Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Get out of the kayak cockpit to find a better view

My best sea otter video ever was taken from the shore...

It seems kind of strange to write this on a paddling blog, but sometimes, you can find the best view and take your best photos by getting out of your kayak.

This came to mind recently after two British tourists kayaking on Monterey Bay had a close encounter of the worst kind with a humpback whale. The whale – probably in the 40-to-50 ton range – breached and then dropped squarely on the Brits’ tandem kayak just off Moss Landing.

It's almost impossible to approach wildlife on the water without disturbing them, especially females with young 

Miraculously, the pair not only survived – they escaped without injury. Tom Mustill and
Charlotte Kinloch later recounted the incident in numerous press interviews, as a tour
boat video of the humpback belly-flop attracted thousands of hits on the Web. 

Mustill and Kinloch (Photo from The Inquisitr News)
Said Kinloch to a British media outlet, “It felt like being in an avalanche, like a bus landing on us.” Added Mustill, a wildlife filmmaker, “I remember coming to the surface and thinking, ‘How am I not dead? Maybe I’ve got lots of injuries but I’m in shock and can’t feel them,’” he said. “Then I saw Charlotte and thought, ‘How is she not dead?’”

Blimey, those are good questions. By coincidence, I happened to be in Moss Landing just two days later and walked out on a dune at Moss Landing State Park. Sure ‘nuff, more than a dozen humpbacks were feeding perhaps a mile offshore, while two whale-watching boats and four kayaks trolled the area.

Tour boat passengers saw quite a show. The kayakers, not so much. Even though seas were fairly calm, paddlers sit no more than three feet above water. And a moderate  swell frequently obscured their view that day. Plus, with the benefit of headlines about “Brits meet blubber,” the paddlers wisely kept their distance – probably a couple hundred yards from the closest whales. Bottom line, they couldn’t see much, or get a decent photo.

A beautiful kelp bouquet on the beach would never have been seen from out on the water....
...And it's difficult to capture details from a moving kayak

It’s easy to understand how the hapless paddlers got into trouble, and the whales were probably in a feeding frenzy over schools of anchovy attracted by unseasonably warm water. But hey, never get between a dog and its bone or a whale and its snack pack.

I got some great views of the whales from the dune that day – never seen so many in such a short span of time – not to mention the number of breaches and fluke (tail) sightings. Which got me thinking about an alternate approach to kayaking and nature watching. And further confirmation came a few minutes later when I got my best sea otter video ever -- while looking down on the Moss Landing harbor from the shore.

Shore bird photos can be especially difficult from a boat, but a telephoto lens and quiet approach do the trick 
Sure, it’s a thrill to see a sea otter or seal at eye level. But if you’re close enough to alter the animal’s behavior, you’re too close. Likewise, being out on the water, especially moving water, requires close attention. It’s hard to focus the camera when you’re moving one way, the subject is moving another, and you’re both bobbing in the water. Standing still on terra firma, with binoculars or a telephoto lens camera in hand, may offer a better view without disturbing wildlife.

So if you can find an opportunity to exit the boat to watch, listen, and photograph, you may be better off. A kayak may certainly help you find good vantage points. Here are three simple tips toward that goal: 
Making tracks at Moss Landing

·         Select a kayak that makes it easy to get out and stretch your legs. I had a very good boat for several years but finally gave it up because I consistently scraped my shins on the rim of the small cockpit. (I enjoy compliments about my shapely legs – when they’re not bleeding.) Just an inch or two more in cockpit length can make it much easier. And the more stops you make, the more you will appreciate quick entry and exit. 

·         Pick your landing spot. Muddy conditions are to be expected. Use your paddle to test the depth of the mud – and its firmness – before you exit the boat, or you may face a “gooey death” – or worse, public humiliation.

·         Develop a system to protect your gear if you capsize or drop it. Waterproof binoculars and cameras cost more and may deliver less, due to their moisture-proof requirements. Ditto the best water cases. I opt to carry two cameras: a relatively good telephoto model that I keep in a heavy-duty dry bag until it’s safe to use it, and a cheaper waterproof camera for quick shots. Do whatever works for you, but practice under ideal conditions until you’ve got your system down pat.

© Glenn Brank 2015