OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Max


An unmistakable whistle permeates the camp. Tools are downed, and all legs rush to the lab. The calls intensify as they approach our hydrophone on Flower Island – the Western-most threshold of the 50km2 OrcaLab acoustic network. Notions of shifts, timetables and rotas fall away; the orcas have announced their arrival, and our time is now theirs to govern.

The lab is a sight to behold: people clamber over each other to snatch the nearest binoculars, cameras and ID books, while those on shift remain more composed; it falls to them to isolate the closest hydrophone and locate our visitors on the live-cams. This will enable us to follow the group through these islands’ waterways.

The early calls are sparse, enough only to confirm the orcas’ broad acoustic group: The A clan, of our local Northern Resident population. But more specific identification – the matriline or even the pod – is tricky. The more experienced among us iterate through potential candidates with remarkable efficiency, using acoustic cues as yet inaccessible to me:

‘A4s! That’s promising!’

‘No – A5s?’

As if in retort, a deafening N47 call screeches through the lab speakers, announcing the presence of the A30 matriline without ambiguity. Cheers resound as the health and integrity of this much-loved family unit are confirmed for another year; two assistants even share a tearful hug, and discuss a potential new addition to the group. It is impossible not to be caught up in the moment – my hairs stand on end.

The team hurries out to the deck as the A30s pass directly in front of our Hanson Island outpost – using cameras and scopes to inspect their dorsal fins is essential for identifying individuals in the group. We remain there for several hours until their passage is complete, all the while treated to an array of tail slaps, pec-slaps and breaches. A mother tries feebly to rein in a particularly exuberant new-born.

As the adrenaline dissipates, we return to our various projects – in my case, re-wiring an ancient network of speakers around the forest – with a renewed sense of purpose. My thoughts turn to a Hanson Island in the not-too-distant future, to new crop of assistants camping down by these same speakers. I feel their hearts racing as the first call sounds.

Corky’s saddest day number 48

Perhaps the strangest thing about the passage of time is that one becomes accustomed to it. Days months years roll by and we scarcely notice until ultimately we look in a mirror. Many of us have the feeling that time is accelerating, passing more quickly, that the years are flashing by now, almost as a blur. I think there’s a very good reason for that. We are out of time. By this I mean that if life as we know it is to continue on our precious planet, we need to take drastic and immediate actions that will preserve the integrity of what remains of Earth’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Even that might not be enough to ensure that our great grand children and theirs live in a world they can trust and love, but it could give them a chance.  So what are the chances of that happening? Slim to none I suppose is the answer, but I for one cannot avoid clinging to a single word: Hope.

For me, that’s where Corky comes in. It’s almost unbelievable that by midnight today 48 years will have passed since she was surrounded by nets in Pender Harbour and shortly afterwards loaded onto a truck then plane and flown off to a life so different from that she was born into that by any objective measure it must be deemed intolerable.   Yet she has survived.  Why?  I believe the answer again lies in that single word: Hope. Corky’s story is inspiring on so many levels that despite the reality of her day to day life and everything that has been stacked against her all these years, we and her friends around the world still believe she can and will come home. Here is an update from just a couple of days ago.  It comes from a dear friend of Corky’s:

I spent Wednesday, Thursday , Friday with Corky. Just an hour or so a day to try and see where she is at. Wednesday and Thursday she was where she always is at noon, in the underwater area. She was resting on the far ledge near dining tables, motionless, resting on her pecs, not a wiggle. She did a couple circles so I could look her over. No new scratches or scars, she looks pretty good compared to all the little ones. There must be some friction, action, or just crazy behavior with the young males, they look pretty beat up. Friday Corky was in the big show pool, all the water jets going, waterfalls. She was in the east corner bucking up a storm in one of the underwater jets. I am glad she still has some spunk. The little ones came over and joined, she just ignored them…then they all lined up and circled together, water jets hitting their dorsals. I don’t know how she feels, my impression is that she has no place to relax, be quiet and be who she is. Ahhh!  

