Although I came to Hanson Island with a one track mind – to concentrate on and learn as much as possible about orcas, being here has opened my eyes to the vast wealth of wildlife the Pacific Northwest coastline has to offer. My days have revolved around listening to orcas, but during this I have heard humpbacks trumpeting, seen sea birds dive into huge bait balls, watched bald eagles swoop and catch salmon, photographed Stellar sea lions swimming by – and this has all been from my seat in the lab.
Life takes on a different tone here, we live by the tides and nature no longer is something you go to a zoo to see, it is part of all of us, every day. I am woken by deers crunching next to my tent, squirrels charge past me while I’m eating my granola, throwing acorns from the tree tops. Washing dishes in the ocean I see crabs scuttling off under rocks, purple starfish, and sculpins, then further out are humpbacks fluking as they dive down into Blackney Pass. I’ve fallen asleep in my tent to the sound of trumpeting humpback whales out in the pass. What a lullaby.
My favourite times in the lab have been the early morning shifts – sitting in the lab alone at 5am means you can watch eagles foraging for their breakfast at low tide, see sea lions cruising past, watch dalls porpoises pass by – all whilst everyone is sleeping. It is amazing to sit there alone and know you are the only person on the earth watching this, you can soak it all up all to yourself. It has been truly moving to enjoy these experiences alone, and to sit in awe of such a raw, wild environment.
I’ve been woken many times by the loud calls of ravens and their fledglings, but my favourite calls are those of the eagles – their sound is almost delicate and gentle, definitely opposite to what you’d expect (and not what they show in the movies!). I have seen bald eagles daily here, and I’ve come to know which ones will sit on which branch of which tree, and which ones are good at fishing… – despite their cool, calm, collected appearance some of them have a thing or two to learn about catching supper, I’ve seen many dunk into the ocean and end up with soggy feathers and no fish. Most times however they swoop through the skies and watching over the ocean from the tree tops with a great sense of superiority, seemingly full of wisdom and regality. It makes sense why the First Nations would hold the eagle in such high esteem.
You may perhaps note this post is very orca unrelated. If you’d have told me when I was 16 that I’d write a blog for Orcalab that was by choice ignoring orcas I would have said you were crazy! However, my time at Orcalab has been completed by wild animals that sometimes have felt like part of the family. Here, there’s no sense of humans being at the top of the pecking order. Every living breathing organism here is equal, and all are incredible in their own way.
So to conclude this post, I’d like to share a few precious stories from my time with the wildlife of Hanson Island.
Swimming with seals;
On a warm day in July I hiked alone to Dongchong Bay, the bay where the lost orca Springer was held until her family came by. By the time I returned to Orcalab I was covered in cuts and bruises after ‘bushwhacking’ through places I’m sure no man had ever trodden before. I felt truly exhilarated, and immediately donned my swimsuit and jumped straight into the ocean. I swam in the beautiful green waters of Blackney Pass, and I felt the feeling you don’t get too often. I felt truly alive.
The girls (or Strong Women as we came to be known) sang the ‘Little Mermaid’ song as I paddled, then I noticed a seal staring right at me from the other side of the bay. I can imagine it was quite confused, these waters are extremely cold so you don’t get people swimming often, if ever. So a grinning human must have been a bit of a shock!
The feeling of swimming somewhere so truly wild was just wonderful. Swimming in the water I’d dreamt about since I was a young girl, in the water orcas for countless generations have called home, in the water that truly felt my spiritual home, and in the water where when I pass I want my ashes to be spread… It was a feeling like nothing I can describe. And there before me was a seal, so close. How often can people say they’ve had a seal staring at them in disbelief, and that they’ve stared back with an overwhelming feeling of joy.
I went to sleep that night with the warmth of my experiences that day lulling me into the happiest dreams.
Orcas by bioluminescence;
One night whilst I was at Cracroft Point, Orcalab’s outcamp, I was snug in my sleeping bag listening to the hydrophone at around midnight. Orcas were calling, a sound so beautiful to lull you to sleep. However I’m so glad I hadn’t been lulled to sleep that night. I got a message from Kate who was on shift that evening that calls were now being heard on the Cracroft Point hydrophone! I ran outside into the pitch black of night and listened for blows. With my ears pricked, I noticed the oceans edge was glowing. Glow in the dark glitter seemed to be getting washed up onto the rocks below. It was bioluminescence, the first I’d ever seen! My, it was beautiful. I sat on the edge of the deck, momentarily forgetting the reason I’d come outside in the first place as I was so flabbergasted by the sparkling ocean. A loud blow brought me back to reality. The orcas were close! It was almost eerie – the air was damp with ocean fog and every way I turned was black. No light pollution meant night truly was night in Johnstone Strait. But somewhere out there were orcas, swimming through the black depths with only echolocation to guide their way. A blow permeated the night air, a female, perhaps only around 15 meters to my left. I could hear the water rippling off her back, my sense of hearing heightened in the dark. My heart was in my mouth – it felt like I could reach out into the night and stroke her smooth skin.
I noticed a stir of sparkle only about 5 meters in front of me. The sparkle twisted and spiraled as the water was being displaced. Displaced by an orca. Swimming right in front of me. Her eye patch and underbelly reflected the glittering glow, whilst the outline of her streamlined body sparkled as she swam gently. Her fluke swept slowly through the water of Johnstone Strait, leaving a plume of sparkling bioluminescent glitter in her wake. A glow in the dark orca, right before me. Soon she’d gone. The water returned to black, the whales passed, but for me time stood still, I’m sure I didn’t breathe for a long time, and I just sat, overwhelmed at what I’d seen. Taking it all in. How would I ever see anything again that would beat that, my whole life paled in comparison to the previous 10 seconds. Life was complete.
I didn’t need to dream that night, as I’d had an experience more incredible than anything I could dream of, or that my mind could comprehend.
by Emily Hague,