This Blog Post was written By Elyse Hofs who worked with us for the entire 2016 season.
And just like that, four months at Whale Point had flown by! Almost immediately upon arriving in early May, any doubts I had harboured about quitting my job and starting the career switch from biomedical research to conservation disappeared. I found that I could not be happier about this life choice that I had just made. Thank goodness! Spending time on the North West coast of BC made me realize what we stand to lose if this area is not protected. The diversity of wildlife here, both above and below the waves is spectacular. You could explore the intertidal zone for days and still be able to find something new each day. I learned that it was completely normal to find chitons and snails as large as my hand and rock pools jam-packed with urchins, anemones and starfish, which in their vibrant colors of red, purple and green adorn the seafloor like living gems. The almost daily visits from the seals, sea lions and otters would keep us on our toes, and if you are a bird aficionado, the abundance of eagles, ravens, stellar’s jays, loons, scoters and mergansers (to name a few) will keep you very busy. I think I have seen more wildlife here, in four months, than I have in years.
Then there are the whales! From talking and learning from Janie and Hermann, it is clear how much they care about the whales they study. For both orca and humpback whales, they know who travels and feeds with who and they can recall past encounters they have had with individual whales throughout the years. The well known resident humpback whales have been given names and hearing Janie talk about the unique character traits, habits and personalities of each whale makes this experience even more enjoyable. A return of a known resident whale is like the return of an old friend. When it comes to orca, just the slightest hint that they are nearby - be it a call on the hydrophone or a distant sighing of a dorsal fin – will send Herman running to the boat and onto the water to document who is passing by. There is nothing quite like seeing orca from the water, but I have to say that one of my most poignant orca memories was listening to the all clan meeting over the hydrophone. It was a cacophony of noise, with calls from three different clans fighting to be heard. You could almost hear the excitement of the event in their vocalizations, and it went on for about a half hour, with Janie providing the running commentary. “There’s the A’s! Nice one! And those are the G’s! Ooh! The R’s just arrived!”
Just as each humpback whale has a unique fluke, it is nice to think that they each have their own voice. This is the focus of one of the research projects that Janie is working on, and over the years she has been monitoring the hydrophones to isolate the voices or the acoustic fingerprints of individual whales. When we ID a whale that passes by and he/she lets out a nice grunt or BNF call, everyone in the lab will get very excited, because it is such a special and rare thing to capture. On one such occasion, Crescent, a resident humpback whale decided to solo bubble net feed in front of the lab, letting out an absolutely adorable bubble net feeding call that was clearly different from some of the other whales that we have heard. It was a very sweet call, high pitched and could almost be described as shy (if a humpback whale can be shy). It definitely melted our hearts as we kept hitting replay. To start thinking of whales as individuals instead of just belonging to a “population” is a powerful thing and reinforces the idea that this earth is a planet to share and not ours to take.
Spending time here makes you learn to appreciate the simple things in life and to find entertainment wherever you can. This rings especially true at the wall, where on the days that the whales were few, television was replaced by impressive lightening shows and starry nights and our new Facebook feed was turning the VHF to scan and using the big eyes to examine every single boat the passed, ID’ing all the passengers on board. Some might say “Oh, that’s a little creepy of you,” but I see nothing wrong with a little bit of curiosity! One windy day at the wall, after spending hours outside in the north west, all bundled up in a parka, gloves, toque and rain pants (mind you, at this point it was August!), I escaped to the back beach which was sheltered from wind and was beautifully warm and sunny. Each day after that I would look forward to returning to sit on my “special” rock which was angled perfectly towards the sun and it was just the greatest thing! Like I said, it’s all about the simple things and I would like to thank my Wall buddies, Laura, Lloyd and Megan for appreciating all the simple things with me! I will never forget the day that two fish were dropped off (actually it was more like chucked at me) by a boat from the nearby fishing lodge. I was at the Wall alone when this happened and I had never gutted a fish before … both of which hadn’t occurred to me until after I accepted the fish. The STRUGGLE WAS REAL as I attempted to clean the fish with a dull steak knife, no flat surface and no real strategy as to how to do it but hey, it’s a very amusing story!
I have also had the pleasure of getting to know Nicole and Bunker who throughout the years have been an integral part of the Whale Point team. They run Rennison cabin during the summer which is just a hop, skip and sometimes, depending on the weather, a questionable boat ride away from the wall. If there are orca nearby the wall, Bunker and Nicole will be out in the boat right there with them getting ID shots. I have found that their generosity goes unparalleled and the way they welcome and look out for the interns that are sent to the wall is much appreciated by everyone here at Whale Point. The wall just wouldn’t be the same without them! They are always the first to know if a whale in distress is reported over the VHF, and they will immediately call any contacts that they know in the area who could be of assistance. It is that care and concern for the whales that I really admire and that I hope will spread among others and further solidify that the waters off of BC’s north west coast need protection, just as much as the rainforests do. I would especially like to thank Nicole and Bunker, the rest of the Gitga’at people and the Nisga’a nation for inviting us to watch the arrival of the Nisga’a canoes in Hartley Bay and the feasts and dancing that followed. Watching the communities come together, celebrate and speak of how all the people of the world are “one nation” was inspiring and I am very grateful to have shared that experience with you.
I imagine when I leave here to return to the city it will be a little unsettling at first. I vaguely remember the paved trails called “roads” and the strange rolling vessels that travel on land and not water. While I will probably go through whale withdrawal for a couple of days I leave here knowing that my experiences here have lit the ember that I held for the wilderness of BC into a flame and I hope one day I will be part of the team working to protect it. I really do believe that if the public knew how spectacular the northern coast of BC was there would be more of a fight to protect it and I wish Janie and Hermann the best in all they are doing to help protect the whales they love.