Monday, 23 June 2014 14:24

Finding Yoda

Finding Yoda – Part 1

In 1996, citizen scientists Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter came together through their shared passion to protect and research whales on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Heading north to B.C.’s Great Bear region, they gained permission from the Gitga’at First Nations to build Cetacea Lab, a hydrophone research station on remote Gil Island. Since 2012, WWF has partnered with Cetacea Lab to support their work in monitoring and protecting whales. In the first of a 6-part blog series, Janie introduces us to Yoda, a charismatic humpback whale. ‘Finding Yoda’ follows the seasonal migration of humpbacks, showing how vitally important B.C.’s north coast waters are for humpback populations across the Pacific Basin.

Written by Janie Wray, Director of Cetacea Lab

  1. Cetacea Lab’s remote location on B.C.’s north coast, Hermann and I have witnessed the remarkable return of the humpback whale to Canadian waters over the last decade. Years of hunting had brought these gentle giants to the edge of extinction. In our first season at Whale Point, we counted only 42 whales in our area. Twelve years later, we’ve seen that grow to 318 humpbacks returning here each year.
british columbia

Janie Wray and dog Cohen looking for Yoda in the coastal waters of the Great Bear Sea. © forwhales.org

We believe there are two important reasons for this increase of humpback populations in our area – access to plentiful food and quiet ocean waters ideal for whales to communicate in. The coastal cold ocean seas here are packed with nutrients and tiny forage fish that humpback whales consume, not with teeth, but through a baleen filter feeding system in their enormous mouths. And since allwhales are acoustic creatures, these quiet waters are an ideal haven for humpbacks that use sound to look for food, find mates, navigate and engage in social behaviours.

On the water and from the vantage point of our lab at Whale Point, Hermann and I noticed that we were seeing the same humpback individuals from year to year. We also began to realize that a large community of resident whales were returning to our area every season. The more time we spent with certain individuals, the more we recognized their particular personalities.

One September day, I was out in the research boat, a hydrophone suspended overboard to listen underwater to whales. Suddenly, I heard a huge explosion, then another.  In the distance I could see massive amounts of water shooting up from the sea, but from what, I wasn’t sure. Traveling closer, I realized it was a humpback whale I’d never seen before, lifting a beautiful white tail high into the air, and slamming it down into the calm sea, displaying tail slap after tail slap. The whale we would come to know as Yoda then rolled onto its back, still managing to lift this massive tail up and out of the water and slam it back against the surface.

Yoda’s distinct white fluke markings and acrobatic behaviour. ©forwhales.org

Yoda’s distinct white fluke markings and acrobatic behaviour. © Forwhales.org

I’d never seen a whale maneuver its tail in this manner. The pure strength and stamina it took to keep this going was truly amazing. One can speculate as to the real intention of this acrobatic display but that day it seemed this was Yoda’s announcement to the whale world – I have arrived!

Since this first arrival, Yoda has returned to Whale Channel every year within two or three days of the exact same day in late August every year – a remarkable feat given where this lively cetacean started from. Yoda and other humpbacks spend their winters in southern waters off Hawaii, Mexico or Japan. We don’t know yet where Yoda heads to when he leaves Caamano Sound in late November, but we do know that B.C.’s quiet north coast waters provide critical refuge for Yoda and other humpbacks during the summer and fall.

During the winter months, the pregnant females give birth to their calves, and males compete for the attention of females. They don’t eat during this entire period. Instead, in early spring, they head north to their feeding grounds in B.C. and Alaska, an amazing 3,000-plus mile migration across the Pacific Ocean.

Imagine that a mother, who has just given birth and is nursing a calf, now needs to swim 3000 miles to find food. Young juveniles and even last year’s calves, no longer with their mother, must make this incredible ocean journey north. In the spring, all humpbacks will leave the south in pursuit of food. It’s a journey that can take up to six weeks and often, when the whales first arrive, we notice the fat they’ve lost over the winter, especially the new mothers.

By the end of June, humpback blows–great heart-shaped puffs of vapour–are a constant sight from our window overlooking Taylor Bight. They’re accompanied by long feeding calls heard over our network of underwater microphones called hydrophones.

