Cetacea Lab is a whale research facility located along the remote north coast of British Columbia, Canada. We are now accepting applications for the 2017 field season from mid-May until the end of September. All positions are for 1 to 2 month duration. There is a weekly fee for food. These are volunteer/intern positions to help with the collection of data on the habitat use and abundance of northern resident/transient killer whales, humpback and fin whales. Both the lab and out camp are located in areas of high abundance of all 3 species. Due to our remote location applicants need to be in good physical condition, able to participate with the daily routine of living off the grid and comfortable sleeping in a tent in the wilderness of BC. There is a lot of hard physical work that will come with this position, you must be fit without any physical injuries. There are no roads, very limited Internet access, and power is completely off the grid.
- Daily shifts involve scanning for whales, documenting all sightings and when possible to take identification pictures of whales
- Listening and recording all whale vocalizations that are transmitted to the lab facility from our network of hydrophone stations
- Data entry from land based and marine vessel based surveys
- Identification work of all whales from photographs taken in the field
- There will also be a lot of heavy lifting and moving over uneven rocky terrain, chopping wood ( our only source of heat) and assistance with the physical maintenance of the hydrophone stations.
All the Best,
Hermann Meuter & Janie Wray
Blog Written By Casey Perry
It’s a funny feeling, saying goodbye.
It washes over you like a big swell in stormy seas; the realisation that this person you’ve spent so many special moments with, is leaving. The white caps foaming as you realise you may never see them again.
It’s amazing how close you become to one another when living on an island, your tent just metres from theirs.
The last couple of weeks we have said goodbye to a couple of really special interns. We didn’t quite know how to show them just how much we’d miss them, but luckily for us the whales that had grew to become a part of us here; visiting daily, checking up on us, knew just the right way.
It had been a busy day with many new-and old-faces visiting the island, a rarity to see so many in just one day, we even had a group join us for a special farewell dinner that night. We called it our ‘party night’; everyone had a shower, a feast was cooked, wine was drunk and laughs filled the crisp air. And blows too. During dinner we were blessed with a show, as we often are here on Gill Island, the whales coming so close you could almost feel the mist of their blows settling on your skin. It was Janie that suggested we go sit up on the lab deck where we would be able to see 180 degrees of our ‘front yard’, so to speak, the magic unfolding before us.
The sea sparkled like a glint in someone’s eye – we were in for an extra special treat tonight. The silence settled around us comfortably as we tried to absorb the sights and sounds engulfing every cell of our bodies. The sun began to set and the whales continued to come, fluking into the golden light and disappearing into the ocean’s depths as the sun sunk lazily below the horizon. As the light began to fade and the stars began to shine, the whales’ breath continued to punctuate the spell of the silent night. It was difficult to truly comprehend what was happening that night, as each of us tried to really feel this moment, one which no doubt would stay with us all for years to come.
Photogragh By Florent Nicolas www.florent-nicolas.com
What seemed like minutes (but was really hours) later, our guests had to leave and all that were left were our 3 interns who were soon to say goodbye, and myself and Janie, who would still remain. The 5 of us sat with our legs dangling off the deck, huddled under a blanket and clasping a glass of wine to toast new friends who would soon become old ones and to the whales who brought us all together.
Time really seems to move differently here. Days flow continuously into one another, yet at the same time, it somehow simply stops. Allowing you time to think, to heal, to experience; the days punctuated by raindrops and sun rays and whale blows. I feel suspended in mid air like a humpback’s body weightless in the water, drifting in silence and with such inner peace I can no longer tell what are my dreams and what is my reality, or if they have somehow managed to find each other in a sea of uncertainty.
We really don’t need a lot to make us happy. If we strip back us humans to our primal instinct, all we seek is simply nature and wilderness, freedom and love, a moment so special it all but takes your breath away…
I looked up at the stars that night and thought of how interesting it is that their light only reaches us long after they have physically gone. I hoped that the same would be for our new friendships formed these months, that they would continue to light up my life well after these first special moments of meeting.
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.
It has been weeks since I left Cetacea Lab and returned to Vancouver. After two months of waking up to whales and wildlife, it is strange now listening to construction and downtown traffic. My time spent on Gil Island was utterly amazing, and I have endless appreciation to Janie and Hermann for making that time so special and full of unforgettable whale experiences. There is one day, however, that stands out the most in my memory, and for this day, I have two Gitga’at Guardians, Bunker and Nicole, to thank.
