the return of summer

The forest floor is starting to go reddish-orange around here, as the cedars shed their summer cloak, and the mornings have a distinct chill about them that comes with fog and feels like fall.  So we know the season is changing.   From what has been happening with the orcas lately, though, you’d think we were still immersed in full-on summer.

Backtracking a bit, just a day after we posted our last story, Tsitika returned with her A30 family, and took up residence in Johnstone Strait, doing pretty much exactly what we expect them to be doing in summertime… casually moving back and forth between the rubbing beaches at the eastern end of the Ecological Reserve at Robson Bight, and Turn Point at the western end of Hanson Island, making the Strait, as ever, seem a bit like a boardwalk at a holiday beach, where families stroll back and forth, the adults chatting about this and that, and the kids dashing off to the side with whatever whim overtakes them.

Soon after, the A30s had company again, as the I15s seemed to find the attractions of Johnstone Strait once again irresistible.  They came back “in” with part of the I31s, who have some of the loveliest voices among the northern residents.  The I15s made a quick trip to the east, possibly to check on the Chinook scene in Nodales Channel, but once they returned, it was party time again, and we were endlessly entertained by their sometimes raucous acoustics, mixed in with the serene or excited voices of the A30s, and the exquisite “pings” of the I31s.   Intense bouts of echolocation told us that this party was feast time too.

The fishing “opening” was still in full swing when the A30s and others returned, as sockeye salmon continued to flood through the Strait on their way to the Fraser River, so boat noise was persistent, day and night at the beginning of this period.  Then on September 6th, commercial fishing ended, and the orcas suddenly had a relatively quiet ocean to enjoy once more.  We say “relatively”, because there were still thundering cruise ships passing through, along with very noisy tugs and freighters, anytime, and during daylight hours, sports fishers, water taxis and whale watchers.  But the constant noise, more oppressive to our ears than ever in our experience, was over, and we enjoyed some achingly beautiful times in which the orcas sang their hearts out in the stillness of the night, with only themselves present (along with us, eavesdropping remotely).   It was altogether quite lovely, just like summer is supposed to be.

Constant partying can be rather exhausting, and it’s probably no different for orcas than it is for people, so the A30s may have been relieved to find themselves all alone for nearly a week, from September 9th to 14th.   They resumed their old habits, spending hour after hour in Robson Bight, where we could hear them intensely fishing, taking long breaks, resting; and then their voices would rise, as they practiced the ancient songs that have kept them together as a family for a very long time.  We listened in, enthralled, for hour after hour in our nights, as did others around the world, in their day or night, via orca-live. A30s Sept. 13 ’10

Over the same period the A30s were here on their own, we kept hearing reports of large numbers of orcas, possibly from “G” clan, being sighted to the north of Port Hardy, sometimes with indications that they might be heading east.  We were expectant, and vigilant, but nothing happened until yesterday, when the A30s headed northwards out of Johnstone Strait, via Blackney Pass, around noon, and made their way up to Lizard Point, where (surprise!) they met up with a ‘crowd’ of orcas who happened to be most of G clan.  Just how the A30s knew they were coming, we don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine that this was a chance event, the result of bumbling around.  Whatever the explanation may be, this turned out to be a serious meeting, in which the A30s were mixed up with half a dozen “G” families, and it took hours for them to slowly make their way down Queen Charlotte Strait and into Blackfish Sound.  After we heard they were in Blackfish and pointed east, we waited expectantly for them to come into our view, but this also took hours.  Whatever the orcas were doing, they were in no hurry, but after a long time of silence, they suddenly burst out in a vocal frenzy that lasted for quite some time, and then was as suddenly gone. When they finally came into our sight, the light was fading.  Our photographs, taken from a ways off, are fuzzy, but the images we have in our heads from the spotting scopes we used to survey the scene, will remain sharp for a long time.  Rafts of orcas, dozens at a time, drifting about as if aimlessly; huge males surfacing briefly, pointing one way and then changing direction; little kids flipping their flukes amidst a surrounding group that must have been so close to one another as to be touching; the mist of a dozen blows suspended in air; a bright rainbow touching the ocean, with golden orcas passing through; the shiny light of the last of the day reflecting brilliantly off dorsal fins; underwater there was mostly silence, but we also heard some of the most beautiful “pings” ever on our “local “ hydrophone; the breaths were distance, but the moment was intense, and close.  As the orcas drifted away, back into Blackfish Sound, the overwhelming impression we were left with was: what we were witnessing was an expression of love.

Love, love, love, it’s all you need.

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