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Searching for sea otters at Nuchatlitz Inlet, BC

© By Suzanne Morphet
Sea Otters

"Don't leave me," I cried out to my paddling partners on our first morning of kayaking in Nuchatlitz Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC. "I'm stuck."
     It was no exaggeration. My kayak was firmly lodged in wide strands of bull kelp. Earlier that morning, David, one of my companions, observed that, "you could walk on water here," referring to the almost impenetrable mass of seaweed floating on and under the surface.
     After rocking the kayak sideways and digging in hard with my paddle, I finally managed to work free. On this wild coast you need to be self-reliant-or be with a competent guide-because help is not just around the corner.
     The area's remoteness is a large part of the attraction; that, and the countless small islands that make Nuchatlitz Provincial Park a paddling paradise. To get here, you drive to Gold River (365 km or 227 mi northwest of Victoria, BC ), then charter a motorboat or board the MV Uchuck III freighter and travel for several more hours to the northern edge of Nootka Island.
     It's about as isolated today as it was in 1778, when Captain Cook landed in Nootka Sound. I came in search of sea otters, the furry mammals that were almost wiped out in the trade begun by Captain Cook.
     I got acquainted with sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium about 10 years ago when I met Milo and Nyac. I was smitten by their adorable whiskered faces and triangular-shaped black noses, but also by their human-like behaviour. The male and female couple floated in the tank, holding "hands," with eyes only for each other.
     Ever since then, I've wanted to see otters in the wild. So last summer, I signed up for a five-day kayaking trip to Nuchatlitz Inlet, close to where 89 otters were re-located from Alaska in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even if I didn't see any otters, I was looking forward to seeing their home surf.
     While Sheldon, our guide from Spirit of the West Adventures, prepared our first night's dinner over a campfire on Island 44 (named for the highest tree at 44 m or 144 ft), the rest of us explored the tidal pools and sandy beaches. I was so bedazzled by the lime-green and pink-tipped sea anemones in a rocky pool that I didn't immediately notice the raft of sea otters that had congregated in the kelp about 50 m (164 ft) offshore. Sea Otters
     When I finally looked up and saw the jumbled mass, all bobbing on their backs, webbed paws sticking out of the water, I laughed out loud. No wonder they're called the clowns of the ocean. I grabbed my binoculars for a better look. I counted at least 50, but it was hard to tell with all the commotion. They were grooming, and every so often they'd shake their heads, like dogs drying off after a bath.
     Suddenly, as if on cue, they all clapped their front paws-and began to swim away. I wondered if a predator had come on the scene. Orcas and sea lions can strike from below, and bald eagles are known to swoop down and fly off with baby otters. But no threat materialized. Within minutes, they were back to grooming.
     That evening, the sky became an artist's palette of glorious pink and purple as the sun set over the western horizon. I thought I could still make out a dark mass on the water when I crawled into my tent for the night.
     The next morning, the otters were gone. We wouldn't see another large group all week, but often spied a stray otter swimming alone. My appetite for otters sated, I was ready to explore.
     "Want a little challenge?" asked Sheldon over a breakfast of granola and fruit. Just offshore, waves were crashing against exposed rocks. Sheldon called them "boomers." They looked dangerous. Further out, the ocean was calm with only gentle swells. The six of us paddled out, carefully avoiding the boomers. But I was mesmerized by the brute force of the ocean. I slowed down to watch in awe as each wave exploded in a spray of white water against the rocks, then was sucked away, leaving a gaping hole that another wave surged in to fill.
     That's when I got stuck in the kelp. Sheldon told me to paddle hard. After what seemed like many minutes, I was free again.
     Further out, we enjoyed the roll of the swells coming across the open Pacific Ocean. Our kayaks gently rose and fell. We were far enough offshore to get a good look at the forested slopes of Nootka Island, and further back, the high, jagged peaks of Vancouver Island. It was truly magnificent-no wonder the sea otters float on their backs. What a view!

Suzanne Morphet is passionate about exploring Canada and writing about it. She knows she'd need many lifetimes to do it justice... So with just one, she's working hard to see and share as much as she can. Her travel stories have appeared in The Globe and Mail, up! magazine (West Jet's in-flight magazine), Homemakers and numerous other publications. Morphet recently co-authored The Vancouver Island Book of Everything. She is based in Victoria, BC.

Photo Credits
Canadian Tourism Commission

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