After a slow morning at the Wall outcamp, the other intern, Sam, and I explored the nearby coastlines and tidal pools and read in a hammock under the observation deck. In the afternoon, however, everything changed and we were overwhelmed with whale activity. The Wall is situated so that there is about 20m of rocks in front of the deck that lead down to the water. There is a hydrophone secured in the water so that any and all whale calls are heard through a portable speaker.
Around 3pm we started hearing orca calls, which honestly sound similar to aliens attempting to communicate, and we spotted them offshore to the west of us, heading our direction. Sam and I were starting to get excited, as all orca encounters to us are simply magical. Shortly after the first pod passed by the deck, we got a call on the radio informing us that two other orca pods were heading our way. We could hardly contain our excitement, despite not wanting to get our hopes up in case the incoming orca decided to change direction or behaviour. Fortunately, we spotted one of the pods about to pass by us, all the while hearing increasing vocalizations on the hydrophone. Just after that pod passed by to join the first, currently feeding and milling quite far in the distance, a third pod passed just a couple of meters from the rocks in front of the lab. It was astonishing to hear all three clans vocalizing at once, calling to one another and eventually all congregating. Once the third pod passed us, Sam and I relaxed, overwhelmed by the amount of whales we had just witnessed and trying to process the experience.This was about the time when Bunker and Nicole radioed us to ask if we wanted to join them on their boat to take ID photos of the orca. Enthusiastically (sounding a little over-eager and borderline desperate), we agreed, and in no time were on our way to the group of over 30 individual orcas. To be honest, when we reached the whales and were surrounded by large males with 6ft dorsal fins and females with the smallest of calves, I was in complete shock. These have been my favorite marine species for years, and I was finally able to observe 100 meters. To my surprise, Bunker and Nicole were just as in awe as I was. After researching whales for two years, they still experience each whale encounter as if it was the first time, with pure amazement and an undying love for these creatures.
I will never forget that day, surrounded by 30+ orca and in the midst of frantically capturing ID shots, remembering to take a breath and realize that I will quite possibly never experience something this incredible (in regards to whales) ever again. It was a day that makes every decision and all the hard work up to that point worth it. All I can do now, back at home in Vancouver, is remember how passionate I felt in the moment of all the whale activity, and hope that one day I will return to Cetacea Lab to visit these incredible whales once again.
Written By : Laura Davies
Having grown up in Scotland I am no stranger to the overwhelming beauty and tranquility of nature, there is always that moment (for me at least) where you just stand; take in the view that is in front of you and just smile, really smile. That is exactly how it is on Gil Island. Every day I wake, have breakfast and start work at 8. When “shift” starts I am out on the deck of the lab with the vast expanse of silent, pristine fjords to occupy my eyes, forever changing, always captivating and if it weren’t for the occasional small fishing boat or a chance sighting of a plane’s vapor trail you could, and do, often forget that there is a whole other world outside.
Three weeks later, after settling into life on Gil, I was transported to “The Wall”; Cetacea Lab’s out-camp, which is a tiny island situated off the Northern tip of Rennison Island. It is not a place for the faint hearted. The ascent up to the cabin in itself is a tad scary, the cabin is basic and can be a little chilly when the northwest wind blows.
Forget that you know what a shower is and that you have any concept of what a modern day toilet is - if you can accept this I promise you that you will not be disappointed. Although, the reason you go to the Wall is predominantly to collect data on orca, fin whales and the bubble net feeding events of the humpback whale, which, don’t get me wrong, is a spectacle to both see and to hear, I found the other treats the island had to offer were just as intriguing….
Having grown up on the coast one of my favorite past times was to go investigating the rock pools – the wall and the adjacent island that can be reached during low tide were quick to rekindle my childhood curiosity.
However, it was not quite as evident a curiosity as my island companion; Elyse, whom could have profited from having a pair of child restraint straps permanently attached to her. I’ll give her her dues though – her enthusiasm did result in me seeing my first and probably the cutest Nudibranch I will ever see. Overt your eyes from the rock pools and you’ll find the quarrelsome Bald Eagles and their less than quiet offspring. The sea otter;
which turned out to be not “a really old sea lion” (Hofs, 2016) gave us a fantastic display of how to look effortlessly sauvé floating in sub freezing temperatures whilst eating dinner off your own stomach.
the harbor seal, Pablo, and ultimately the awe inspiring Orca. Such magnificent and humbling creatures, all .I am truly lucky, not only to have spent time with them, but to have observed them in their natural, unspoiled environment – exactly how it should be.