Whale dog Neekas watches as a humpback ‘flukes’ off the bow. ©Linda Nowlan / WWF-Canada

Whale dog Neekas watches as a humpback ‘flukes’ off the bow. © Linda Nowlan / WWF-Canada

At Cetacea Lab, Hermann and I, our summer interns, and even our dogs Neekas and Cohen follow the humpbacks’ return day and night. Through speakers mounted in our lab, sleeping quarters, kitchen and even the trees, we listen to the natural sounds of a quiet ocean. The grunts and chirps of fish are followed by long moments of complete silence, then an ancient and diverse sound fills the space – the haunting call of a humpback whale.

 

Friday, 27 September 2013 13:41

The Heart of the Great Bear Rainforest

This Blog has been written by Amy Huva who spent a glorious week with us here at Whale Point with her mother Denise and friend Caroline.

 

The Heart of the Great Bear Rainforest – Written By : Amy Huva

 

I love whales – especially killer whales. As a 10yr old, I spent all my pocket money on a necklace with a killer whale on it that I wore constantly. However, most of the time, the killer whales don't love me back. I'm famously unlucky with whale watching trips and dolphin watching trips – you name it, I've sat on a boat for hours and seen nothing.

So I was trying not to have very high hopes when I came out to visit Whale Point this week. I focused on seeing 1,000 year old trees, on experiencing the Great Bear Rainforest, seeing the salmon run, and maybe some whales in the distance.

So far, we have already been lucky on this trip – as we were travelling from Hartley Bay to Gil Island with Hermann on Monday, he spotted a Fin whale and a Humpback whale from a distance. I got a photo of the Humpback whale's tail with a long zoom on my camera and was pleased.

I hoped it wasn't going to be too blurry when I got home and put it on my computer, and was excited because it was the first time I'd ever seen a Humpback whale in real life.

This morning, our first full day on the island, we went down after breakfast to the lab to watch a group of Humpback whales feeding in the distance between Princess Royal Island and Ashdown Island. If we looked through binoculars, we could just see that there was a mother and a calf in the group of about 3 or 4 Humpback whales.

Later, after getting some coffee in the house, we were setting out towards the creek to see where the salmon run when someone made a comment that they thought the mother and calf Humpback whales were swimming towards Whale Point. No sooner had the comment been made, we heard a crash out on the water and Hermann shouted 'oh wow! The mother just breached!'

 

 

We rushed further down the rocky beach towards the water and I suddenly saw the Humpback whale jump up and out of the water, and land with a huge crash on her back.

It seemed to be a mother-daughter breaching class. The mother whale would jump up and crash down and the calf would copy her. It was the most amazing sight – seeing these huge mammals put on such a display and hearing the seriously loud boom as they landed on the water, or the clap as they slammed their fins down playing on the water.

 

They were playing around – rolling over in the water and waving their fins in the air, slapping their tails down, leaping out of the water, with the calf following and copying her mother the whole time as they moved across the bay we were standing in.

It was so phenomenal – watching something from the shore that I've only ever seen in a documentary, experiencing it and feeling the power and pure strength it must take to get such a huge body out of the water like that. Seeing the whales smack down on the surface and then hearing the slightly delayed boom as the speed of sound caught up to where we were standing.

It's only our second day here, but so far it's already been magical experiencing the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest in all it's glory.

Her story continues in the Vancouver Observer - LInk Below

 http://www.vancouverobserver.com/blogs/earthmatters/whale-watching-heart-great-bear-rainforest

 

Friday, 30 August 2013 09:49

Humpbacks Bubble Net feed- video

 

 

This Journel Enrty was written by a young girl who was staying with us at Whale Point. Her name is Maddie Picard and this is her experience on the water with an amazing group of humpback whales bubble net feeding. Please watch the vidoe below as well - it is truly inspirational!!

 

On August 21st 2013 we spotted a group of 5 humpback whales by Fawcett Point, on Gil Island. We went out on our boat the Elemiah to see the whales. Once we arrived we realized the whales were bubble net feeding. There were 4 juveniles and one adult named Drop. Three of the whales were named BCX whales because the backsides of their tails are black. There were two whales that had completely white tails. They are named BCZ whales. Cohen, our golden retriever was on the bow and as usual was making some very funny noises. After a lot of feeding the whales split into 2 groups. The BCZ whales went together and the BCX whales escorted Drop as he had decided to leave and look for the large bubble net feeding group, which he is a part of. Then the 2 BCX whales came back and all the juveniles joined up again. After watching the whales for a bit longer we decided to head back as it was really beginning to rain hard. Here is a video of the whales.

