A Life Defining Moment

Sunday, 24 April 2011 13:43 | Written by  Dawid Mocke
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Male Orca Male Orca

What is your definition of the phrase: “Life defining moment”? I will let you ponder on that for a while as I retell my experience last Friday morning. I really want to share it because this truly was “life defining”.

I spend a lot of time on the ocean around the bottom of Africa and I had thought that I'd experienced most of what can be experienced by a paddler in these parts.

I know now that I definitely haven’t and am once again humbled by our wonderful oceans. Life defining moments are few and far in between. Some are wonderful but I think most are terrifying. This one certainly was the latter.

Cape Point

It happened near Cape Point which, needs little introduction, and during a 30km paddle I was doing with Tom Schilperoort. This is one of our favourite routes: from Buffels Bay, 6km into the wind to “the Point”, turn at the point and then 25kms of beautiful, sometimes huge, downwind to Fish Hoek. I like defining this paddle with the famous words of our travelling paddler friend from Spain last year. Said in a thick Spanish accent: “I fear for my life…” Well, I’ve usually been relatively comfortable, albeit sometimes nervous, on this paddle, but today was different. Today was going to be “Life defining”.

Cape Point

Cape Point Challenge - 2010

Kamikaze gulls

The ocean was very alive today. The 30 knot winds combined with big swell are all you really need to ensure that all your senses are firing. You hear every splash and notice every whitecap. Overhead the gulls, gannets and occasional cormorants would swoop down, screech and “surf” the wind centimetres above the surface. It’s a natural romantic notion to imagine that they are playing with you as they swirl around you while you paddle. I have often imagined what they are thinking as they dive and fly around my head, sometimes going almost completely kamikaze. The truth is that, no matter what nice thoughts we conjure up, there is probably only one that they are thinking: “Mmmmmm…leftovers.”

I had spotted some seals earlier on a mission somewhere and also noticed some shimmers on the surface indicating a shoal of bait fish. There was loads of kelp floating around and every time I caught a glimpse of it I did a double take to check that it wasn’t some kind of animal; the predominant though obviously being: “Shark”...

Then, to top off the sensory overload, the towering cliff faces of “Carbo Tormentoso” (Cape of Storms as the early Portugese explorers named it) were reminding me of the 600 odd shipwrecks along this 60km coastline. All of this, combined with the concentration needed for downwind paddling, and the whole situation was literally on the edge of what one can handle.

Turning Downwind

As soon as we turned downwind from the Point it took less than a minute for Tom to be out of sight. I would occasionally see a splash of red as Tom’s vest showed up when we would simultaneously be on top of a swell. But in big conditions like today those moments are few and far in between. You need a lot of experience in this stuff to know when and where to look all depending on who you’re with and how fast they paddle. That’s the ironic part of paddling in big ocean conditions: it’s frowned upon going alone, but for the most part, you may as well be alone anyway. I was busy contemplating this fact and wondering if Tom would even hear me if I whistled or shouted. I was soon to find out. 

I have always been a shrewd observer and seem to have a knack for spotting wildlife. Today was no different and I was just wondering if I would spot the elusive Great White shark. Seeing sharks while paddling is not that common, so, if you can process the immediate carnal fear, it’s actually quite a privilege. The few times I have seen them, while still somewhat nervous, it’s been thrilling. Also on my radar were dolphins. Over the last two weeks, there has been a massive pod of over 1000 bottlenose dolphins in the area. I had paddled with them 3 times already, including a very memorable occasion the week before on exactly the same route and similar conditions. That time I got right into the middle of the pod which took at least 2 minutes to pass me.

Then, immediately following the pod were 2 humpback whales. Spotting humpbacks always gives you a bit of a scare as their smaller dorsal fin can be mistaken for a shark until the rest of its massive back breaks the surface. I was certainly hoping to see the dolphins again and was expecting to spot them. All things considering, knowing about the dolphins, humpbacks and half expecting to see a shark, its no wonder then that my next sighting was imminent.

...fin broke the water...

The fin broke the water directly in front of me about 50m away. I immediately thought it was the dolphins again, but it was the next fin I saw that literally made me gasp in fear. But this wasn’t once of those: “Ooooo you gave me a fright” or hesitant, nervous types of “fear”. In other words, it wasn’t watered down. This was true, 100%, undiluted, straight out the bottle, “I’m probably going to die an awful death” type of fear. This was serious. I saw a fin the same height as I am standing tall, break the surface. The fin was followed the rest of this awesome animal as it launched clear over the swell. It was big, very big; twice my pick-up big. And the distinctive black and white markings made it unmistakable. Killer Whale! And it wasn’t alone either. I had paddled right into a pod of them, and there was at least another 7 surfacing all around. The adrenaline rush was unlike I’ve ever experienced. 


Orcas - photographed in False Bay by renowned shark researcher Chris Fallows (http://www.apexpredators.com/)


Female Orca (smaller fin).  Males' fins are larger and more triangular

I was going at about 15km/h so the distance between me and the pod of these enormous animals was quickly halved before I put on the brakes with a solid brace stroke. They were going upwind against the swell so my course quickly changed to directly downwind.

Still, staying a “safe” distance from them was impossible and soon they were passing to my right, close enough for me to totally freeze and try look as inconspicuous and “un-prey-like” (whatever that looks like) as possible. To my relief they were clearly on their way somewhere and not sticking around. They passed me within moments and I caught the first swell in the other direction.

the loudest whoop...

I had to let out some of whatever was pent up inside and gave the loudest whoop I’ve ever done. I spotted Tom some distance away and whistled like I’ve never whistled before. Fortunately for my nerves he heard me and I saw him turn towards me. As soon as he got to me all I could say was “Killer Whales”. We tried to look for them again, but the sea was so big and rough that we caught no glimpse of them. And, so, just like that, it was over and we carried on paddling. The moment was truly surreal and I was on an adrenaline high for the rest of the paddle. 

They say it’s either fight or flight; this one was definitely flight! I’ve had life defining moments before but this one was truly terrifying. For the rest of the paddle, I jumped at the sight of any movement or floating piece of kelp. I keep wondering why I was so terrified: I mean people have seen and paddled with Killer Whales many times before and they’re not as infamous as say Great Whites are. Why was I worried? There are a number of reasons I can think of: one is that it was completely unexpected, not even near my radar; and two, at least with sharks you know what you’re in for. It just seems to me that Killer Whales are an enigma and a law unto themselves. Finally I think it was because I honestly realised how vulnerable I was, and that wasn’t fun at all. 

...truly magnificent...

But I’m done philosophising about the whole experience. Looking back now it was truly magnificent and I’m grateful to have experienced seeing them like that. Honestly though, I don’t want to see them again…no way. Anyway, how’s your definition of “Life Defining” going? Let me finish off with my definition. “A Life Defining moment is an in time experience that removes from your psyche all that is temporary (including all emotion and all learning) and presents you with either the reality of death or the wonder of creation. It reveals your vulnerability, it will spark introspection and it is impossible to leave such an experience unchanged.” I guess I could think about this much more, but that’s it for now. 

So there you have it. The short version: I went paddling last Friday and paddled right into a pod of Killer Whales. I was very deep and it was very scary and I’m hoping not to see them again but deep down I know that I will. And to finish off I would like say a massive “Hallelujah” and “Amen”. Firstly because I’m still breathing oxygen, but mostly because I’ve experienced yet another part of this beautiful, awesome, unbelievable creation.

[Article first published on the Paddling Centre blog: http://www.thepaddlingcentre.com/]

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