“In all the 15 years I’ve been guiding in this area, I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” says Dave Pinel, shaking his head.

All eight of us in our flotilla of mostly-newbie kayakers—including my husband and two young sons—sit agog, watching a solitary sea otter rolling and spinning in the glassine, kelp-filled bay off Spring Island, one of the Mission Group of islands on the remote northwest coast of Vancouver Island, and base camp for our four-day trip with West Coast Expeditions (WCE).

This evening, just hours since our float plane from Gold River dropped us off, we’re having our introductory paddle, and Dave—guide and co-owner (with his wife Caroline Fisher, and Bev Hansen from the First Nations village of Houpsitas)—has just given us a primer in sea otter viewing etiquette.

With about 1,400 of the still-threatened population of sea otters living in Kyuquot Sound and in the nearby waters of Checleset Bay Ecological Reserve (once hunted to near-extinction), the chance of seeing them on the water is high. At the top of the “responsible viewing” list: Stay at a distance of at least 100 yards.

The young male sea otter floats on his back, blithely licking and rubbing the fur on his belly and scrubbing his face and ears with his forepaws like a sped-up cat. Meanwhile, he’s drifting to within a few boat-lengths of us.

“This guy’s breaking all the rules,” Dave laughs. Once he’s sure our proximity isn’t stressing-out the otter, he switches back into naturalist mode: “This guy’s a teenager, about 40 or 50 pounds. He’ll spend about a third of his day eating, a third sleeping and a third grooming. Sound familiar, Liam?”

My son, on the cusp of 13, smirks and lowers his waterproof camera to shoot an eye-level video of the otter he’s already dubbed “Otis” (after the bluesman famous for chilling and watching the tide roll away, he tells me later).

Nine-year-old Dylan is up front in my tandem. When “Otis” surprises us with his “spyhopping” moves—popping up in the water like Orca whales do, to get a better look at what’s going on above the surface—Dylan leans forward and pats the deck of the kayak wishfully as if encouraging a lap dog. When you’re sharing a wave with a creature just a paddle-length away, it takes a lot of restraint not to reach out and touch them.

One of the reasons we came to Kyuquot Sound for a family kayaking adventure was for the otters. Paddling with killer whales in places like Johnstone Strait offers an opportunity for awe and wonder of the highest order—for a spiritual encounter, even. But WCE’s “Sea Kayak with Sea Otters” slogan struck us as a better “first” than kayaking with kids in close proximity to bears, wolves and other top-tier carnivores.

Kyuquot Sound is growing in popularity as a Vancouver Island kayaking destination. The highly accessible and sheltered Broken Group (between Ucluelet and Bamfield) is so busy in peak season now, and in Clayoquot Sound, close to Tofino, the hum of whale watching tours and float planes is a constant.

Just south of the wild and unpredictable waters around the Brooks Peninsula, paddling in Kyuquot Sound offers sheltered waters and endless islets to explore, with the opportunity to venture into exposed waters on the outside. Humpback whale sightings are an occasional treat. Eagles, puffins and seals are staples. And the “swimming teddy bears” that raft-up in groups of up to 100 to snooze and groom close to shore, are just icing on the cake.

We spend the morning at low tide exploring the intertidal life on Spring Island, like the predatory sunflower sea star—“the T-Rex of sea stars” as Dave calls it—the 24-limbed giant that can move at up to a meter a minute. Pinel and Fisher’s charming two-year-old son Morgan tags along on most outings, popping out his soother to identify hermit crabs, sea sacs and chitons along the way.

When the fog lifts, we take a two-hour paddle past an abandoned village on Aktis Island and a sheer cliff face they call “The Wall of Life,” and lunched on Paradise Island. By happy accident, our guides/camp-chefs forgot all the cutlery back at the base camp and we eat a delicious lunch of Mexican black bean and corn salad and guacamole using the sun-bleached clam shells that cover the beach.

Evenings on Spring Island offer the comforts not of home exactly, but at least a home base. Welcome after a day on the water are the great meals in the see-through kitchen-dining hut, an outlet to power up cameras, a campfire pit, open grassy area for kids to play, night hikes, al fresco (but roofed!) outhouse and shower, and wood-floored canvas beachside tents.

On our last full day, we set out early into the fog for a 7-nautical-mile (13-km) journey among the islets and sea-stacks that appear and disappear in sun and fog for most of the day. We lunch on a black sand beach, gather fossils, paddle past a few more fog-shrouded otter rafts and the village in Kyuquot, catch some good swell and tuck into Barter Cove for a history lesson in fur trading before paddling back in a cross wind just scary enough to enliven the senses. We make a family pledge to come back for more.

If you go
4-day (3-night) Spring Island Explorer kayaking package with base camp comforts start at $1339 per person. Families sharing tents receive 15 and 20% discount on third and fourth tentmates. Visit web link.

Getting there
By Air: Float plane on a scheduled or charter flight to Spring Island with Air Nootka: web link. Charters also available with Harbour Air and Vancouver Island Air.

By Sea: The working coastal freighter MV Uchuck III—a converted WWII U.S. Navy minesweeper—sails from Gold River to Kyuquot (10 hours) every Thursday and returns Friday: web link WCE will arrange pick-up from the village to Spring Island (10 mins by motorboat)

By Land: Drive to Fair Harbour (a 4-hr drive from Campbell River over paved and gravel roads), park your vehicle and arrange a water taxi pick-up with WCE (45-min ride).

A bit of history: The sea otter population was about 300,000 and its range stretched in a long arc along the north Pacific from Japan to Mexico.

The Russian and European frenzy for pelts that began in the 1700s brought the sea otter population to near-extinction by the beginning of the 1900s.

It is the thickness of their fur (160,000 hairs per square cm) that made sea otter pelts so desirable for furriers and is just what keeps this small marine mammal alive in cold coastal waters without blubber. It allows them to feed, mate, give birth and sleep in the water, only going ashore occasionally to dig for clams (unlike their more common landlubberly cousin, the river otter.)

When the last otter on the B.C. coast was shot near Kyuquot in 1929, there were less than 2,000 known to exist worldwide. They were given official protection in 1911.

About 40 years ago, 89 otters were re-introduced to the Bunsby Islands (10 kms north of Kyuquot) from populations in Alaska. Thanks to the near-ideal conditions of the Sound—an abundance of kelp and the otter’s favourite foods (sea urchins, crab and clams)—their numbers here have remained stable for a decade now.

Suzanne Ahearne is an otter-loving, Vancouver-based photojournalist and writer who would much rather live on the Island.