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!

OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Suzie

I write this with a tinge of sadness, as my time on Hanson Island has almost come to an end. In two days, I’ll be leaving behind one of the most beautiful places on earth. In one sense, it seems to have flown by so quickly, but in another, this place truly feels like home and I can’t quite imagine having to face civilisation again!

This is my first experience of British Columbia, and even of orcas. I’ve loved them since I was a child and been on a few unsuccessful whale-spotting trips; but finally, in the beautiful setting of Blackney Pass, I’ve seen my first orcas. I remember it so clearly: the T090s (Biggs) came into view from the Johnstone Strait, and zoomed through the pass. I was outside using the scopes and was the first to spot them. I gave myself a few seconds to soak in the moment… and then it was “ORRCAAAA”, and all hands on deck!

From that moment, the sightings increased, and in August we had orcas almost every day. Not once did the thrill disappear when seeing black fins on the horizon or capturing them close-up on the rubbing beach cameras. Every time, I had that buzz in my stomach and felt my heart beat faster. I’m a fairly excitable person, and it was often hard to maintain composure and remember that there was lots of work to be done in the lab: tracking, counting and ID’ing the orcas!

Aside from the orcas, there is so much life here. We’ve seen humbacks almost every day, plus dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and eagles – to name a few! It is truly a nature-lovers paradise and I’ve made sure to set some time aside each day to soak in my surroundings and appreciate life here for what it is. Hanson Island itself is also beautiful, and a wonder to explore. The allure of the trees, forgotten trails and secret hideaways will stay with me forever.

As a keen SCUBA diver, I lugged all of my gear over from England to help out with the underwater work on the cameras and hydrophones. I love diving, and even the 5-minute camera cleans at 2 metres deep were exciting to me! (I may have also mimicked the orcas and had a little belly rub along the beach…) My favourite dive was the last one I did on the Critical Point hydrophone. Located in Robson Bight, it’s a protected area which means that it’s not open to pleasure craft, and as such has only been dived a handful of times. The crevace down which we ran the hydrophone cable was so full of life; giant starfish, crustaceans and small critters, and the drop-off where we positioned the hydrophone had so many fish! It was amazing to be there, knowing that this is the same space that the orcas use and that I am one of only a few to have experienced it.

It’s difficult to express the gratitude I have for Paul and Helena, and the appreciation of what they do here at OrcaLab. To be able to share in their lives and their work is an absolute privilege, and I truly admire what they have built here over the years. The team has been wonderful, we’ve shared so much and I’ve definitely made friends for life. I have loved every moment, from the wildlife and the research, to the wood-chopping and even the early mornings (no, really!). I hope very much to return again: see you next year, OrcaLab!

OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Marissa

[Photo credit: Lea Specht]

Finding the right words to describe my time here at OrcaLab has proven difficult. There have been so many memories made and experiences had, that anything I could say would fall short of accurately portraying the intensity with which the past two months’ events have been felt.

One of my favourite things has been the early morning shifts. There has been nothing more peaceful to me than sitting on the observation platform, watching the sun peek up over the mountains, and feeling the fresh morning dew on my skin. The water is always calm, and the misty blows of humpbacks hang in the distance, falling gently back to the ocean surface. Life awakens as the birds sing in the forest, and the sea lions swim past the front of the lab.

After my morning shifts I’d take a daily walk or jog through the wilderness to Dong Chong Bay for some quiet time, reflecting on the beauty of the morning. Dong Chong is another amazing area, an area holding immense meaning for Hanson Island and OrcaLab, as it was the location used to re-introduce “Springer” back to her family.

Upon my return, the day would proceed with a quick forest workout, often with some of the other assistants, followed by a bite to eat in the communal camp kitchen.

Photo credit: Karien Bergmans

Afternoons were filled with various tasks around the camp including: gathering and chopping firewood, tidying up the kitchen and bathhouse, and occasionally if the tides were right, catching some Uni (sea urchin) to accompany dinner. Then there were the rare events where I would venture off the shoreline in my bathing suit for a quick, but very cold, dip in the ocean.

Photo credit: Momoko Kobayashi

As the evening progressed, we would all gather in the kitchen for an exceptional “family” dinner. Family very accurately describing the togetherness I’ve grown to feel for the incredible group of individuals I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.

With a full belly and joy in my heart, I would eventually retire to my tent for the evening. Wistfully being lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of lapping waves, and on particularly special nights, the sounds of orca blows.