Looking Back and Looking Forward

To start thinking about the upcoming field season, I thought I would revisit a reflection written at the end of last summer.


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August 21 2015, Hanson Island, BC

As I write this, I’m watching a lone humpback whale make its way slowly along the edge of Parson Island, heading south toward Johnstone Strait. Four long breaths hang misty in the cool morning air where it surfaces, then up comes the unique mostly black, white-tipped fluke as it takes a deep dive. I make a note in the logbook: “6:02 HB- PI, S, BCX”.  In the low morning light, it’s still too dark to tell with certainty which individual I’m observing. Leaning on the lab deck railing, I see three gulls resting on a floating log on the still water and I can hear the shrill laugh-like call of a bald eagle perched in a cedar tree above me, answered by another out of sight farther along the shore. I’m sipping strong black coffee, essential to an early morning shift, but of course the day is already old to the birds. I notice that it’s considerably darker at this time of day than was the case when I arrived in early June, when this kind of low first light was reserved for the 4:30am fog. Reluctantly I realize that just as tides turn, seasons change, and my summer on Hanson Island is drawing to a close. It is not easy to find the right words to explain the value of my experience at OrcaLab, but this will be my best attempt to do it justice.

I came to OrcaLab without knowing exactly what to expect. I am familiar with the rural, rugged coastline of New England, but the remote Pacific Northwest feels distinctly more wild. Leaving behind things like pavement and a cell phone was a welcome respite from distractions and artifacts of modern civilization, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been surrounded by a relatively untouched expanse of coastline and forest.

It has been such a privilege to experience the acoustic environment of orcas. There is another world that exists just below the surface; another dimension of their lives and a language we can scarcely begin to understand. Orcas are a highly social animal and depend heavily on sound. They experience the world in such a different way that we can’t readily comprehend the extent of impacts that human intrusion into their lives might have, but hydrophones present a rare opportunity to experience a part of that disruption for ourselves. A night shift in the lab immerses you in the orcas’ dark acoustic world and impresses upon you the perspective of other lives and realities that are not our own. Listening to piercing, echoing clear calls – some close, some more distant, rolling over miles of still ocean provides a glimpse into a world entirely apart from our own. Over the summer, I have become familiar with the dramatic effect of boat traffic on the underwater environment. Too often, a logbook entry during a recording is not about whales at all, but a note of turning down one hydrophone feed to accommodate the abrasive, high-pitched noise of an outboard motor roaring across Johnstone Strait, or removing stations entirely, one by one, as a barge slowly rumbles and churns through the lab’s acoustic range. This abruptly pulls your focus away from the whales’ behaviours, and reminds you of the broader human agenda that threatens their home and well-being.

Because of this, the value of land-based research and whale watching cannot be overstated. I was drawn to OrcaLab in the first place because of its guiding principle of noninvasive research. Personal encounters in such a setting happen only on the whales’ terms, which make those close experiences all the more gratifying. Of many such events, a few stand out in particular in my memory. I spent two weeks at the Cracroft Point out-camp with another assistant, and during that time there was one day (July 22) that a relaxed, social gathering of orcas in Johnstone Strait was just a few matrilines short of a ‘superpod’. First to arrive were the R5s. In my mind I can still see the line of towering black dorsal fins of the group’s five adult males as they rounded the corner from Blackney Pass and turned east toward us. They rose to the surface, sharply exhaling together. I still get goose bumps when I imagine them slowly sinking back into the water in perfect synchrony. They were joined soon after by whales of the R17s, A24s and A34s. As we witnessed this rare scene unfolding, about 50 whales present in total, we mused that orcas are at the same time highly social and highly cooperative, and that very little aggression exists among them, at least in a natural setting. It only makes sense that they might possess some kind of social intelligence surpassing that of human societies.

Once I head home, I will miss the smell of cedar and salt on a low tide breeze, and the sound of blows on still water at night. I’ll try to remember the spectrum of colours reflecting the many moods of Blackney Pass, from a bright azure (or maybe Kokanee) blue to a cool steel grey and everything in between. My time at OrcaLab has been incredible and will stay with me forever. I have met so many kind and passionate people who continue to inspire me, thanks to directors Paul and Helena who are wonderfully generous, dedicated and inspiring mentors.

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