OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Karien

[Photo credit: Momoko Kobayashi]

As many of us volunteers, I didn’t really know where to begin when I started to write this blog post. So I’ll take it back to last year, September 2016, when I just graduated from University. Decisions had to be made; do I start looking for a job or do I take a year off and travel the world, chasing a dream that goes back to my childhood? It became the second option and I decided to go look for the animals I’ve been passionate about as long as I can remember, orcas.

As Belgium is great for beer and chocolate it has a big lack of cetaceans in general. So I flew to New Zealand in the hope of spotting a few of the 120 orcas that roam their coastline chasing stingrays. As it was an incredible experience in New Zealand with the most spectacular nature I have ever seen and lots of encounters with dolphins, I never saw orcas there. I started thinking about other options and it brought me back to the northern part of Vancouver Island. I came here 5 years ago to see my first orcas ever so it already had a special meaning for me. Thanks to Paul and Helena I got the opportunity to volunteer at the lab for the summer from June until September.

As I arrived on the 9 th of June on Hanson Island I didn’t really know what to expect and where I could contribute. Soon enough I found my place and took on the Instagram and Facebook account of OrcaLab to spread content and share beautiful moments that we experience here at the lab. I can only hope that people can see how amazing the animals that we see here every day and create a bit of awareness on the challenges that the whales are facing today.

As July came, also a lot more volunteers started to appear. Working, living in the lab and experiencing the most beautiful things in nature, with the most amazing people from all over the world; To give some examples, seeing a humpback “bubble net feeding” in front of the lab, watching the orcas passing the lab in the evening just only a few meters away, cheering while we see the orcas on the cameras on the Rubbing Beach, having a nice dance moment in the camp kitchen, … those are just a handful of uncountable amazing moments we got to experience together. I can’t express enough how awesome those people are who made this also because of them the summer of lifetime.

Living in the outdoors with the rhythm of the orcas, as we following their journey through the area by their calls and cameras was truly a special experience. It is real intense and changed my whole perspective of how we should watch wildlife. Nothing is more thrilling than seeing an orca and other cetaceans from land. Not disturbing them, being “invisible” to them, letting them be in their world and observe all that is truly incredible.

[Photo credit: Suzie Hall]

If I can think of very special experiences for me this summer is it to listen to the orcas through the hydrophones during the night when there are no boats around. You can hear their calls so clearly without the noise of boats. We only capture a small bit of their world under the water but it is truly intriguing listening to them. Learning the calls of the different pods was challenging in the beginning but really fulfilling when it all came together. Luckily enough we had some practice with the A30s coming in at the beginning of summer. They stayed around for a few days and made it possible or us to concentrate on their calls only. As the summer progressed and more orcas came though the area it became easier to know what to look for in a call and identify them only by sound.

[Photo credit: Momoko Kobayashi]

Another experience that I definitely will remember is listening to the blows of the orcas in the night when we can’t see them. Same goes for the humpbacks, you can only be humble and have a lot of respect for them when you get the witness them.

They are truly one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. You can literally feel the breath of a humpback whenever it comes up for air close to the shoreline. Going to sleep in my tent, doing dishes in the ocean and having these gentle giants as our almost constant companions is a true privilege. I can’t thank Paul and Helena enough for giving me this opportunity of a lifetime. You are a true inspiration to me and it has been the most magical summer. I can’t wait until the day comes that I’ll be back at Hanson Island and spend more time with you guys, the whales, birds, even Bucky (our resident dear). I’ll be back for sure!

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