This blog was written by Erica Page, a 2015 intern at Cetacealab. This is her account of a close encounter with fin whales and she hopes it demonstrates the need to protect this threatened species from the threat of proposed introduction of large tankers.
During the last six weeks at Cetacealab I have seen and experienced things that I thought I would only dream of. I have had beautiful and incredible encounters with whales and each has been unique and perfect in its own way. This afternoon I experienced a moment with the whales that not only demonstrated their magnificence once again, it reaffirmed why these whales deserve to be protected. To say that today was unforgettable would be a severe understatement – today was downright life changing.
Hermann and I had just finished working on the Gil Island hydrophone station when we noticed many blows in the distance across the channel from us. We decided to go check it out and we first came across a group of five humpbacks. We took some ID shots but we could still see more blows a little further off behind them, so we made our way in that direction. As we got closer we realized this was not another group of humpback whales, these were fin whales!
Fin whales are the second largest creatures on Earth and from the early 1900s to the 1970s they were one of the most hunted whale species on the planet. Due to the commercial whaling industry, their populations were nearly depleted and fin whales were almost entirely lost. The species is just beginning to make a comeback, though now they are being threatened in a new way.
Instead of explosive harpoons, the fin whales are now faced with the pollution of their waterways. Their homes are filled with human garbage and their communication is disrupted by the noise of ships and tankers. Furthermore, the gargantuan size of fin whales makes them an easy target for ship strikes. Within the past several years, more fin whales carcasses have been found wrapped around the bow of cruise ships than any other whales. This is a gruesome reminder at the death and destruction that occurs when large ships are introduced into the habitat of marine life.
When the whales surfaced from a dive, we were able to count SIX fin whales together in a group. Fin whales typically travel solo or in a group of two so seeing six fin whales together was quite the spectacle. I had the camera up to my eye trying to get good IDs when the whales gathered on the starboard side of the boat. They are so sleek and streamlined that they can move extremely fast. Hermann adjusted the boat to their speed and finally we were right alongside them as they rose in and out of the water travelling along. At this point I was overcome with emotion and the tears started flowing. The only way I can describe how I was feeling is that it was like galloping along next to a herd of majestic unicorns.
In 2014, the Canadian government approved a project called the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, which would allow Enbridge to build an oil pipeline to the waters of the BC coast, requiring thousand-foot-long tankers carrying crude oil to travel directly through the habitat of fin whales. Not only would this project increase the chances of disrupting the entire ecosystem through the potential of an oil spill, the underwater noise level would increase, and the large tankers could cause a significant rise in the number of ship strikes of not only fin whales, but also humpback and killer whales who also use the area as their feeding grounds. This balance of this entire region is at risk due to the Enbridge project.
When Hermann saw my leaky eyes, he took the camera from me so I could just enjoy the moment. The whales then went down for another dive so he shut the boat off and I had a few minutes to get it together. When the whales came back up, though, Hermann and I both lost our composure. The six fin whales were completely surrounding the boat, just feet away! Every way we turned our heads, whales were right there next to us! Every blow they let out was like a bomb going off and every breath sounded like the strongest northwestern wind. We were hysterically laughing and crying and screaming and woohoo-ing. The whales circled us calmly, swam right at the boat, and at the very last second ducked down and swam right underneath us. They continued on swimming and Hermann and I let them be. We both were shaking and as they swam off we stood there in awe at what had just occurred.
In his oral evidence testimony during the JRP hearings in Hartley Bay, Gitga'at councillor Cam Hill illustrated a poignant message. He stated that for all people affected by the Enbridge pipeline, there is a dark cloud permanently lingering over their heads as they live out their daily lives. The dark cloud represents the fear and anxiety of the potential destruction this pipeline would cause the wildlife, and the damage it would inflict upon the lives of the First Nation’s people.
As we were watching the fin whales swim away, Hermann and I were sobered by the dark cloud looming overhead. The fact that our encounter with these fin whales could possibly be the last filled us with an overwhelming sadness, replacing the joy we had felt just moments ago.
Though the dark cloud weighs heavily on the minds of those affected by Enbridge, small rays of sunshine can be seen peeking through if only one looks hard enough. Hope is never lost when there are those that care and are willing to fight for what they believe in. The voices of the First Nation’s people will not be silenced until their home no longer faces the threat of oil tankers. The whales of the Great Bear Rainforest are deeply cherished and the fight to protect them has only just begun.