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'Terrified and immensely excited': Vancouver kayaker shares epic photos from orca encounter

"My hands and legs were trembling."

A Vancouver photographer has captured a series of stunning images from a recent orca encounter.

Liam Brennan recently graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in Environmental Sciences. He's used his expertise in environmental studies to help him understand the natural world, particularly when it comes to photographing wildlife. 

"It's been a passion for over a decade," he told V.I.A., adding that he enjoys shooting landscapes but animals have always been his favourite subject. 

The 23-year-old wildlife enthusiast added that he also has "an affinity for the ocean" and spent three years working as a sea kayaking guide around Vancouver. While he grew up in Ottawa, his father is from New Brunswick and the family often stays at his cottage there, which is an ideal place to spend time on the water. 

On May 10, Brennan headed out on a kayak adventure near the Jericho Sailing Centre in the evening. He said the water was calm and he was just hoping to spot some of the usual marine suspects while he was out on the water.  After he paddled out, he observed several of them, including many harbour porpoises, seals, and seabirds. 

Around 8:30 p.m., he heard the blow of a whale and saw the large dorsal fin of a male orca in the distance. He stayed where he was and observed two other individuals with it, which he believes were another male and a female (the females have a smaller and rounder fin while the males have a larger and very pointed one). 

The orcas proceeded to swim right by his kayak, "almost as if they were investigating me!" Brennan exclaimed.

"Astonishingly, an orca subsequently 'spyhopped,' raising its head out of the water and I managed to capture an image of this individual in front of Mt. Baker and the city," he said. 

Vancouver photographer shares how he captured jaw-dropping stills of orcas

While it was a challenge to photograph the black-and-white cetaceans as the light was fading, Brennan said it helped that he knew his camera so well (he's been using it since he was 18), and was able to quickly adjust to the changing conditions.

"Using a high shutter speed is critical to 'freeze' any action. And then simultaneously being aware of your surroundings since a big wave can come," he explained. 

Capturing a clear image on a kayak is also a struggle, so the photographer leans his body far out across the kayak to gain stability. 

"Salt water and electronics do not mix," he cautioned. "Not many people are crazy enough to bring an expensive camera into the ocean."

Brennan described the experience as "one-in-a-lifetime" and "awe-inspiring," adding that he was mildly terrified and immensely excited to observe the orcas in their natural environment from a sea kayak.

"My hands and legs were trembling. I couldn't remember a time in my life when my well-being and existence was in the hands of another animal," he said. 

"Time definitely stood still."

While he notes that luck was a big part of the encounter, having an understanding of bathymetry -- a knowledge of the underwater depth of the local ocean floor -- allowed him to plan the experience to be in the area where he was most likely to spot large marine animals. 

Brennan loves marine life but is also an avid birdwatcher, having submitted numerous observations to the B.C. section of the online database iNaturalist

"I've always especially loved birds and community science is so important. My passion came from the bird book. The more people who can know about how our ecosystems work the better," he said. 

But despite humans encroaching on their habitats, the photographer applauds the resilience of the natural world -- and its stunning beauty. 

Commenting on one of his photos he said: "The orca cruising in front of the skyline is the strength of the natural world to persist."