 

Dim lights

Tuesday, 16 July 2013 20:01

A Warm Whalecome Back

 

A Warm Whalecome Back

Written By Katie Qualls

It was my first morning back on Gil Island, the beginning of my third summer season here. I awoke to the sound of wavelets lapping on the rocks and a thrush singing in the salal bushes behind my tent, and smiled. Though it was very early, sunlight already lit up the east-facing wall of my tent. I unzipped it and stepped into a familiar and beautiful world. It was a warm, sunny morning. The morning light glinted off the small waves in the bight, a breeze gently swayed the hemlock branch that droops above my tent, a raven sailed overhead. I admired the place quietly, then quickly set about preparing for the trip Hermann, Sophie, James, and I would be taking to the Wall Islets that morning. Our mission was to visit the rocky point where the new out camp will be built this summer and clear a trail to it from a nearby beach so we could carry supplies there. Once we had organized all the food and gear we would need for the day, we loaded up the boat and clambered aboard.

 

A few minutes after leaving the Lab, several large blows were spotted – fin whales! The backlit blows hung in the air, glowing in the morning sunlight with the dark green conifer-covered contours of Princess Royal Island in the background. As the blows faded, huge grey bodies rose from the water, bowed, and disappeared again into the sea. Yes, whales are big. But their size never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many I've seen. These were gigantic fin whales. Giants among giants of the sea.

Just after we snapped some good ID photos of the fin whales, more blows were spotted. These were smaller, lower, rounded blows. They were the blows of three humpback whales. Hermann steered the research boat closer to the place we had seen the whales go under. Four pairs of eyes searched the water in anticipation. With the dull roar of rushing water gigantic open mouths rose from the sea, splashing foamy water in all directions. Gasps were heard from everyone on the boat – the whales had surfaced much closer to us than we had expected! Very close to the boat indeed.

We could see each barnacle on their jaws, watch their throat pleats expand as they filled their mouths with water and confused fish, see water drip from their dark baleen before the hungry mouths quickly closed and sank back under the surface. As the tips of the whales' mouths disappeared underwater a pectoral fin emerged, arched gracefully over the water with the bumpy, black and white mottled leading edge facing towards us. Some sort of brown sea creature or seaweed hung from two of the bumps. Fascinated, I squinted at the frilly brown stuff but soon the last bits of whale disappeared below the surface of the sea. I like that whales carry around their own small ecosystems.The foamy water settled, then was disturbed again as one of the whales came up for a breath even closer to the boat. Its blowhole sprayed a fine mist of water into the air which the wind blew towards us. We smelled the stinky whale breath and I felt some of the water flecks from the blow land on my cheeks and nose. I giggled, thinking of whale snot, but didn't attempt to wipe it away. Water streamed off the whale's back in wavy sheets as more of its body emerged from the ocean. The whale closed its blowhole and dipped its head back underwater as its short dorsal fin appeared for a moment. Then another blow slightly further away caught our attention – another whale had surfaced. Then the third whale exhaled near the bow of the boat. We swung our heads around wildly, not sure where to look as the whales surfaced in the water around us.

I refocused on the first whale we had seen. It took another breath then arched its body in preparation to dive. Its dorsal slid into the water, followed by the remainder of its back and then the base of its flukes. The trailing edge of the flukes lifted off the water, turning up to show us a dark underside. I heard the soft clicks of the camera as the fluke slipped underwater and knew that someone had captured a perfect ID photo. The other two whales dove also. For a moment we glanced at one another, grinning in our awe and excitement, voicing our admirations and pointing to the places the whales had been. The whales fed again and again, progressively further from the boat. Once we were a good distance away from them we put away the camera in its safe home – a giant yellow Pelican case - and continued our journey to the Wall Islets. “The whales say 'Welcome back, Katie!'” Hermann said with a smile from behind the wheel of the boat. It was the perfect start to the summer – a warm, sunny morning filled with whales.


