Town run today. Everyone’s laundry bags, recyclables and grocery lists have been loaded onto the boat and I gladly offered to stay back at the lab and hold the fort, awaiting clean clothes and fresh produce from Telegraph Cove. A foggy day with quiet whales meant I had time to finally sit down and write. When I first set out to keep this blog I had glossed over in my memory how long and busy days here can be. Since there is no definite start or end to a day of work , time has a tendency to fly off the calendar without much notice.
About ten days ago I stepped off the June Cove onto Hanson Island. As if no time had passed I stepped back into the busy rhythm of August at OrcaLab, which is to say that after my two restful days in Alert Bay, I was soon settling in for a six hour overnight in the lab. Night shifts are some of my favorite times in the lab, when darkness pulls your focus in, and in the absence of cameras to monitor and without boat noise to work around, the lab fills with the ancient harmonics of northern resident orca calling to their families. Having completed hours of recordings and annotations, even as voices of individual matrilines become more familiar, I still can hardly speculate as to what information or knowledge these communications carry. Every time I hear the lilting calls I am still left with a deep sense of wonder at the vastness of all there is in the world out of our realm of understanding.
To begin to better understand the daily lives of whales you must acclimate to their patterns and movements, on their time frame. That’s why OrcaLab is a 24hr ’round the clock operation: when the whales are awake, we are too. This particular night, the A42s were headed west up the Johnstone Strait, followed by a group of C’s while the A30s were making their way north to Blackfish Sound. We knew all of this from acoustic monitoring alone. A network of hydrophones picks up all underwater sound over 50 square km. Using the fact that matrilines always travel as a group, and the fact that different matrilines have noticeable differences in accents and dialects, this information allows us to locate them based on where we hear specific calls. With the Cracroft Point outcamp’s feed set in the center on the mixing board, someone wearing headphones in the lab hears the Robson Bight “Critical Point” range on the right and the sound from Parson Island on the left. By locating calls and considering how clearly they are coming through, and whether they echo to adjacent stations, we can tell with some certainty where a given family of whales is located using sound alone. That is, if they reveal themselves with calls. If they’re quiet, then all bets are off until morning when sightings reports start coming in on the VHF radio.
It’s a good feeling anticipating a new field season, returning to familiar names and places. Most things are just as I remember- sea lions hauling out in the same rock, a bald eagle pair nesting above them- but some things have changed. For one, Blackney, A38 is gone now. He was the first orca that I learned to identify on sight by his 6-foot wavering dorsal fin. I distinctly remember the forceful ‘KWOOF’ sound as he surfaced and exhaled in the kelp off the lab deck during a rare close pass on the Hanson Island side of his namesake Blackney Pass. By the end of last summer he was lagging behind the rest of the A30s, and researchers were speculating about his health. But, the world still turns and 30s have a new calf this year. Whales tend to have uncanny timing that way.
This is where I spend most of my time, making recordings inside the lab, and documenting sightings outside:
OrcaLab has had a steady stream of visitors since I arrived; Peter Thomas the wildlife photographer who made iconic images of wild orca in the 1980s has been here this week with his family as he does every summer. Yesterday, representatives from World Cetacean Alliance stopped by to see the lab and interview the directors and assistants, in the process of potentially establishing Northern Vancouver Island as a Whale Heritage Site, which would be greatly instrumental in future preservation of this unique area as a tool for policy and community engagement. I was on shift in the lab while Paul was explaining to them the Explore project and the goal to connect people virtually in live time to these natural places and wild behaviours worth preserving. Right on cue, as if he knew we were discussing the importance of quality habitat and wanted to demonstrate, A66 (“Surf”) detoured from his pod’s line of travel and rolled into view on the new underwater Rubbing Beach camera located in the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. Northern Resident orca exhibit a culturally unique behaviour, ‘beach rubbing’: they come into shallow pebbly bays in a few specific locations, and rub their huge bodies on the smooth stones. This is a screen shot from the monitor and his quick rub was streamed to Explore viewers.
It’s incredible the level of site fidelity of resident orca. Every summer they return to this place, with various matrilines tending to favour specific areas. Alert Bay is ‘home of the killer whale’ and has been for thousands of years as families of resident orca and their transient cousins have traveled these waters, each generation passing down location-specific knowledge of good feeding spots and other aspects of whale culture tied to this area.
The Johnstone Strait region is a unique place, and is still wild, with so much ecological value worth protecting. There is a strong sense of place here on the ‘salmon coast’ as it’s called, where ecological integrity depends on delicate balance, and clear connectedness is more pronounced than in developed areas. With the recent proposed oil pipeline projects on the BC coast, we seem to have a choice between oil and whales. I hope that at the end of the day the case for this place is strong enough because we are newcomers here.