I love being next to the ocean.

I love being on the ocean.

But I have a mortal fear of being in the ocean.

It’s dark and brooding. There are monsters, myths, and the shadows of unknown terrors. Of all those who go into it, slightly fewer come out of it.

Victoria, British Columbia, has embraced me with warmth and Autumn sunshine each September for the last few years. I have always wanted to explore its waters. By kayak. But each time, like a scaredy squirrel, I have failed to pluck up the courage to overcome the irrational fear of ending up wetter than planned. Until the last visit.

On the floating boardwalk of Fisherman’s Wharf, Kelp Reef Adventures ply their trade in “active kayak tours”. Faking confidence, I committed.

I read, absorbed, and signed a waiver, disclaimer, limit of liability, or whatever it was which, given certain pelagic immersion anxieties, could have been more reassuringly called a Guarantee of Total Safety, Enjoyment, and Dryness. My guide shuffled the paperwork away and asked: “As there’s just the 2 of us today, would you prefer to go out in solo kayaks, or double up?”. Had he not read of my limited experience and sensed my apprehension? One double kayak, a safety briefing, and a brave face later, and we slid ourselves into the kayak on the “jetdock”, which allows kayaks to enter and exit the water without the need to get wet feet or, indeed, any version of unplanned total immersion. And so off we dryly glided.

Rounding Shoal Point, we turned to face Esquimalt across the Outer Harbour. From here, we had to cross the seaplane takeoff and landing area. By kayak. Avoiding anything with kayak-chomping propeller blades.

One dash across an active airport runway later, we turned to follow the rocky shoreline southwest past some islets and out beyond the harbour where an eyeful of Salish Sea scenery wrapped around me: the pale blue, smooth, shimmering waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the foreground, the snow-capped peaks and ridges of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State in the background. Ships at varying distances were making their lumbering ways out towards the open Pacific. Rafts of small birds burst up from the surface to become clouds of whirring murrelets and auklets, whilst flotillas of surf scoters drifted with little intent. Numerous other birds were liberally scattered across all points of the compass – from cormorants commuting along the shoreline to red billed black oystercatchers waiting patiently in pairs on the islets for the tide to ebb.

Various cetaceans and pinnipeds are common to the Salish Sea; from the orca and humpbacks that cruise the Straight, to the California and Steller’s sea lions that clutter the islands further out at Race Rocks, shouting at anything or anyone that has the audacity to pass too close. A light morning breeze brought hints of their presence.

Skirting close to some islets, the waters became viscous with sea lettuce and kelp fronds, these often breaking the surface like writhing sea serpents on the vague swell. We fished a stem from the surface that had recently been cast adrift and each took a sceptical bite. It was unsurprisingly salty and reminiscent of a spectacularly flavourless radish.

Coming up on a cluster of small, rocky, treeless islands separated by a channel, a commotion of splashing and snorting ahead, and blissfully unaware of our approach, two male harbour seals were in the throes of dispute. Two pairs of large, wet, forlorn eyes turned towards us, panicked, and simultaneously slid below.

We set the anchor, secured our paddles, and the entertainment act arrived. There is nothing an idle harbour seal likes more than apes in a kayak, parked up and stuffing their faces with sandwiches at the end of a long, yellow anchor line bumping in the swell and ripe for nibbling, chewing, rolling on, and rubbing against.

Reluctantly, we turned the bow through 180 degrees. We had paddled along the coast for about an hour and a half. It felt wild and remote but I suspect that if I’d been able to stand up, I could probably have seen the tops of executive suburban homes. But in that 90 minutes, we had seen a buzzing, whirring, snorting, and splashing of nature all around us and in full three dimensions.

In the paddling and the looking and the seeing of this brief adventure I had managed to suspend my fears of the deep, the dark, the shadows, the monsters, myths, and other assorted oceanic terrors that had so often stopped me from walking onto Fisherman’s Wharf, signing the waiver, and grabbing a paddle. I had avoided being in the ocean and found another reason why it’s so good to be on the ocean.

  • John Hartshorn
  • : I live in the northeast of England. I am a geographer, a hiker, a wildlife & nature lover, a scenery junkie, a husband, a father to 3 kids, companion to a border terrier, and a student of Shūkōkai karate… with climate emergency and biodiversity loss anxieties. Although the day job gets totally in the way of what I'd rather be doing, I hope that a time will come when I see more, do more for nature, and generally give more back.
  • : https://www.veeringnorth.com/
  • : https://twitter.com/VeeringNorth
  • : https://www.instagram.com/veering.north/
  • : My site is a fairly new collection of travel writings, thoughts, and commentaries on places, topics, and issues relating to the natural world. In communicating some of my own experiences and topics that have inspired me, informed me, annoyed me, and that connect me to certain places and experiences, I hope it inspires others in some small way to also think more about our changing planet and its biosphere, and to then perhaps contribute towards its long term improvement.
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  • : https://www.veeringnorth.com/nature/pelagic-terrors-in-victorias-warm-embrace/