 


 

Sunday, 07 July 2013 17:27

Close Encounter with a tiny Giant

 

Written by Kim Ly

 Well, relatively tiny. On our way back from fixing the batteries of the Whale Channel hydrophone, Hermann and I had one of the most splendid encounters with a fin whale calf. Those at the lab had forewarned us that a mother and calf had been spotted in Taylor Bight. We located them soon after rounding the corner into the bay and turned down the engine so to not frighten them. The mother, a whopping 79ft. giant was travelling along the shoreline followed by her relatively smaller progeny. Resonating blows followed by her tubular sounding inhales echoed all around. Then, seemingly never ending glistening gray backs followed by arched fins – a diving duet.

 At this point, I was instructed by Hermann to sit back and enjoy while he snapped a few photos of them. Minutes passed while we awaited their resurfacing. Positioning himself for the next potential shot, Hermann hopped onto the bow of the boat. Several more minutes of anticipating silence…. Then – BLOW! Both our hearts plummeted into our stomachs. The boat-sized calf had surfaced within 3 feet of the bow! Its sink sized blow hole was clearly visible, soon followed by its graceful dark body speckled with light gray with a bottom half already streaked white that glided into the water, which had been only slightly rippled until then. It was stunning in all the possible senses of the word – we were frozen in awe save for giggles and gasps of slight shock.

As the calf circled the boat for a second time - this time with a slightly larger radius – a much deeper and more tonal blow was heard closer to the shoreline. We looked up, only to be met by the sight of the mother lunge feeding! Her baleen were clearly visible as the launched herself sideways at groups of tiny unsuspecting prey – a magnificent engulfing machine. Over and over she lunged and soon her calf, perhaps bored of the awestruck humans on the shiny boat, joined her. Once some good photos were snapped, we sat back and let our eyes fully appreciate the spectacular act unfolding before us.

 

They remained in the bight long after we left them, once feigning their departure then reappearing, making one wonder whether they were tired of the attention. Nevertheless, their billowing blows could still be heard as the sun began to set over Gil. It was indeed an encounter neither of us is likely to ever forget.  

 

Thursday, 20 June 2013 17:56

This is the Place I Know

 

 

The whales have arrived through out the waters that surround Gil Island,  home to Cetacea Lab at Whale Point. Already humpbacks and fins whales have captivated a group of new interns from the deck of the lab. Resident orca calls broadcast from the hydrophone stations at all hours of the night. We are busy building a new out camp on Rennison Island, which has a spectacular view the west. A group of 12 humpback whales were sighted from the out camp yesterday and we were thrilled to recognize each one as a seasonal resident, seen year after year for this ritual feast. There was also a young calf displaying its youth with a number of breaches as mother fed within the group.

We hope that you will follow our journey through out this season as we spend our days listening to and observing these majestic whales.

 To follow is a poem that was written by one of our new interns, Sophie Scotter. 

 

 

 There is a Place I Know

 

 

There is a place I know

Where clouds envelope peaks of snow

And salmon swarm the creeks that flow

This is the place I know 

 

This place is blissful night and day

 With forests dense and hard of way 

And driftwood settling in the bay

This is the place I know 

 

A wilderness fills islands here

Where eagles soar above wandering deer

In silent flight they draw so near,

This is the place I know 

 

With loons and merlets surface bound

These waters are still filled with sound

From graceful giants all around


This is the place I know 

 

For fleeting seconds they meet the eye

 A breath, a breach, a darkened dive

 And how to feel so alive 

This is the place I know 

 

Then came explorers to this land

With guardians lending a helping hand

To listen, learn and understand

This is the place I know 

To listen to that ghostly blow

This is the place I go

Tuesday, 05 February 2013 11:12

Talking About Whales to the Joint Review Panel

Last week, the JRP for the Northern Gateway Project was in Vancouver to hear oral statements from the public towards the proposed project. Janie took the opportunity and presented her personal views to the panel. We would like to share with you what she had to say, you can click on the audio clip below to listen and follow along, or just read this for yourself.

Good Afternoon. My name is Janie Wray. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and to say that I am opposed to the Northern Gateway Project. I would also like to thank everyone who has spoken before me – your words were inspirational.

 I am one of only 2 people that can I say, I live along the proposed tanker route, on Gil Island.

