“We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined.”

—Mary Oliver, Humpbacks


No one remembers who saw the humpbacks first, but within moments every eye in our group was locked onto them. It was the first day of our Discovery Islands trip in late July, and we’d just woven between the Penn Islands and begun the crossing to Cortes Island — when in the distance, something unimaginably large leapt out of the ocean.

Someone let out a shout, someone else a gasp. When a second massive body launched itself into the air, there was no doubt that we were witnessing something incredibly special.

The humpbacks were more than a kilometer away by the far shore, almost directly in front of the beach we were planning to camp on — which gave us the incentive to make the crossing faster than our guides ever dreamed.

Two humpbacks were having a ball of a time. They nuzzled playfully through the water, slapped their flukes, and waved their pectoral fins like they were swimming through the air. Their great dark backs curved up from the water’s surface and their enormous huffs of breaths carried to us even from across the channel as they exhaled stale air and filled their lungs with fresh oxygen.

But most incredibly, every few minutes they were breaching.

As we paddled furiously closer, we watched as the whales surged joyfully up towards the sky as if in slow motion, the ocean pouring off their slick, barnacle-studded sides. For a brief moment of perfect physics they were suspended there, motionless…then they crashed back against the surface and the ocean enfolded them once more.

We weren’t the only ones witnessing this incredible sight. Whale-watching tours in Zodiacs and a bunch of other boats in the local area had cruised in to see the playful duo. Even above our own loud and joyful voices, we could also hear the whoops and excited shouts of people on the boats ahead — let out almost automatically, instinctively, in response to such awe-inspiring beauty.

One of our guides, Albi, tuned his VHF into the local channel to listen to the chatter of the boats, and soon reported that the whales had been identified as individuals known as Lucky and Niagara.

Soon the humpbacks began to move down the shore of Cortes and out across the channel in a huge arc, still playing and breaching. To maintain a respectful distance, our group kept paddling carefully across the channel towards our campsite — but our eyes were more on the whales than on our strokes. More than once, our guides had to call out reminders to stay together as a group, because some of us were so enthralled.

When we reached our beach campsite, we finally clambered out of our kayaks after a full hour of watching these awesome creatures. Across the channel behind us, they were still hard at play.

That night, a few of us pitched our tents right down close to the high tide line. All throughout dinner we watched the distant plumes of spray erupt from the surface, and when we retreated to our tents we fell asleep to the sounds of humpbacks breathing just offshore.

Written by: Lauren Fuge