I really don’t know where to start – I think that anyone who reads this, who hasn’t themselves been to the Johnstone Strait it will all sound too far fetched, too romanticised and exaggerated, and, those that have witnessed the unrelenting majesty that this region exudes will know that there are no adjectives that could really do it justice. I am unsure who if anyone is likely to read this, but just remember I’ve been forced to make attempts to put my time here into English words. I mean for goodness sake I’m siting here writing this and a ruddy great big eagle has just swooped down and caught a fish! It’s just madness.
Both this year and last year I have had the privilege of traveling to Cracroft Point “CP” after being invited by Dr Paul Spong and Helena Symonds to help my very talented and wholly inspirational friend, Megan film and photograph the incredible animals that reside here during the summer months. While Megan is here for the entire summer I have stayed here, both times, for the month of August. Without even mentioning the encounters we have had with the cetaceans I feel I could fill a tome on the sunsets. I could ramble on and on about the seemingly always suspicious sea-lions that swim by the platform, snorting and wheezing as they travel. Sometimes I will go for a walk along the rocky intertidal zone on route to the little beach around the corner from the platform. On every walk, without fail, I have found something different and intriguing, that inspires me to go back and pester google in an attempt to understand what it is or who it might have belonged to. I have found Urchin teeth and Chiton armour as well as many curious inhabitants (who I leave be but not before taking a picture). I have been treated to more magical moments here than I could have possibly imagined. Each and every time the weather changes here it is interesting and beautiful in its own way. We’ve enjoyed baking hot days where it felt as though we were on a platform in the tropics to days like today when it’s cold and damp with moody bruised skies, and we have bunkered in for torrential rain and wind. We have woken to fog so close that we can barely make out the rocks that the platform is built upon. Those days have often cleared to be bright and beautiful days, with mirror like water.
The superstars of the Strait and the whole reason this platform and the rest of the infrastructure is here is of course the Orca. The incredible beings who spend time here in the summer months. Just as Henry Beston says, they truly are other nations. They move through this territory from dawn till dusk, being followed, unbeknownst to them by a series of stealthily placed hydrophone and cameras. Last year the team from explore.org began the process of attaching cameras, both land and underwater ones to sync in with the hydrophones. If, on the off chance, you haven’t been to their website yet then its best you stop reading this and just go now, and check it out. These sneaky cameras in their strategic locations along the Johnstone Strait (including one at CP) give us increased insight into Orca behaviour and really are just plain awesome. Orcalab’s ethos of non invasive, land based research is maintained and now everyone across the globe can watch these beautiful individuals in their element, doing what they do. So where ever you are – in the office (be stealthy so the boss doesn’t catch you), on the loo ( be careful not to drop your phone) or waiting for a bus (maybe spread the good views with the human beside you?) you can watch the beautiful live footage of what’s going on here. I feel like this is the kind of progress that really will help put an end to the captive cetacean industry. When you see an orca as peaceful as a can be seen on these cameras, it’s hard to imagine that we still keep some captive in tiny concrete, sterile tanks. But we do and it is sick! So if you hear of a friend or colleague who maybe intends to pay money to see those “shows”, stear them towards the explore.org website and let them see the real deal FOR FREE! And if they still pay to see those crappy shows then have a grave dug for them because they are very clearly dead inside. One of the most beautiful encounters I’ve was also bittersweet. As I watched through the camera lens one clear afternoon, the group, it was the the A30’s and I15’s, came south through Blackney Pass, I was on the rocks to the left of the platform where I sit – far enough away so that the video camera doesn’t pick up on the sound of the shutter clacking away. They came out through the current and then proceeded to swim, very slowly East up the Strait past us. They frolicked about, tail slapping , spy hoping and just generally lazing around. It was so beautiful. Then they grouped together and turned and headed back in towards the Pass. Why they decided to go back we can never know. These non-human persons decide where they will go and what they will do and that day they decided to change their mind and swim back towards where they just came from. The gravity of how special that simple decision is, when there are dolphins in tiny little concrete tanks being forced to do unnatural tricks for frozen fish makes, makes me so sad and so mad. It is so wonderful to see these groups but it is also painful to think of the individuals we still hold captive in the name of selfish entertainment and human greed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it is sick.
