Okay, full disclosure: I don’t really celebrate my birthdays. Or at least, I don’t in the conventional ways. For the past few years I’ve mostly just done my own thing and treated myself to a fun day out. Last year was no exception. I’d been living in Vancouver for a month before my 21st birthday, so I’d already done most of the touristy things: Stanley Park — check. Lynn Canyon — check. So, I asked around to find out what weird and wonderful things I could do to celebrate. I remembered, somewhere in the back of my mind, that someone back home had recommended going ‘whale watching’. At $50 a trip, it wasn’t the cheapest day out, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A friend happened to be leaving that month, and she was keen to see the orcas too, so we bought the tickets together. Three connecting buses later (and a very stressful ‘follow that bus or I’ll miss the boat’), we finally arrived in Steveston, where the smell of fish and chips and saltwater hung redolent on the air.
Being from England, where the usual rule of thumb is to wear at least three extra layers of clothing just in case, I was well prepared for the chill of the sea. But probably just as well the trip included coffee and tea, poured from the kind of metallic travel jugs that take about three years to cool down. Considering I can barely walk down the street without tripping over some invisible pebble, I didn’t fancy attempting to pour boiling hot coffee into a tiny travel cup in the middle of a rocking, sea-tossed boat. Besides, who wants to stand around making drinks when there are orcas to see?
We struck lucky that day, three whole pods of orcas swam and played in the water around our little boat. The staff on hand were very quick to explain the mechanics of the pod to us, to answer questions, and to point out anything else of interest. We listened intently, holding on with cold-numbed hands to our phones and cameras, poised to capture the exact moment an orca appeared alongside us. At first, we gasped with every hint of a snout and flash of a tail. The orca joked and teased, giving us glimpses that would transfer to blurry photos on cameras that might have resembled an orca if we squinted close enough and used our imaginations. But after a while, they appeared in force, droves of orca dipping and twisting around the boat, splashing around in the foamy trail we left in our wake. By the time we reached waters which were closer to Washington than Vancouver, we could spot them in any given direction.
Even if we hadn’t struck lucky with so many sightings, it was amazing just to be on a boat in the middle of the sea, with the wind in my hair and water stretching across the horizon. Most of us don’t get to experience that every day, and it was wonderful simply to sit back with one of the laminated guides and imagine I might be lucky enough to spot some super-rare creature nobody had ever seen before.
It was probably one of my best ever birthdays, in all honesty. We were given the opportunity to witness something amazing; creatures I’ve only ever seen in unnatural environments such as aquariums, and that in itself was more than worth the ticket price.
Stepping back onto land at the end of the trip was somewhat bittersweet. We were hungry, and the inviting salt and vinegar tang of chips called to us, but so did the lure of the boat, and the distant glimpse of sea lions in the distance. And even though my camera is still full of blurry, not-quite-identifiable pictures of orca tails, the memory of that birthday spent watching the orcas splashing in the wake of the boat is fresh in my mind even now.