My research partner and I built a facility to study whales, there, in 2001. I was adopted into the Killer whale Clan of Hartley Bay and given the name Ksm Kli Gayse. This translates to “The Lady of Gil Island.” The reason I live on this remote island is my passion to research and protect whales. I did not know 12 years ago that I would be protecting whales from oil tankers. I am grateful that I followed my instinct, my destiny.  I have spent more time on the water with this population of whales than any other. I have watched calves grow into juveniles and juvenile become adults, then watch as they bring their first calves back to these waters. I have witnessed social connections between whales that have lasted as long as I have been here – like us humpbacks choose companions through choice and not relations – Orca live and stay in family groups that will last their entire lifetime. I was driven to photograph and document each and every whale encounter from early spring until late fall, for the last 10 years.


 

As they say every picture tells a story. This is the short version of what I have seen, what I have heard. In 2004 I identified 42 individual Humpback Whales, the same for 2005. Then in 2006 something changed. That number began to grow. In 2011 that number had increased to 252 Humpback Whales and by the end of 2012 close to 300 individual Humpback Whales were identified. What is SO interesting is that the same whales are returning year after year; they are becoming seasonal residents. Something else took us by surprise in 2006. This was the first year we had ever seen a fin whale right in front of the lab.

They are impossible to miss, being 60 to 70 feet long, the second largest animal on the planet, next to the blue whale. For the first few years these sighting were extremely rare. Now, to see a fin whale is a common occurrence. Why this sudden increase in both populations? Since it has been over 40 years since the last whale was hunted off the coast of BC, and killed, I believe they are coming back home. They believe it is safe, there is plenty of food and it is quiet. This may also be the reason that the humpback whale has once again began to compose their long mysterious songs from Caamano Sound to Douglas Channel, along this proposed tanker route. If you are going to sing, or call out for your family or mate, it needs to be quiet if you want to be heard. Whales use sound as we use sight, to perceive their environment

 Orca – both resident and transient populations have traveled these waters for 100s generations. When we set up our network of hydrophones this enabled us to listen to the underworld of whales, we were thrilled to realize we were in the center of an orca highway. We can follow these families just by listening to their familiar dialects as they traveled through Caamano Sound and around Gil Island from early spring unit late fall.

 I would like to share with you a typical day on the water.  On this survey day I am on the water by 6am and traveling in Whale Channel, close to shore, following 2 humpback whales – waiting to take an ID picture. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I see something white – I turn and look and to my surprise a young spirit bear has just come out the forest and is now following the rocky shoreline.

He is quite young and most likely this is his first year away from mom. I decide to leave the whales and follow this little one. He is heading towards Kiel the spring camp used by Hartley Bay to dry seaweed and halibut. There is a buoy you can tie up to – which I do as I do not want to frighten this little bear. He is quite oblivious to me – what a wonder to watch as he explores under rocks then eventually wades across a small creek then back into forest.

I feel absolutely blessed.

Then a call on the radio.

The Gitga’at Guardians had just spotted a group of 20 to 30 0rca! The location is only 10 min from my location. By the time I arrive this group of orca have formed a resting line, traveling side by side, breathing as one.

They are traveling towards the shore of Campania Island in Squally channel. In the distance along this shoreline I can now see more blows. As we get closer I realize the orca are slowly taking us towards a large group of humpback whales that are bubble net feeding. When we arrive I depart from the orca and travel closer to the humpback whales – there are 12 and I have known each one for over 10 years - this group of whales meet here every season and feed together – this has become their tradition.

 It is still early afternoon so I decide to travel north in Squally towards Lewis Pass; here I stop and turn off the engine. At first I thought I was completely alone as not a sound could be heard – then there it is – a distant blow – then another and another – soon I realize humpback whales surround me. They ware spread out from one side of Lewis Pass to the other. 

As I travel from group to group I recognize 3 mother and calf pairs – just resting on the surface.  Two of these mothers I have known for years and for both these are their second calves. They bring their calves to these waters because they believe it is safe. When humpback whales sleeps they float on the surface. We often call this logging as they could be mistaken for a log; they are so still. I have approached these whales while they sleep, in my boat - they do not move.

