THROUGH THE EYES OF A DORCA: MY SEASONS AT ORCALAB

By Emily Vierling

The summer of 2019 was the first time I laid eyes on orcas. Growing up, I inhaled information about these mysterious and intelligent beings and knew one day that life would guide me to them. The one problem: I was in land-locked Colorado. Despite the beauty of the mountainous landscape and the diverse wildlife, my heart yearned for more. Vast oceans teeming with life, kelp forests swaying in the currents, dolphins launching themselves into the air, and of course, the orcas had caught my attention in the best way.

I first heard about OrcaLab from the film Sonic Sea which investigates the impacts of human-made noise on a variety of cetacean – whale, dolphin and porpoise – species. In March 2019, I sent an email into the void, not expecting a response, but in my mind, it was worth a try. Two weeks later, I received the opportunity to take part in an incredible experience. When I stepped off the plane in Vancouver, I had no idea what to expect and how my life would change for the better in just a few days. Daunting as it was, the notion of living in a tent for two months and virtually off-grid in the wilderness, I found the peaceful environment quite comforting. Falling asleep to the sounds of Blackney Pass at night, the humpback blows, lapping waves along the beach, and the orca calls was everything a whale geek could’ve wished for.

I can’t exactly put into words the feeling I had when I saw an orca for the first time. Mid-afternoon in the rain and fog, we knew they were coming. Calls echoing from Flower Island, I sat on the deck eagerly anticipating their arrival, hoping to catch sight of them as soon as they showed up… and suddenly, they were there. The A30 and A25 matrilines were travelling together, quickly, through the pass. Bend (A72), a member of the A30 matriline, with her notch in the front of her dorsal immediately caught my eye and over the season I fell in love with her and what she represented: my first experience with orcas. I suddenly felt so small in the presence of these powerful, beautiful beings that my eyes refused to let go of them. I watched them travel across the silky water, quickly disappearing below the surface and suddenly back up again, their blows echoing through the pass. I couldn’t believe that I was finally witnessing their prowess with my own eyes.

Four years later, I am still here, now experiencing my third season in this special place. Paul, Helena and the team have graciously accepted me into the OrcaLab family. Every time I return, so does the feeling of excitement and wonder; a smile on my face and giddiness coursing through my body as if it were for the first time all over again.

OrcaLab plunges you into the world of underwater communication, and I have been lucky enough to take what I have learned and turn it into a career path which I have used to give back to OrcaLab in an effort to support their inspiring mission – the one that inspired me. During my time here in 2021, I formed a connection with the humpbacks that would frequent the Pass before they started their impressive migrations to Hawaii and Mexico. Their nightly and early morning symphonies filled the lab with a suite of sounds, and I was captivated. This encouraged me to carry on building a humpback vocalization “repertoire” for my master’s project that will hopefully be beneficial to the lab and its vital long-term studies.

When I returned for this season, something was off – this year was different. The resident orca season started extraordinarily late and I arrived just in time for the last few sightings and wonderful acoustics before the Resident orcas departed on September 10th. The whole season, aside from a short visit from the A42s in July, lasted just a month. What’s more, we are still waiting for the humpbacks to really start vocalizing, which is unusual for mid-September. One question remains: why?

As the years have progressed, I have noticed changes in the Johnstone Strait area. There are more shipping vessels and cruises passing through, droughts have been taking their toll on the beautiful landscape, water conditions are changing due to the climate emergency, non-sustainable fishing methods and fish farm industries have caused the decline in the salmon (and other fish) populations, and there are fewer visits from the orcas and humpbacks. It reminds me to be grateful for the extraordinary natural world we live in and that it’s our responsibility to take part in preserving it. This is a lesson we all learn through our experiences at OrcaLab.

Time slows down here – you lose track of the days, hours, minutes, seconds. You learn to appreciate the early morning fog rolling over the hills, the deep breaths of the humpbacks in the pass, and the rumbling of the grumpy (and smelly) sea lions hauled out by the lighthouse and on Sea Lion Rock. You start to breathe in the fresh sea air and watch the glassy water turn into white ripples as it crashes into algae-covered rocks. The faint calls of the Northern Resident orcas and humpbacks slowly engulf your attention, but not before you wonder to yourself: how did I ever become so lucky? 

I treasure every moment spent on this tiny little island that has become, in a sense, a home. From my first season here in 2019 to now my third, OrcaLab has lodged itself firmly into my heart. A couple of nights ago, as I was listening to one of the first humpbacks of the season, I learned that I had officially been granted my Master of Science in Marine Mammal Science. I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that here I was, in the place that inspired it all. 

Thank you to everyone at OrcaLab, but especially to Paul, Helena, and Megan who have been with me every step of the way.

By Emily Vierling | @em_vierling

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