OrcaLab assistants 2016 – Nik

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My time at OrcaLab (by Niklas Hausemann)

Ever since I first visited OrcaLab with my parents in 2012 for a quick chat and coffee with Paul and Helena, I knew that at some point I would like to come and volunteer over a summer.

My first time to Vancouver Island was in 2008 when I stayed in Telegraph Cove, not far from Hanson Island. I was fascinated – I come from the countryside, but this was something completely new to me. There is something mystical and wonderful about this area that intrigued me to come back almost every summer… The amazing wildlife and places that no human being has ever touched, but also the kindness of Canadians and the beautiful culture of the First Nations.

After almost 20 hours of travelling from home in Germany I arrived in the evening of July 1st in Alert Bay. The first night I was invited to stay with Ernest Alfred, a teacher and warden at the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve, and his wife Nic. Ernest told me a lot about Alert Bay’s history and it just so happened that day the Big House was celebrating which gave me the opportunity to attend and experience a First Nation’s potlatch. I’ve been to Alert Bay before and heard stories about the First Nation culture, but it was a stunning experience to hear these stories directly from someone native and I’m very thankful for that.

The First Nations have a long history with orcas, which is one of the main reasons why I came here. There were also lots of other things I was looking forward to, like meeting people from all over the world! People from Japan, Finland, Austria, America, some Canadians and a lot of people from Britain were coming to OrcaLab and I couldn’t wait to meet them.

Camping on a remote island was a new experience to me. It took me a few days to adjust to cold nights and a slightly inadequate sleeping bag. I had to give up a lot of comfort, but that made it a more intense experience – I got closer to nature and I grew to appreciate it even more. I love waking up to the sound of some of the calling birds, for example the bald eagles or Stellar’s Jays (on the contrary, I will not miss the dinosaur-like roars of the Great Blue Heron), and also the waves crashing against the shore in the morning. I also enjoy gazing up at the night sky full of stars whilst sitting in the outdoor bathtub, full of seawater and heated by a fire underneath.

It was two weeks before the first orcas turned up after I arrived on Hanson Island. That gave me time to get familiar with OrcaLab’s work. I learned how to use the sound mixer for the six hydrophone stations, placed at different locations around the Northern Resident orca’s core area, to track the whales’ movement. Every time we hear calls we start a recording as well as trying to observe the whales on camera without disturbing them.

Locating and tracking whales just by sound on different hydrophones takes some time to pick up… You need to develop a feeling for orca acoustics and their moving behaviours to understand where they are and in which direction they’re heading.

The most amazing thing that happened to me whilst listening to the audio was during my first night shift. I heard two orca groups communicating over a large distance of several kilometers. One group was coming from the east at Robson Bight and another one from the west at Blackfish Sound. Within an hour and a half they were coming closer and closer until they finally went quiet – at that point we could hear blows just outside the lab. After about twenty minutes they split up and went their separate ways. So, apparently they planned a meeting. Since that night I can’t stop thinking about why they would be meeting and what they might have said to each other.

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We are working six-hour shifts with rotations of three people in the lab, but as soon as you hear the famous “orcaaaa” yell, everyone immediately drops everything and sprints to the lab (whether you’re in your pjs, eating your breakfast or even having a shower!), grabbing white boards and pens, a walkie talkie or their camera. You can always feel the excitement in the air when the whales pass by and everyone is eager to take great photos and try to identify them.

Sometimes the orcas also surprise us, stopping by at night when it’s pitch-black. I discovered that it’s one of the most intimate ways to encounter an orca. When you can’t see anything, your hearing becomes much more sensitive. In the daytime you can hear their blows, but at night you can hear so much more than that… you can actually hear them breathing and I think that’s an amazing experience.

Although we’re on a remote island we do use a lot of technology at OrcaLab and it got even more advanced when the guys from Explore.org expanded our cameras and network this summer. They did amazing work and we had some great times with them, including a party and a campfire night with smores! Smores, for those of you who don’t know, are melted marshmallow which then melts chocolate, sandwiched between two halves of a Gram cracker!

A highlight of each day was Helena’s delicious dinner that we get to enjoy altogether in the house. A favorite was her bread and I think a lot of us will get into baking and cooking when we all get back home.

I’m going home with fond memories and I’m happy to have made some new friends from other countries. It feels weird going back to civilisation and I can’t imagine not sleeping in my tent and getting woken by an “orcaaa” yell or a dinosaur bird. I had a great summer and am already thinking about coming back next year!

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(by Niklas Hausemann, 19 years old from Bonn, Germany)

 

 

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