 So as I sit and watch these resting gentle giants I ask myself – what would a tanker do on this day? To your right is a whale – to your left is a whale – in front of you are whales. Lewis Pass is just over 1.5 miles wide. Even in my small boat I would have a hard time maneuvering through this maze of cetaceans. A tanker cannot stop – it must move forward  – on this day it would hit whales.

 I begin to travel back towards the lab; along the way I sight 3 more groups of humpback whales and 2 massive fin whales.I am in a bit of a hurry by now, as I need to get ready to be at King Pacific Lodge to give a whale presentation to their guests.When I arrive at the lodge I am greeted by 25 extremely excited people. They all want to share their experience of the day of seeing a wolf, or a bear, a salmon, a seal, a sea lion, an eagle and of course, a whale. They were all vibrating with excitement and in disbelief that so much could be experienced in one day, in this one location. After the presentation a young girl approaches me, she is about 9 years old. She tells me about her experience of seeing orca for the first time in her life – she was vibrating with joy. I was so moved by her story as I realized when she arrives back home and shares this experience with her friends and classmate she would inspire in them a curiosity and need to experience nature for themselves. I believe this is something we all want for our children.

In Conclusion

The potential threat from oil tankers towards so many different species and the livelihood of First Nations in this sacred, pristine and intact ecosystem is not in the National Interest of Canada. The area along this proposed tanker route is like no other on this planet – it is so alive – so diverse. That is why so many people have sent you their written evidence, their personal experience of this place, or have sat here, in this chair, and asked you, as I will now – please say no to this project.

            HELP US PROTECT        THIS LAND        THIS OCEAN         FOR ALL CREATURES          FOR ALL PEOPLE

Thank you for your time today

Janie Wray

        

Thursday, 23 August 2012 13:19

Whale Talks

Hello Reader!

I’m a PhD student in the Department of Geography, University of British Columbia. My research focuses on the socio-economic development of Caamano Sound over the last 200 years, with a particular attention to matters of sound. As well as listening to whales, I’ve been reading up on shipping histories, interviewing fellow interns, and trying to wrap my head around the logics of the hydrophone. This ‘report’ offers some preliminary thoughts on my experience as a Cetacea Lab intern (wonderful, as to be expected). If anything in it inspires, makes you curious, prompts some insight, or leaves you with questions of any sort - please let me know! I would love to hear from you. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Written By Max Ritts

A Whale Survey

Of course you love the orcas and the humpbacks and that movement they evoke: the rolling breaks and the wind riding the foamy hiss! It’s a grey August morning as we bank Squally Channel, a muffled patch of sunlight pivoting into view. Janie curls the boat to a halt 100 feet from the shore. Recording gear ready, I begin scanning the water for a pair of whale flukes.

“There she is” Janie calls. Click click click goes the SLR camera.

 We’ve identified one of the humpbacks as Loner. As the name suggests, Loner usually feeds alone. “This is interesting,” Janie confirms. Within moments, a ring of bubbles begins forming on the water nearby. Salmon are being corralled from below and sent spiraling upwards. The ‘bubble-net’ grows bright blue and then two giant mouths, gaping-wide and fleshy pink, break the surface. “Whoa!” I gasp. Its not ‘magical’ or ‘majestic.’ Its strange, ponderous, and powerful. The humpbacks reemerge moments later to blow echoing blasts of misty air. And then they’re gone.

Listen to the blows, click below.

 

Caamano Calling

I’m sending this report from Cetacea Lab, a whale research station halfway up the BC coast. Back on land, I remain soaked in watery sound, immersed via stereo feed to a network of hydrophones drilled to the ocean floor. I’m listening to Caamano Sound 30 meters down: its aqueous stratum of warbles, bleeps and burblings. Most of my time is spent in the lab, looking through the window and listening. Jilann, a whale watch guide from Vancouver, enters data on the computer. Philipp, an engineering student from Switzerland, crouches on the floor, assembling his camera. Every summer, when pods of whales travel to BC’s coast from as far as Oahu, Cetacea Lab gathers interns from around the world to assist its activities.

