OrcaLab Assistants 2018 – Suzie

Lab assistant Suzie returns for a second summer on Hanson Island.

By Suzie Hall

Last July, I was fortunate enough to spend my second summer listening to the whales of British Columbia. I made my way to Hanson Island alongside Kat, who was experiencing it all for the first time. As we rounded Burnt Point and the lab came into view, I listened to her awed exhalations as she realised that this would be her home for the next six weeks, and that familiar lump of excitement rose in my throat as I too realised: I was home. Not the home that I grew up in, or where I get my mail; but my heart’s home where I had fallen in love with the peace, tranquillity and astounding beauty that lies in the waters and forests around Hanson Island.

In between summers at the lab, I had travelled down to South America to seek out more whales, more mountains and some adventures too. I had lived almost an entire lifetime in the ten months that I had been away, but it was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. The running of the lab, the daily chores, the pace of life and the unmatched excitement of hearing orca calls over the speaker or – the crème de la crème – orcas on Rubbing Beach camera. From the second day it felt almost like I had never left; although I certainly had some brushing up to do on my IDs and call recognition!

One of my favourite moments has to be when the A30s reunited on August 4th. About a week previously they had split into their two component matrilines: the A54s and A50s. We were enjoying the A54s in Blackney Pass as they vocalized and milled in front of the lab, when suddenly there was a cacophony of excited calls! We heard lots of vibrant ‘N47s’ (a signature A30 call) and Helena predicted that the A54s must be coming back into the area. Sure enough, a few moments later, we heard faint A30 calls in Blackfish Sound to the north which became more and more distinct until both matrilines reunited, right in front of us! One never wants to make assumptions about orca behaviour or liken them too readily to humans, but I couldn’t help but imagine them chatting away about their travels, sharing stories and catching up about their respective times apart. It was an incredible moment, made even more special by the knowledge that we could share in their reunion without impacting them whatsoever. No boat noise, no interference; just a few hydrophones and cameras.

The passing of time is an odd concept at OrcaLab. The days merge together as you rotate shifts, day and night, and you sink into the rhythms of camp life: cooking, cleaning, chopping wood and that ever-important alone time in the forest. A welcome addition to my time at the lab is the opportunity to go diving. There’s always work to be done whether its a hydrophone to install or a camera to clean, and although the water is frighteningly cold; I count myself very fortunate indeed. This summer, we reinstalled the underwater camera at Cracroft Point (an interesting experience due to strong currents and rogue urchins!) and it was so incredible to be immersed in the emerald world of the orcas for a brief moment, knowing that they swim regularly past this very point.

September arrived and, all too soon, it was time for me to leave the lab and make my way back to England after fifteen months away. As I write this, I have just booked my flight back to Vancouver for the autumn of 2019 and will be counting down the days until I return, once more, to my orca-filled home from home.

See you whaley soon, Paul & Helena!

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