Most visitors to Nimmo Bay, British Columbia, expect to get up close and personal with black bears while exploring on foot. After all, the luxe, timber-framed lodge on Canada’s Pacific coast is smack in the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest.

They may not expect to approach an even more massive carnivore ... in a kayak.

Enter Butterfield & Robinson, the high-end adventure outfitter whose customizable Bears & Whales itineraries offer the thrill of a lifetime: paddling with killer whales. Whereas most guests to the area head out on large motorboats to track pods of orcas and humpbacks, Butterfield & Robinson takes the excitement up a few notches in their kayaks.

“Whale watching in the Broughton Archipelago [just beyond Nimmo’s shores] is incredible,” said Tom Abraham, the trip planner at Butterfield & Robinson who masterminded the Bears & Whales itinerary after serving as a kayaking guide in the area for more than a decade. “It’s nothing like whale watching in Victoria or the San Juan Islands, where you’ll get 20 or 30 boats around the whales. Here, it’s just three or four boats around, and everyone’s spread out. And these whales love to give a good show.”

And when you're in a solo kayak, you can get literally eye-to-eye with a 66,000-pound cetacean.

So Close, You Can Touch Them
Seeing orcas from the sea-level vantage point of a kayak has typically been possible only if you’re willing to commit to less-than-luxe, multi-day kayaking trips designed for adventure sports enthusiasts. But Abraham manages to get his guests into the heart of the action and back again in a half-day's time.

It starts with a boat ride to one of the outlying Broughton islands, where adventurers find their kayaks lined up on a pristine beach. (The exact island is chosen anew each morning, depending on the day’s tidal activity.) Then it’s off toward the salmon runs, where hundreds of orcas and humpbacks can congregate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Most days, you’ll find groups of three to seven whales at once, said Abraham. That in itself is a sight to be seen. “Orcas can be very active,” he explained. “They love to tail-flap and fin-flap and roll around and play. They’re more like dolphins that way.” Humpbacks, which have made a resurgence in the area over the last several years, are also a dramatic species. “They like to breach a lot, but they’ll also create bubble nets while they fish, which is very dynamic.”

Especially when compared to watching slow-moving gray whales, which Abraham said is like “waiting for paint to dry on a wall,” you’re much more likely to “to get a show” with orcas and humpbacks.

“I’ve seen family groups of 20 to 22 whales,” explained Abraham. “And if you get lucky, you can have a very close, very private experience.” He said orcas in particular have a real sense of curiosity: one of their behaviors, called “spy-hopping,” makes human visitors feel as if they’re the ones under the looking glass. “You’re not supposed to chase whales down,” said Abraham, “but sometimes they take an interest in you and come so close to you that if you wanted, you could reach out and touch them.” It’s nothing short of magical, he said.

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