So there you have it. For Corky, time must seem like an endless circle enclosed within concrete walls. But if she is to ever have the chance to go home and be able to feel the ocean around her once more and to hear the familiar calls of her family again, the time to act on her behalf has to be now! With the world as it is, we do need at least some of our hopes and dreams to be realised. Sending Corky home is a doable dream! Sea World just needs to understand that such a positive decision would be good for them as well as for Corky, and help restore their tattered reputation.

Yesterday, near SeaWorld, some of Corky’s friends displayed Corky’s geat FREEDOM BANNER which expresses the wishes and hopes of children around the world for Corky.   We are so grateful to them for keeping Corky’s dream and ours alive. They give us and her the gift of hope.

Please light a candle for Corky today, and join us in dreaming her dream. Thank you!

Thanks to Michael Reppy for the photos.




OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Shari

Reflecting on the third August I spent at CP (Cracroft Point) has been harder than I’d anticipated. It feels as though it was an oasis of scientific passion, a place dedicated to understanding and protecting non-human persons; a place to reflect on and relish the wondrous beauty of the natural world. This year, however, I felt that it was also a microcosm of the changes taking place in the world. Rallying against the not so subtle and insidious creep of faceless big business whose aim is to trash the planet there are humans there who are dead set against that greed, who have had enough of the selfishness and who are taking a stand. I feel immensely grateful to have had a chance to meet them and to learn about the fight that truly is a global one and that really does effects all of us however far away we live from the Johnstone Strait and the little platform at “CP”.

CP is Orcalabs small outpost situated right on rocks on the western shore of West Cracroft Island. I adore this small platform and “la shack magic”, but even more so the inhabitants of the deep, rich waters we look out onto. We had the same aims and objectives as before. We are there to film and photographing the individuals as they pass by; monitor the radio traffic for the locations of the Orca and report back information and updates to the main lab. Quite often groups of kayakers will stop to ask questions and we answer them and tell them about the network of cameras that ‘Explore.org’ have set up in partnership with Orcalab. It really is amazing what they have done and already there is a brilliant group of “explorers” who regularly tune in and we loved that we could share our days with so many people all around the world and all with no interference to the orcas lives. I think that really can not be overstated, and that has always been a key principle of Orcalab. It is significant that while the Southern Residents are arguably and heartbreakingly being loved and starved to death, the Northern Residents have space, The Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, where no vessels or humans are allowed. Lucky for all of us however, those sneaky explore.org cameras are there and watching the Orca on those special beaches is just plain awe inspiring. This is the real Sea World and we can enjoy it for free, while the Orca in turn get to enjoy their lives.

While Megan films on the big camera, I scuttle down on to the rocks to be far enough away so the clacking of the shutter isn’t picked up by the mic on the camera. We film and photograph for as long as there are Orca around. Sometimes it’s for hours if they are foraging, and sometime its barely 10 mins if they are in a rush with somewhere else to be. Where last year we found that they were almost always traveling along the Vancouver Island side and then would cross over to Blackney Passage, this year they favoured West Cracroft Island side and they would power into the pass right past us standing mouths agape, Meg on the platform and me on the rocks. After they leave us I would often poke my head up over the rocks and Meg and I would have the same frazzled/confused/can-this-be-real look on our faces! More than a few encounters have been so close that I have to have the large lens zoomed right in to 100mm and even then I only manage not much more than a detailed saddle patch. That’s when I have to just sit back and savour the moment and try to contain myself from laughing or crying hysterically. Composer in these circumstances is still something I reeeeally struggle with. Very often Megs has had to remind me that the sound is still on her camera and that, for example, the good people watching and sharing in this magical moment all over the globe do not need to know that I nearly peed myself with excitement!

