"Whoah! What was that?" Derek Nixon yells, as the telltale pfffft of air blasting from nostrils sounds from somewhere disconcertingly close to us. The rest of our group has stroked ahead to the sheltered waters of a nearby cove, leaving Nixon and me behind on our standup paddleboards, alone on open ocean. We turn toward the noise and see a large brown whiskered head sticking up from the water's surface, maybe 50 feet away. Another pops up beside it.
Steller sea lions. Big ones.
The pair size us up through inscrutable black eyes for a moment before sinking back into the sea.
We pull our paddles from the water and wait for the heads to reappear. Our 14-foot-long boards suddenly seem very small—the only thing between us and the 1,000-foot-deep ocean and the creatures that live in it. The surface is still. The windless air smells of wrack and saltwater. In the distance, a raven cackles; it could be laughing at us, or maybe just warning us to stay away from sea mammals with large brown whiskered heads.
It's the second day of our paddleboard journey into the Great Bear Rainforest, a place that lends itself to magical thinking, and already I'm starting to get the sense that the animals are trying to tell us things.