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Whalewatching in BC with Susan MacKay
How one woman turned her passion into a lifestyle

Susan MacKay has always loved boats but when her husband Grant died unexpectedly a few years ago she decided to keep their seaborne business alive and stay on the water. She is passionate about whales and I spent the day with her seeking out these giants. Look her up at Whales and Dolphins BC or on Facebook at WhalesDolphinsBC.

Women on the Road: How exactly do you travel and why do you travel the way you do?
Susan MacKay: Visiting with whales, dolphins and porpoise are my passion. And the only way to get there is by boat. These marine mammals have a huge area of travel, which makes sightings along the coast of British Columbia even more of an experience. All my visits with whales are made with respect and care to their well-being.

I operate two boats. One is my home away from home while the other is a runabout towed behind to get closer to the water and the homes of the whales and dolphins. As a smaller open boat, it is a great platform to photograph, video and record underwater acoustics. I also carry a small rowing dinghy to get to shore.

whalewatching in BCWatching whales cavort off Vancouver Island (Photo Susan Mackay)

WOTR: What is a typical day at sea like?
Susan: There's nothing typical about it. Every day brings something different. Weather, whalewatching and scenery. I may be in the same anchorage for days, but if there are whales close by, I head out on the “skiff”, my 18 ft runabout, to investigate or just sit and drift with them. Dropping the hydrophone lets me listen and record their vocalizations underwater.

My cameras are always at hand for photos to identify individual animals or to catch extremely special moments. If whales aren't close, there's the spectacular scenery, birds and even a bit a fishing. Other times, depending on my location, I may even have a chance to have a coffee with friends whom I usually talk to over the radio from boat to boat.

WOTR: And the whales?
Susan: The whales...that could take a while. I give hour-long lectures and presentations that always run over time from the questions. There's just so much to know and so much we still don't know. The different species all have their own peculiarities in behaviour and appearance. Many individual whales are well known and return to the same area every year. But it's never the same. Without experiencing it, it's a bit difficult to explain.

Whales and dolphins are so intelligent and some are so very playful. Nothing can describe the personal experience of having a whale in the the wild, and I use that term to cover all Cetaceans, look you knowingly in the eye. It brings tears of joy to many people, my non-boating mother included.

whalewatching in BC listening for whalesoundSusan Mackay listens for whalesong

WOTR: How did you end up a boater?
Susan: My late husband, Grant always had boats. His great uncle built many of the public docks along the BC coast and his father did some survey work for our coastal navigation charts. It was in his blood. One weekend we borrowed a boat and had a miserable cruise. It poured overnight, the boat leaked, its lights didn't work and everything we had with us was drenched. We had dolphins playing in our wake, and I was hooked. There's nothing like being on the water. Your whole perspective changes.

WOTR: Where did you get your boat and how did you learn to be a captain?
Susan: All our boats came from the Vancouver area. The first boat we bought was a size in between the two boats I operate now. One rule we had was that I had to know everything necessary to operate, troubleshoot, and hopefully repair the boats.Navigation, radio and medical training as well as 20+ years of experience operating and in helping with the mechanical side of things later, when he passed on, I continued doing what we both loved so much. Having been born in central Europe, it's hard to imagine how I could say that it's now in my blood, but it is. I can't imagine not having a boat or getting on the water.What about the practicalities - shopping, pets, weather?I usually plan on taking most dry and canned goods with me. The boat's big enough to handle the weight, and I'd rather spend my time enjoying the ocean than shopping. I also have a deep freezer on board which allows me to cook meals ahead. It does take planning and timing. Going into a port for water, fuel and laundry also means a stop at the grocery store for fresh produce and any needs. 

Cats aren't too difficult to have on a boat. A clean litter box is certainly easier than having a dog that needs to be taken to shore on a regular basis. Cats swim if they fall in and once they've done that once they become more careful and try to avoid getting soaked.

Weather can be unpredictable at times and despite regular Coast Guard reports over the radio, the key is to expect the unexpected. Sometimes you just have to wait it out. Many of our protected fjords can offer calm seas when other areas are uncomfortable. With its hundreds of miles of coastline dotted with islands and inlets, the BC coast offers some spectacular and calm protected water.

whalewatching in BC - dolphinsDolphins in BC (Photo Susan Mackay)

WOTR: Have you had any difficult moments, and how did you get out of them?
Susan: There have been a few. They say if you haven't got a story or incident to tell, you haven't been boating.

One time Grant and I pushed our weather window a bit too far. That's how most problems come about. The storm force winds hit us in a particularly nasty stretch of water known as Hecate Strait. We were exhausted by the 14 hours it took to cross and everything in the cupboards stayed on the floor till we were safely anchored in a calm bay. We never did do that crossing to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii again, and I don't plan to.

On my own, I have had to call the Coast Guard for help one time when I couldn't find the source of ocean water coming in. I had a problem with the pumps so I asked for help. The boat had to come out of the water to be repaired and I now carry replacement pumps.

Somehow, most things can be dealt with easily and, with some care, avoided entirely. I'd rather be overly cautious, less stressed and safe.

WOTR: What next?
Susan: When I look at this coast, I know I could spend the rest of my life exploring new areas and not seeing it all. There are so many incredible bays, passages, islands and inlets, it is truly amazing, and they are all different. Even some of my favourite areas seem different after a few years. Together with my passion for whales, dolphins and nature it's a never ending quest for knowledge, sharing and enjoying.

The website Whales and Dolphins BC is taking a big part of my time monitoring and tracking these wonderful animals. I put out tons of information and there are many sightings reports, contributed by anyone, which are posted regularly to share the information and excitement. I love watching some of the babies from newborn until they become adults with their own calves. It is truly amazing.

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