Over the month I learnt more about the incredible people who have and are still actively fighting to keep it so remarkable. In the face of organisations who clearly care of nothing but the profits that can be made to the detriment of anything beautiful or sacred, there are people here who quietly form a resistance and who challenge those greedy and ignorant actions. The Orcas here have that Ecological Reserve only because scientists studied them and realised the behaviour was unique and in need of protection. Where the ban on whaling was introduced the humpbacks have returned to the area. The Marine Education and Research Society reports that in 2004 they only documented 7 Humpbacks in their core study area for that full year. In the same area in 2016, they documented 91 different individuals. Truly I feel if there was ever cause for a happy dance it is this! Many humans fought for the ban on whaling and sure enough the the natural world shows its resilience and determination just as soon as us humans give it half a chance. Megan and I had the pleasure of Jackie Hilderings company one sunny afternoon. Jackie has dedicated her life to understanding the life that abounds in those cold waters, from the smallest of barnacles to the big old humpbacks that have returned to the region.
I learnt about “Sea Star Wasting Disease”, Jackie has done a lot of investigating, and I can say for certain that I only saw five Sea Stars this year and three of them were wasting (and none of them have been the Sunflower Sea Star). I’m ashamed to say that during my first August, in 2015, I took the Sunflower Sea Stars that dotted themselves around in the rocks and intertidal zone completely for granted. And the same for the Bull Kelp forest that existed just off the platform. Because of the increase in Sea Urchins (due to the lack of their predators- the Sea Stars) there is less than a third of the Bull Kelp that there was three years ago. While no one knows for certain yet, Jackie believes that Sea Stars are wasting because of a virus that is triggered at specific temperature, so because us humans have messed around for so long and the sea temperature has risen this virus has taken hold and so many animals are suffering, including these beautiful and critical little Sea Stars. Walking and poking around among the rocks and pools in the intertidal zone is one of my favourite past times when the whales and dolphins are not around. This year was sad though because there were so many urchins around and so few Sea Stars. I often think about those Sea Stars in my daily life now and strive to make choices that will help make amends so that one day we can welcome them back to these waters with a happy dance too.

One of the most significant days during the month, began like all others, however, while I was making some oatmeal Megan got a call from Helena, we had 10 minutes to pack our bag because we were going to the occupied Salmon Farm! We got our stuff together and off we all went. This was extremely exciting for me as I had been following the work of Alexandra Morton on Sea Shepherds Vessel R/V Martin Sheen for a long while. We visited on the third day of the occupation. We got to meet Earnest Alfred and two other of his compatriots. Ernest explained exactly why they will no longer accept these illegal farms in their waters. The farms are literally poisoning the waters and the stock (Atlantic Salmon from Norway) are infecting the wild Salmon with parasites and viruses. He told us that the farms were not only killing wildlife but killing job prospects also. He explained the significance of the area for the lifecycle of the wild Salmon fry and why these horrid farms where having such a detrimental effect. The smell of the place was vile, the water surrounding it had a filthy scum layer on it and it was just altogether sinister. The First Nations here refer to themselves as the Salmon people, but its not just the people who rely on healthy Salmon – the eagles, the bears, the resident Orca, the sealions the seals and even the trees, everything here relies on the Salmon. I am inspired by Earnest and his people, I will return home with a renewed spirit to spread the word about just how awful farmed Salmon is for healthy oceans.

Happier news that has kept me feeling positive this year was that there is now have a couple of Eagles that have made a nest on one of the high trees right on the very most pointy bit of Cracroft Point. That’s super cool as I love listening to eagles.

Another wonderful thing was I got to see Grandmother Cedar, she is such an impressive tree and made me feel very tiny. Meeting Michael Reppy and helping he and Mike construct the new wind turbine for CP was brilliant fun- a great couple of days with many laughs.The gang of Sea Lions almost like clockwork swim past the platform in the morning and then again in the eve. Sometimes the make a big hullabaloo about it, other times they just cruise by real casual. And then there was the seagulls, one in particular we named Clive. Good old Clive.

And Boat Bay party was wonderful as per the norm, sitting around talking to the other people who work on the Strait; the wardens from reserve; Jerry (a.k.a The Alert Bay Trumpeter); some people from the local lodges and getting to chat to the folks from the main lab – actually in person not on Facebook messenger was grand. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s the people here who are trying, everyday, to make this world better for all inhabitants, they keep on keeping on because they know if we don’t at least try we are certain to fail. And there is just to much important beauty here to let up the good fight.

Since this time last year I have witnessed a lot of violence perpetrated against the other animals we share this planet with. I have an especially acute awareness of how violent humans can be to dolphins. To come here has been very good respite for my heart and soul. CP is my happy place and I am proud to help Orcalab in whatever small way I can and I am eternally grateful that I have the opportunity to do so.