My first close encounter with a humpback whale was as a child living at Pachena Point on Vancouver Island. From time to time in summer, the light keeper would take his 5 m clinker built skiff for a run and he would often invite me along for the ride.
The skiff had a 5 horsepower, Briggs and Stratton, engine locally called a "putter" that would push it through the water at three or four knots. On these trips, the light keeper sat in the stern with the tiller under his arm while I sat forward facing ahead or astern depending on what seemed most interesting.
This particular day was very fine with little wind and we putted up and down over the low mounds of the ground swell about 500 m offshore. Further out some whale spouts appeared. Canada and other nations were still whaling at the time and groups of whales were a relatively rare sight. Even though they were a couple of hundred meters away, it was a treat to see them.
I had stood up for a better view and my attention was fixed forward, waiting for the next spout. Suddenly, the light keeper called, "LOOK!" in a very loud voice. I turned and there, right beside the skiff, was this great black back arching out of the water.
The rush of adrenalin that I experienced almost knocked me overboard. It is a cliché that in such a situation time seems suspended. Nevertheless, the graceful arc of the whale's back seemed to roll very slowly through the water, finally ending with the dorsal fin, a glimpse of the flukes and then everything sinking out of sight.
I have seen many baleen whales since but never one so close I felt I could reach out and touch it and never one that made my heart pound so fiercely.
Message to Canadians: Whales remain at very low abundance after intensive exploitation in the 19th and 20th centuries. They need our protection.