Photo: Orcas at Stuart Island

(Credit: Asha Wareham)

It was summer of 1977, I sent my son to spend the summer with grandparents in Toronto and I flew to Stuart Island to work in a restaurant for holidaying prairie farmers on a fishing holidays.

King salmon were still attainable, and fish were still a prosperous commodity. Prairie farmers loved to try their luck at catching a big one.

I worked 3 shifts in the restaurant: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rest of my day was filled with touring around the island. And what a beautiful island it was. People had to either fly in, or boat over from Campbell River. The flight was spectacular — flying over Gibsons and following the shoreline. Flying up to Stuart Island, I was able to go in a small 2 seater plane. It was like being a bird. Everything was so close.

Flying back, I caught a great big ole goose-looking plane. I had asked my boss to arrange for me to be the last pick-up that day, however the pilot had different plans. I was first, and we spent the rest of the morning taking off and landing in every little bay and inlet on the west coast, picking up a varied description of folks — loggers, miners, explorers and their pets.

The part of my trip I will never forget, goes like this.

One evening after dinner, one of the fishing guides and I decided to take a small skiff out and putter around the island. It was a beautiful evening. As we chatted and laughed about the day's events, to our surprise a beautiful orca surfaced next to us. The whale glided along beside us for a few moments, then disappeared into the deep.

I was ecstatic. I had never seen a whale so close up — within an arm's reach of the skiff. As my companion and I chatted excitedly about the gift of the whale's presence, three or four more surfaced, ever so calmly and casually. They swam with us for what seemed like forever, as if they were friends along for the ride.

I wanted with all my heart to reach out and touch one but decided against this. We were blessed to have had the opportunity to spend that time and space with them.

The whales had been in the channel for a few days. It seemed that oolichans (small smelt fish) were swimming up the channel and the whales were having a feed on these oily fish. I will never forget this moment.

Message to Canadians: Pollution and over-fishing have made this type of story almost impossible for a young person to experience this today.

By Debra Bird

Chilliwack, BC

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