Why Photographers Should Kayak British Columbia’s Inside Passage

••• @michaelatrimble

Rowing southeast along Vancouver Island’s coast, my kayak emerges from the first rock notch: I see a black bear idling underneath the warm sun. Stroking his fur and itching wherever his paws can reach, he pays me no mind. The sun is his main attraction, his refuge, and he soaks in it. Flexing his long, muscular legs, he shifts his body in one last skyward salute before disappearing into an open crevasse in the cliff face. As he slowly prances his way back into the dense forest canopy, I revel in the finite moment that just unfolded before me.

A second feels like a long linger in time when in humble distance of a large creature in such a wild place.

ROW Adventures Highlights

During my week-long expedition with ROW Adventures, moments like these become routine, yet they never lose their novelty. Depending on the time of year, on a typical day at sea, you can expect to see humpback whales, sea lions, seals, and perhaps even orcas. In search of adventures like these, myself and a team of kayakers pack a day’s worth of provisions each morning, leaving our base camp at Little Kaikash to explore British Columbia’s Inside Passage each day.

During each outing, it's always a surprise what we will see. One lesson I learned quite quickly on the water is to have my camera settled in a swift access point, where I can easily lift the dry skirt fitted around my kayak seat to safely (and dryly) access my camera to capture these special moments on film. Although it's a balance of the delicate while subjected to the oscillating waters of the open ocean, it's well worth the gamble to photograph orcas breaching through the water within mere feet of you.

At one point, we're left completely immobile as a pod of Doll's porpoise comes speeding under our kayaks. Having the camera just beneath me proves a smart move, as I'm able to capture the porpoises as they breached through the water. At other points, there's plenty of time to capture the wildlife surrounding British Columbia. As we kayak the Browning Wall -- which locals call rock gardening -- we weave through large boulders in the sea that are hidden at high tide and revealed at low tide. As we maneuver through the patches of navigable sea, we see sea stars twice the size of our hands clinging to the walls.

In every color imaginable, they provide a bright glimmer against the black stone, their pink, purple, and green skin radiating in the crystalline water. 

One morning, we row to a neighboring beach near the Izumi Rocks. Going against the wind, we pass a bluff of submerged rock to witness a flock of seagulls soar into the air, shrouding the sky in a blanket of white like fallen ash embers leaving the recesses of a fire. Once we hit land, we tow our vessels to shore before de-layering in the afternoon sun. Resting my head on driftwood and burying my body between the slick stones, I drift off on this small spot, cocooned around volcanic cliffs that formed nearly 65 million years ago.

As we begin to eat, we hear our guide's radio go off that a pod of transient orcas are near. We wait anxiously to see the large marine mammals come within close range, and our patience is well awarded as a pod of orcas swarms the area. We see their slick, slate bodies bobbing up and down in the water, emerging in a synchronized staccato with the passage’s current. Unlike resident orcas, which largely swim these waters in search of salmon, transient orcas feast on smaller porpoises and seals, making them feared by most creatures that call this passage home.

Before we leave our lunch spot, I climb a bluff for the island’s best vantage point. Small pools form in circular pockets of the rock bed, some orange, some the color of caramel. The ocean’s surf crashes below, and all I can see are small jellyfish within the dark-specked water, as stately pine and cedar trees cast their shadows below. I spread my arms and let the wind blow through the ridges of my fingers. I feel free. It’s my final day camping and kayaking the Inside Passage, and I no longer care that my hair is slicker than usual, that my clothes are cast with bands of salt, that my feet are soggy within my boots.

This experience supremely supersedes any notion of discomfort that a cruise ship or boat may offer. To enjoy these moments, you have to meet nature where it is. You have to go all the way in.

Photo Tips for Documenting British Columbia’s Inside Passage

Kayaking requires a certain finesse, and there’s always a risk of turning the vessel over while in the water. But with instruction from a guide, you’ll find your rhythm quickly. No matter, it’s essential to pack a dry bag to keep your equipment safe while at sea. Each kayak is equipped with a storage area in the front, middle and rear of your seat, so you will be able to quickly access your camera for photographing orca, humpback whale, and seal emergences. If you have an extended zoom lens, bring it.

Although a kayak is the closest you can possibly get to British Columbia’s wildlife, you will love having the opportunity to capture these creatures in full form.

If you have two camera bodies, it may be a great idea to bring both. Fix an extended zoom lens to one camera body - like a 100m - 400mm Canon Lens - and fix a lens more appropriate for beautiful horizontal landscape images - like a 24mm - 70mm Canon Lens. This extra step could aid in capturing higher quality photos, as the animals move swiftly, and you likely won't have time to safely maneuver a lens change without your body being exposed to water sprinkles that splash into your kayak - even on the softest of days.

Having this versatility will come in handy while capturing British Columbia's wildlife.