There isn’t really an average day here as the whales dictate timings, but usually we wake up to the distinctively dulcet tones of two particular fishermen who chat to each other over the VHF about all manner of things as well as how their morning fishing is going. I’m afraid I must report that this year it doesn’t sound as though its been a good one. We lay in our bunks laughing and wondering why they don’t just go fishing together, but, they are helpful to us as we normally get a weather report, of sorts, from them. Then, as we check out the updates from the lab and listen as the reports build up from the kayakers and the whale watching outfits, I get up, put the kettle on and make us some coffee. We set up the scope and get the video camera set up on its tripod. We usually have some oatmeal and maybe another cup of coffee. If there is a humpback in the vicinity then I identify who it is and note down, what its up to and what direction it is traveling in and anything else of interest. That has been a big part of my time here, this year especially. Identifying the Humpbacks who frequent the entrance to Blackney pass is very satisfying. So far we have encountered 18 adults and 1 calf.
So, assuming the whales are not arriving anytime soon, we have a small exercise routine to some of Mobys songs that we get on with. We both agree we most likely look like nutters to anybody who should motor on past, but it is probably necessary and defiantly funny and sets us up nicely for yet another wonderful day ahead.
After our attempt to not turn into hulks of lard, Megan and I just have to wait until the Orca swim by the CP platform so that she can film and I can take photographs of them. The photographs are used to ID the individuals but most of the time – thanks to the brains at the lab who can recognise a group by their acoustics – it is already known, so my pictures are a back up, or confirmation. The Orca pass by very frequently, and when they are not within filming distance, we keep a watch out. We continue to monitor the radio chat, and between the Wardens of the Bight to the East and the Whale watching vessels who predominantly come from the West, and the smattering of kayaking groups in between there is a great network of people looking out for them. Actually, listening to the very often hysterical conversations between the men of the whale watching vessels really is heart warming. There seems to be not one drop of rivalry or competition. They look out for each other and maybe it’s just the Canadian way but it is genuinely lovely to listen to. It’s certainly more entertaining than most TV shows I can think of. If it’s hot out we feast on watermelon and try to make the most of the sun on our pasty skin. If it’s cold we drink tea and play cards. It’s all immensely stressful.
If the Orca are around however it is very different story, and whilst still not exactly stressful, we don’t stop filming or photographing them until they are gone. An exception to this rule happened one evening I will treasure forever. I had been preparing some food, when we got word from the lab that there were incoming Orca, so I turned off the gas and got prepared. I scooted off down the rocks and sure enough they came around the point and remained with us while the sun set. As the light dropped too low for photographs or filming Megan called from the platform and I went back to join her. I put the food back on and once it was hot we sat down on our platform; two best buds from good old ‘Blighty listening to the blows and occasional above water vocalisations as they continued to forage and socialise just away from the little platform. Unforgettable. Then as dusk gave way to night we had the stars to keep us company. This place, man ohhhh man.
Once we’ve had our food and maybe just maybe a beer, (normally this coincides with watching the redonkulous sunsets that always inspire many adjectives interspersed with a healthy smattering of profanities), we wash up, get everything ship shape, upload files, put batteries on to charge and choose a movie to watch with some popcorn.
We have our scanner on 24 hours a day, it is linked with the hydrophone down to the right of the platform. Pretty often we hear Pacific White Sided dolphins, and at night if we hear Orca vocalisations we get up and listen to them pass by us. One night we had retired to our respective bunks and as we lay there we began to hear what sounded like someone tuning a violin and then a full on humpback song came blaring through the scanner; we lay there in the dark laughing at how adamant that whale seemed about something. It really went on for some time and was very special because although we see humpbacks every day here, they normally won’t sing and other than the occasional trumpet at some pesky dolphins are silent.