I am also lucky and thankful to have been sent out to the wall with my aforementioned companion, Elyse. Living in close quarters with someone in such circumstances are difficult, however she made it not only easy, but hilariously brilliant; even when the weather fell below the standards of someone who lives in Scotland. But mostly I am grateful to both Janie and Hermann. Thank you for allowing me to come share your island(s) with you but mostly – thank you for fighting to keep it a paradise, a place that made me smile, really smile.
Written By Sam Watson
When I arrived in Hartley Bay last year, it was sunny, 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and before I left the small fishing village, I went for a dip in a nearby swimming hole.
When I arrived this year, I bundled into a cold-weather survival suit and held on for dear life as the Elemiah bounced its way towards Whale Point, my home till August. Hermann Meuter, co-director of the North Coast Cetacean Society, didn’t seem worried about the way the little boat was tossing in waves that seemed close to her size, but the cold, stinging rain was not particularly pleasant on my face. It was, all in all, a very different welcome.
Still, though, it seemed like the spirit of the place wasn’t angry, merely curious. Since I’d been here last, I’d changed majors at college, finished college, and been accepted to graduate school, so I think the rain and waves were a way for the place to make sure I still had a wild spirit. She was just being a little mischievous.
She needn’t have worried. I’ve told many people this over the past year, but the Great Bear has a way of getting a hold of you and attaching herself to the deepest parts of your soul.
In other words, once you’ve been here, you really have to come back, and she’d remind me why that’s the case the very next night, an evening that couldn’t have been more different from my journey to Whale Point – calm, peaceful, and full of whales.
The night of my first full day, we’d gotten reports of orca to the east of our location. We didn’t expect to see them before dark, but, like the Great Bear herself, killer whales have their own plans. I was the first to notice them, black knife fins racing through the glassy water, and I pointed them out thinking we’d mosey down to the Elemiah, hop on, take some photos, and return.
When I turned around, thirty seconds after I spoke, the small lab was deserted, and I saw Hermann, closely followed by the other interns, moving at a full sprint for the boat.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I expected anything else.
It was a pod of residents, the primarily fish eaters, four in total – one male, [two female, and a juvenile. They were part of the A35 matriline, we were only able to properly ID A56 and A90 and not sure where the rest of the family were. We spent over an hour with them; one breaching not more than five meters away, showcasing the power of the whalel.
Even more powerful, though, was the juvenile swimming in front of us. Two meters out, a meter down, effortlessly . It turned on its side and looked right at us. The greenish water tinted its white flanks, and it was as if all the energy of the Great Bear was focused through its eye, examining us, evaluating us, wondering if we were able to listen to what this place would tell us over the summer.
Welcome back, she whispered a few moments later.
Welcome back indeed.
This wonderful Blog was written by Samantha Phillips from Whale Point
On August 16, a report came in through the VHF radio that has become all too common these past few weeks. “Whale Point, Whale Point. A humpback whale has been spotted in Kitimat, that is entangled in fishing or crab gear.”
This is the fifth marine mammal report that I’ve observed in five weeks, a stat that hits very close to home for those of us who have witnessed just how magnificent these creatures are and how vital they are to this ecosystem. It’s been almost a week since that first sighting, and we are no closer to finding this poor whale and freeing it from the uncomfortable, heavy, unnatural grip of the netting.
The morning after the report, all hands were on deck including Gitga’at Guardians, DFO, and Bunker and Nicole of Hartley Bay. We searched from shore and sea for signs of this distressed whale. The boats were on the water for twelve hours until the night grew too dark to see. The Elemiah anchored for the evening, its passengers walking to shore feeling defeated.
I woke up the next morning to a tap on my tent and Janie’s voice, “We are going out again today. I need to make sure this whale is alright.”
An hour later, Janie drove the boat to the centre of Squally Channel (also known as Enbridge’s proposed tanker route), shut off the motor and closed her eyes. We sat in silence for a moment. It wasn’t long before we heard powerful blows coming from all sides.
As I’ve happily observed many times over my stay at Cetacea Lab, there were once again more whales than there were people.
