out, which shows you how this bubble feeding thing works:

Orcas and sea lions add a special spice to kayaking Johnstone Strait

After we caught our breath again, we were totally psyched what else the day would bring. Given this was Johnstone Strait, we knew we wouldn’t have to wait long.

While we were all focused on the horizon where a big pod of humpback whales was breaching and spouting, a huge dorsal fin suddenly cut through the water ahead of us. I did not know how big orcas could get until I saw one up close. These predatory mammals can reach 10 m / 32 ft and weigh up to 6 tons. That is almost as big as a school bus.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait orca

An orca passing between our and another group of paddlers

On a nearby island, we saw a bald eagle glide across the sky and land in some trees near a large outcropping of rock. On closer inspection, we started to notice that some of the rocks were moving.

Steller sea lions are a common sight here, although you have to keep your eyes pealed as they do blend in with the rocks very well. Of course, if you’re downwind of these guys, you might smell them before you see them — I think its their fishy diet that gives them such bad breath.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait Steller sea lion

A big Steller sea lion basking in the sun

After 5 hours on the water, our arms were getting tired as paddling uses muscles we don’t use in our normal day-to-day activities. So, we decided to head back to our base camp.

(Almost too) close humpback whale encounter while kayaking Johnstone Strait

As we went through a pass between two islands heading back to Hanson Island, we figured the wildlife show was over.

Then, out of nowhere, we saw a humpback whale slowly coming our way.

The rule in a kayak is never to block a marine mammal’s way, but because of the narrowness of the passage, there was no place to go. So we paddled to the side and waited for the whale to pass.

It felt like an eternity.

Though I love animals and adventure, this was a little uncomforting, I have to admit. I envisioned our kayak being lifted up by the surfacing whale and thrown into this icy water, my clothes soaking, muscles freezing and me sinking like a stone — game over. (I’ve actually never heard of this happening, but there ‘s always a first time, right?)

Luckily, this humpback knew what it was doing, and didn’t come up underneath our kayak. Although it was still a little too close for comfort. Not close enough to feel its spray, but definitely close enough to smell its whale breath.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait humpback whale

A humpback whale starting to dive to get some fish (See the birds in the back? That’s where the fish are!)

I guess its not only Steller sea lions that have halitosis. I tell you, I could have skipped that experience — especially since the smell lingered for a long time.

Falling asleep to the sound of whales

After a good part of the day in a kayak, it felt strange to walk on land. Luckily, we didn’t have much more to do than sit around a campfire while our meals were being prepared and talk about the day’s experiences, which were many.

All that excitement, exercise and fresh air made us all very tired. So, after watching an amazing sunset from the rocky beach, we all went to bed pretty early.

And now another highlight of the day took place: As I lay curled up in my super warm sleeping bag, I heard the beautiful haunting sound of whales sleeping and snoring.

Apparently there is a passage near the camp that large ships can’t navigate and the whales like to hang out there and snooze.

Pretty neat, especially since I was far enough away so I couldn’t smell their breath.

Kayaking Johnstone Strait Hanson Island

View from Johnstone Strait across the passage where whales like to sleep at night

What’s your favorite place (and way) to watch whales? Let us know in the comments!


In 2013 Michaela decided to quit the rat race as a Financial Manager in a multinational company to persue her passion of travel and photography full-time. She hasn't looked back since, and loves to discover places which are off-the-beaten path and not spoiled by mass-tourism. All she needs is jungle, waterfalls, beaches and elephants and she's in paradise!

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