Among Whales

Byron Ricks Paddles Head to Head in Witless Bay

I have always wanted to look into the eye of a whale, to somehow visit its soul. So I've come with a kayak to the eastern coast of Newfoundland, where the southerly flow of the Labrador Current meets the Gulf Stream. Small capelin are schooling in these nutrient-rich waters and moving toward shore to spawn. Where there are capelin, there are sure to be the great baleen whales - humpbacks, minkes, and fins - that arrive in peak numbers from June through August to feast on summer's plenty.

In an early calm I slip over tables of white rock, paddling toward the outer reaches of Cape Broyle Harbor. Our group is small, and we meander from cove to cove, poking in sea caves and paddling through arches. Even among the outports, the land is angular and severe and seems to have risen raw from the sea.

As we cross the harbor, a whale shovels across the surface, its size surprising from our vantage point so low in the water. Then it disappears, only to surface much closer. It is a minke, the smallest baleen whale. Unlike the humpbacks, with their routine of blows and dives, minkes are elusive, surfacing with little predictability. After three blows, we never see it again.

All afternoon, plumes of spray break the horizon. I see a breach, a distant silhouette against the bank of sea fog. Humpbacks are feeding well offshore, and we never reach them. Toward sundown, I return to the beach primed for a new day among whales. But when I paddle Cape Broyle Harbor again the next morning, I do not see a single spout. The whales have followed the capelin elsewhere.

I spend a day ashore, speculating with locals about where the whales might be heading, then begin farther north in Bay Bulls. We load the kayaks into an open skiff, which we will tow behind a small powerboat to Witless Bay. Beyond the shelter of the harbor, southeasterly swells build to two meters and the wind further stacks the sea into foaming whitecaps. The small boat pitches and yaws, throwing me against the cabin wall, then to my knees. But nearing the southern shore of the bay, the sea flattens in the lee of the wind, and we slip into the kayaks and push away. As the boat retreats to find anchorage, a silence descends, and the three of us paddle into the open waters and wait.

A vortex of seabirds drops like a funnel cloud to the water, and where they alight, a school of capelin pulses beneath. Then the birds scatter. The sea explodes, and a dark form lunges forward, rising into the swell. Wherever the birds land, a whale erupts, and we paddle among these avian rafts bracing for the next blow. A humpback surfaces nearby. I see it head-on, the closing blowhole, the fullness of its body, the soaring flippers turned aquamarine just beneath the waves. Raising its flukes into the air, it leaves a swirling tailprint on the surface, and dives to the deep.

Soon the humpbacks are all around, and in the moments when their black backs rise, when we are each half in and half out of our element, we share the exposure, the vulnerability that our two species have long risked at this meeting place of atmosphere and sea. I believe they must sense this, too, that I am taking a chance to be among them in my pencil-thin craft, and so I am strangely at ease among the turbulence, among the rising and falling leviathans that encircle my kayak.

For a time it is quiet, the seabirds disperse, and the wind whips across the swells. Then birds plunge into the water. No more than 30 meters away, two humpbacks lunge past each other, baleen streaking across the surface, and I am suddenly looking into the blackness of a gaping throat. The whales move on, working the water in methodical circuits and sweeps, search parties tracking something small in a place that is very large. We are elated to be among the blows and spray, to be among such grandness. Behind us, a clap cracks the water, and I turn just as the showering splash of a breach melts away.

With the gusts increasing, we're ready to call it off when I feel the strange sensation of being lifted and notice that the water around my kayak doesn't correspond to the waves. A trough isn't as deep as it should be. Glancing down, I see a white rock, and paddle hard to avoid the possibility of breaking surf over its shallows. But I am nowhere near shore. I look down again as the white form twists and unfolds into a humpback some 20 feet below.

It hovers on its side, looking up at me through the water. I can see its white belly and extended flipper, the dark curve of its mouth. At first I can do nothing but meet its gaze. Then leaning over the water, I extend my opposable thumb and show the whale how it grabs the paddle shaft, how the paddle is so nearly like flukes and flippers, how we, too, have learned to live, for however short a time, at sea. Gradually, the whale rolls upright, and with surprising deftness, it displays how the whales, once creatures of the land, have adapted to the oceans, flying swiftly away on bright wings into the depths.

In the evening I drive the road to Cape Spear, the easternmost landfall of North America, for a final glimpse of the whales as they follow the capelin toward the great bays of the northeastern coast. From the stormy North Atlantic, a soundless explosion blasts into the air. I never see the whale among the heavy swells, but I follow the cloud of breath as it races across the waves, retaining its exact shape until finally, like a struggling memory, it loses form, scatters, then disappears.

Byron Ricks writes for outdoors and travel publications, including Men's Journal and Travel & Leisure. An accomplished cyclist, skier, and paddler, he is currently working on a book about kayaking Alaska's Inside Passage.