From whale grouping to whale grouping, we scanned for any injuries or dragging objects. So far, these whales all appeared to be healthy and free of human impact. This method led us into Lewis Pass, where our hearts were left fluttering at the sight of over twenty humpbacks gathering and dividing, over and over again. We watched in amazement, wondering what behaviours were hidden beneath the water’s surface. Still, not a suffering whale could be seen.
Until of course, a massive Disney cruise ship passed at least 20 knots – far too fast for the tight waterway we were occupying, and directly over a spot where the humpbacks had been spotted blowing only moments before.
A single tonal blow echoed through the trees around us, its puff of mist rising up out of the behemoth wake of the ship. This whale was not impressed.
Janie once again kicked the Elemiah into gear. “I just saw Dolphin and her calf there. If that tonal blowing whale is Dolphin and if she doesn’t come up with a calf, there are going to be some serious problems.”
The whale came up once more, with the same grunt and haste. We watched her dorsal arch, in preparation for a dive, and flick her fluke into the air. The five of us on the boat let out a shared sigh of relief. It was Drop, a humpback that has not been seen with a calf this year.
The thought of witnessing a 35 foot humpback as it is struck by a boat 100 times its size left a solemn quiet over us all.
As fortunate as Drop was this time around, the event with the cruise ship is likely to have a different outcome in the near future. If we allow massive LNG tankers and even more boats to travel through these narrow passages with toxic materials, these whales won’t be able to hear one another, let alone have an opportunity to simply breathe safely.
Still, the humpbacks continued to dance around the Elemiah. In the midst of close calls with cruise ships, and the thought of a tangled humpback roaming towards its death, the marine life continues to thrive. Breaching, bubble net feeding, greeting one another – it was a perfect illustration of just how much life, and beauty, is at risk.
This thought passed through my mind seconds before Triangle surfaced right beside our boat, followed by her calf breaching right over her. For twenty minutes we watched in awe as this young and spirited animal mastered the art of thrusting its entire body out of the water for the world to see, its only mark a fleeting yet giant splash on the surface.
“Does he have a name?” I asked Janie. She smiled, “Not yet – but you can name him if you’d like.”
“It’s that easy?”
“Yes, we just have to send it through and it’s official.”
Today, I write this post after finally finding a name I’m quite happy with.
World, meet Silver Lining. He is playful and curious and he visited me with his enthusiasm just when I was feeling discouraged about the fate of my favourite species and my new favourite place.
Silver linings are what we get when the sun shines just on the other side of the rain cloud. And every silver lining I’ve observed has always been able to penetrate the darkness, spreading its warm glow across the sky. Just like the glow this calf spread towards our boat.
Perhaps this calf will be the Silver Lining this place needs, spreading his energy all across his great migration. He is demanding our attention. And he’s trying to remind us just how ugly and empty and insincere this world would be if there weren’t a thriving Great Bear Rainforest and Great Whale Sea. Whales migrate impossible distances to get to this wild, rich ecosystem. They are being pulled to this northern coast because it offers them the best chance at survival. Research will interpret breaches in many ways. But how can you look at a whale breach and not feel with every cell in your body, “This is a creature that is happy to be alive”?
The wild of this place has brought the whales, and the whales have brought me, and I can’t help being happy to be alive here, too.
There is a lot threatening the well being of these whales and these waters. If you find yourself lucky enough to experience the energy of this place, you will see whales, and you may even see a crab trap wrapped around one of their fins. Your heart will break for this whale and you will realize how hard it will have to fight to free itself.
I beg you to fight just as hard to free this place of any human impact. Fight as hard as you can. And when you do, keep your eyes peeled for Silver Lining. I have a feeling he will show himself at just the right moments.
I’ve met a lot of compassionate, angry, motivated people during my stay at Cetacea Lab. I see how hard they are fighting, and how quickly their passion transfers to every individual they meet. I just know they will be rewarded with more silver linings (read: whales) than they’ll know how to celebrate.
This I have to believe.
This Blog was written by Kara Henderlight - an Intern and part of the Whale Point Dream Team 2015!!
It was 7:30am when we received a call from Eric Keen on his vessel the Bangarang. Eric is conducting a study on fin whales in the area and we work quite closely with him on our research. We had been travelling back from Hartley Bay towards Whale Point when he alerted us that a juvenile transient orca had just beached herself on the shore of Andrew Rocks. From his description it sounded like her family had been cooperating as a team hunting for seals. She had positioned herself near the rocks waiting, almost motionlessly, while her family chased a seal in her direction. It must have been a miscalculation on her part because as the tide went out, she found herself stuck and unable to move.