One of my most treasured memories not involving the whales is of a quiet, warm and still afternoon, beautifully blue and completely vast. The orcas had past by us early in the morning and even the humpbacks were feeding elsewhere. Megan and I were working and chatting as usual. Actually, I had just put the kettle on for tea and all of a sudden I saw a small, blue skiff pull up some ways off the platform. Then just as I was asking Meg if she knew who it was or if we had been expecting a visit the tremendous sound of a trumpet pierced the air and blasted away the silence. Megan jumped to her feet exclaiming “It’s Jerry!” We went out and he was, by this time, a verse into “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Looking down the straight there was not another vessel on the water and both Megan and I were laughing uncontrollably at the utterly surreal nature of this spectacular concert. It was truly hilarious. Once he had finished and after a great round of applause from the two of us we invited him over for tea. Jerry obliged and talked to us about what he does as “The Alert Bay Trumpeter” . For some fifteen years he has been driving alongside the gigantic cruise ships that rather obnoxiously parade through the waters here, and entertaining the passengers on board is his sole mission. I like imagine he does so to highlight the absurdity of their presence in those sterile, floating hotels that are really so detached from the spectacular beauty all around them, but actually I think it is just that Jerry loves to preform and having the chance to do so in front of hundreds of people and bring them such unexpected happiness suits him perfectly. He had come down to Cracroft that afternoon because he was tracking one of the cruise liners on by listening on his VHF and so after talking for sone time we actually got to witness him in all his glory. The thing is that from his vantage point, playing his trumpet while skilfully trying to keep up with those massive and noisy engines, he cant even hear the rapturous applause, hoots and whistles that echo across the Strait after each of his renditions. He can make out the smiles however and that, it seems, is all he’s after. Jerry made it all look easy, and with the sun gleaming off the dolphins riding and jumping through the bow waves it was a delight to watch and listen.
Orcalab and this area in general is full to the brim with exciting, talented people who do what they do for the love of it and not for recognition or applause and with no ego. I’ve learnt so much about the incredible lives that inhabit the Straight and I know that the glimpse I’ve had is only the tiniest fraction of the tip of the iceberg. This place, the humans here and the other animals make me so immeasurably happy. I can really never thank Paul and Helena enough for the opportunity to come here. Both they and CP will always have a seriously massive chunk of my heart.
by Shari Manning
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time at Orca Lab this year, but it was well worth it. I feel so fortunate to be able to come to Hanson Island. I not only get to meet new people and see old friends, but also spend time in one of the most beautiful places in the world while living out a lifelong passion.
I had so many great experiences this year. The new “Rubbing Beach” underwater camera is astounding. Every time the orcas go by it is like a party in the lab. People are holding their breath, cheering, and willing the whales to make another pass. It is such a cool experience to be able to listen to and watch the orcas in their natural habitat. I also got to spend a night at CP. Not only was the scenery incredible, but the company was great too. I got to witness a humpback breach and tail slap right next to the platform. It feels so intimate, to be that close to such powerful creatures.
The lab has got to be my most favorite spot. Listening to the calls of the orcas is such a special thing. It is enchanting. I learned so much this year. I was able to ask questions, listen to stories and share the company of some very knowledgeable people. All I want to do is keep learning! The orcas are just so smart, so coordinated, and so aware of their surroundings. I sometimes think that we are the ones being watched. They know so much, and we can only hope to get a glimpse into their world.
Orca lab means so much to me. Being involved in orca monitoring is something that I could only dream of as a child. To have the opportunity to do it now, and with so many amazing people, is something I will forever be grateful for. I have made so many new friends and made a ton of new memories. I love the laughs we all shared while we scrubbed boats, chopped wood, stayed away from the grizzlies or tried to stay warm and out of the wind next to the lab (we all know the spot). Some of the best memories from this year were times when the whales hadn’t been around in a while. We would try anything to will the whales into Blackney Passage. The kelp horn, harmonica, shooting stars, and even by being “not too ready”. Anything to get a visit from the orcas.
Leaving is always hard. This year felt especially difficult. Saying good bye to a place that feels more like home than “home” does is tough. I am so thankful to Paul and Helena, and everyone who made this visit possible and so special. I will miss the wildlife, the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and the midnight vocalizations. However, it means that I have lots to look forward to next year. I can’t wait to be back!
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.
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!
(by Niklas Hausemann, 19 years old from Bonn, Germany)