Without a second to think, we turned our boat The Sophia around and travelled north in Squally Channel where Eric was. En route we called the Gitga’at Guardians of Hartley Bay and also tried to establish contact with Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) to alert them. By the time we all arrived, the tide was already dropping. Our worst fear was coming true: this young whale was going to be on the beach for at least 8 more hours until the tide would rise later in the day. Her family was in the distance, helplessly watching. They would circle the island, very close to shore where she was stranded. They could probably hear her vocalizing, each call trembling through her entire body, and our hearts, as we listened close by. We had never encountered a stranded whale before. Luckily we were able to establish contact with John Ford and Paul Cottrell of DFO and ask for their guidance over the satellite phone. They both had experience with this type of situation and they advised us to keep her cool and wet throughout the day without causing her too much stress. So, with her family close by but unable to help, we stepped up to take on the role of her protectors.
Hermann, alongside Marven and George of the Gitga’at Guardians from Hartley Bay, went ashore to assess the situation with a few empty buckets and sheets.
By the time they returned, Eric had brilliantly put together a MacGyver style water pump with a hose and some duct tape. We grabbed a hand-held radio, some water and food; we knew we would be beside this whale all day. Bunker and Nicole from Hartley Bay picked up Eric and myself and we made our way to the backside of the island with the pump, quietly walking to where Hermann was standing with the orca.
Eric worked the water pump, while Hermann took the hose and began to slowly soak her body with water from the sea. The rest of us would alternate soaking sheets in the intertidal area, passing them to Bunker who would then gently lay these along the length of her body. We noticed that her dorsal was getting very dry, so grabbed a pillowcase from Eric’s sailboat as a cover. We worked in shifts to keep her wet using the water pump and blankets soaked in the ocean.
Fortunately for most of the morning it was quite cloudy, but by mid-day the hot sun had come through the clouds and was shining directly on her. Until this point we had not covered her head with sheets, as we did not want to cause her more stress. However, the time had now come for the need to shield her entire body from the sun. I have never seen Bunker move so slowly as he inched into the water in front of her and delicately placed a second sheet over her head, ensuring that the blowhole was left uncovered. If ever any of her skin was exposed, it quickly dried. This made us realize how fortunate this young whale was that Eric had found her; if he hadn’t, she would be sitting alone on this rock, suffering to a much greater extent under the heat of the sun.
For the first while we could tell that she was quite anxious having these humans so close to her. Imagine what it might feel like for a creature of the sea, spending her days swimming with the freedom of movement in all directions, then suddenly not be able to move at all, completely helpless to gravity and the weight of her body against the rock beneath her. When she would take a breath you could tell she struggled from the pressure on her lungs. Had she been a full-grown male orca, she may not have lived until the next high tide. Fortunately she was young, and actually quite small for her age. At 9 years old we estimated she weighed around 3-4 tons. A full grown male can weigh up to 10 tons. With time, and our efforts to keep her calm, her breathing became steady. Every once in a while she would become vocal, then quiet again. It was when her eyes finally closed, that she seemed to relax. We all stood still, looking at each other in awe, wondering the same thought - had she somehow realized we were here to help her? We all hoped that was the truth and carried on in silence. In the intervening hours we did our best to keep her as cool and as comfortable as possible.
Just as the tide began to rise, the water pump finally broke and all the duct tape in the world couldn’t keep it together. So, with bins and buckets, we continued as an assembly line. One of us would fill the bucket and pass it down to the next person to pour water on the sheets that covered her sensitive skin. Finally, the water level had raised enough to reach her body. We knew it was time for us to leave as our presence might cause her to try and move prematurely, causing more harm to herself in the process. We removed all the sheets and blankets from her body and stepped away. One last time we stood next to her wishing her all the strength in the world to get off the rocks and be free. We climbed up onto a nearby cliff and waited, watching as the water level slowly began to cover her body. She became more and more vocal, perhaps excited, knowing her moment of freedom was soon to come. It was her patience that astonished us.
She would lift her tail, as if to check the level of the tide. At one point we were concerned that something might be wrong, but we realized we should trust her instinct to know when the right time would be. Sure enough, once again she tried to lift her tail. She must have realized the right time had come and with two giant thrusts she was suddenly off the rock, and with lightening speed swimming free. From the rock and the boats near by you could hear us all screaming with joy “ You Go Girl!!” Eric had placed a hydrophone in the water and we could hear her vocalizing, over and over, searching for a response from her family. They had travelled off into the distance and we could not see them. Another wave of relief washed over us all as we heard the faint calls from her concerned family. She had obviously heard them as well and was off, swimming as free as every whale should be, to reunite with her family. We now know that this whale is T069A2 and belongs to the T69 family, a group that we are very familiar with
We all stood side-by-side as a community and let the emotions of this day move through us with one unified sigh of relief. We felt overwhelmed and proud that we had all worked together so effortlessly to save this whale. We also realized something else: this whale had beached herself not far from where the Enbridge tankers and LNG ships have proposed to transit oil and gas. Would days such as this become common place with humpbacks, fin whales and orca at constant risk to ship strikes? There are many days we have observed all 3 species sharing this narrow channel for the purpose of foraging. Blows can be seen from one end of the channel to the other, leaving no space for such a large vessel to pass.
In the days since the incident we have been astounded with the outpouring of media and public interest in the rescue. It gives us encouragement and renewed hope that when united together we really do have the power to protect this remarkable coast.
Between ourselves at Cetacea Lab, the Gitga’at Guardians of Hartley Bay, Eric and his crew on the Bangarang, and researchers from DFO, we will let you know the next time this young whale is sighted and how she is doing. For now I think we should all be grateful she has survived and hope for her safety in the years to come.
This Blog was written by our dear friend Jenn Dickie
Our day started bright and early as we pulled away from Whale Point to the type of glorious morning that makes getting up at the crack of dawn a worthwhile endeavor.
Michael Scholl from the Save Our Seas Foundation with his stepson Yoann joined us, and with a cup of coffee in hand, camera in the other, we headed out on our whale survey at 6am. The first stop would be to see if we could ID the two whales that Janie had noticed at the mouth of Whale Channel. Our plan for the day was to have a quick look at these two then head north in Squally to see if we could find the fin whales that had been reported in the area, make a stop in Hartley Bay to top off the fuel supply then poke around a little to see what we could find.
Over the next 2 hours we came across 10 humpback whales, all seemed to be heading in a southerly direction. In order to ID a humpback whale it is necessary to photograph the underside of their fluke (as each is as unique as a fingerprint) and with just one whale remaining to ID, who was refusing to fluke, we carried on following it south. The 5 minutes we had allotted this whale turned into 30 and the line that divided the glassy calm seas where we were, from the choppier waters to the south kept moving further into the distance. Something was pulling us south! Before we knew it we were half way across Caamano Sound, heading in the opposite direction to our planned route. After a call from Nicole and Bunker at the Gitga’at cabin on Rennison Island notifying us that the bubble net feeding group had been spotted nearby, and confirmation from Hermann that the fuel we were to pick up in Hartley Bay was not critical, we decided to stop fighting the flow and follow these whales to the south. We said goodbye to our resting whale, who never did fluke, and were off across Caamano Sound.
We arrived at the Wall Islets just as the feeding group surfaced and for the next two hours we followed them as they made their way into the calmer waters of Bouchaman channel.
In the time we were with them the group grew from 6 whales to 14 as a number of the whales we had seen earlier in the day further north arrived and joined in. I doubt there are many spectacles in nature so remarkable as watching 14 enormous mammals breaching the surface of the water, in unison, mouths open to gorge on what I can only assume must be a massive school of hearing. This feeling was enforced later that evening when we got to see what this looked like from the air, thanks to the incredible drone footage that Michael managed to make of the final bubble net of the day.
As if the day had not been spectacular enough, when we returned back to Squally Channel we were greeted by a humpback calf who had gaining a little freedom from Mom and decided to do a some breaching and head lobbing before stopping by the boat to say hello.
A few moments later Mom showed up to put an end to the play and usher it away. Time to go home?? Apparently not… 3 more blows in the distance, and as we approached to investigate, the fin whales we had originally been seeking appeared.
After 12 + hours on the water, all but 40 minutes was spent in the company of whales. I have since identified 28 whales we met in 10 separate encounters, some of whom travelled the same 40 miles that we did over the course of the day. We returned to Whale Point, thrilled with our day in the Greatbear Rainforest, which never seems to disappoint!!!