My research encounters geography through the medium of sound, which I consider to be a uniquely expressive source for understanding the ways we shape the world and are shaped by it. For me, Caamano Sound functions like a gigantic resonator -- an area, like the inside of a guitar, detecting and intensifying frequencies. Resonators are not just ways of thinking about acoustics, but places, and the way they consolidate different frequencies of practice, positioning, and political economy. Powerful Gitga’at namings are inscribed into the lands around me -- conduits to worlds I cannot access. They are tied to the raven, eagle, orca, and wolf calls that also make this home. I’ve read stories of Spanish frigates sounding through these waters in the eighteenth century, and a BC Ferries vessel crashing to the seabed in 2006. One day there might be Passive Acoustic Monitoring stations as well -- remote sensors to guide supertankers around whales and shorelines and toward the open ocean.

I first heard of Cetacea Lab because of the Northern Gateway Pipeline: the tar sands delivery system that would transform Caamano Sound into a marine superhighway. Since the project’ proposal in 2005, life at Hermann Meuter and Janie Wray’s outfit has changed dramatically. Once a quiet endeavor, Cetacea Lab has become an outspoken part of the local resistance. Actions with NGOs have been worked into its travel schedules. Exchanges with Hartley Bay, the nearby Gitga’at village, transpire daily. Through it all, Caamano Sound’s fragile whale habitat -- harmed by increased boat noise, shattered by an oil spill of any magnitude -- has been raised to great political heights. My hypothesis is that our instrumental relationships with these creatures - how their voices feature in the voicing of our politics - is key to making sense of Caamano Sound.

Whale Time

Days go from 6am to 9pm, with visual scans every 15 minutes and data entry every 2 hrs, but so far as I’ve experienced it, whale science runs fundamentally on Whale Time. Whale Time means long periods of listening to nothing but empty signal. It also means kicking one’s way out of a tent at midnight to run to the lab and hit ‘record’. Humpback song can last for hours, and all the recordings and photos we’ve collected give Cetacea Lab months of material to sift through. Spreadsheet entry can make for long shifts, but there’s always the chance Hermann comes bursting through the door -- “Whales! Whales!” -- to send us all onto the balcony with binoculars and cameras. Moments just flow in these animal-encounters, counterpoints to the tight techno-rhythms of Human Time. Half-awake one brutally early morning, I heard Hermann’s big feet racing toward the lab before stopping outside my tent. “Wolves, Max! Wolves!”

Cetaceans of a New Age

Among the things I packed on this trip is a musical instrument called the Sensula. Its a variation on the Kalimba, the African thumb piano recently popularized by the likes of Grimes. My Sensula is tuned to a dreamy A-Minor Pentatonic, producing glassy shimmers and cross-fades when struck. There’s a fascinating history of humans attempting to communicate with whales via jazz flutes and guitars; elaborate hookups aboard floating barges. My plan to teach myself the Sensula was a bit of a self-joke, but playing it has provided field-notes for understanding the ethos that characterized those hopeful endeavors. New Age easily tends toward the shallow and self-indulgent, but I think its guiding message rings true - we are in a New Age. Big changes lie on Caamano Sound’s horizon: an LNG project will see more ships charting through in the coming years; counts of orca and humpback continue to project upwards -- with fin whales now among their number. Hartley Bay is planning a host of economic initiatives, but they all depend on stopping a pipeline backed by Prime Minister with a fondness for cruelty. Cetacea Lab is a good place to begin listening in. The dedication here is inspiring.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 13:07

3 Months on Gil Island in a Wet Tent!!

Wriiten By Aaron Kirkpatrick

 After 3 amazing months it is now my last night on Gil Island. The last month has passed by in a whirlwind of whale activity and nice weather, yes I said it nice weather! Two weeks spent on Ulric Point again and two my last two weeks spent at the lab. It has been a magical month and I will try my best to summarize all the whale activity. It all started when I headed back to Ulric Point for another two weeks on the out camp, the second day we were there we had started to hear orca calls on the hydrophone and we had a report of orca on the southern side of Campania. At the time we had the Roller Bay visiting so they took off straight away and I called the Guardian watchmen who headed out in their boat and took me with them. We soon found the orca between the Wall islets and Dupont Island; it was the R4’s and the B’s. It was amazing to see these beautiful animals again, the sun was beginning to set and as their blows came into the air they would sparkle in the sunlight. We followed them for what seemed like hours and even had them swim right underneath us, there really is nothing else as magical as an orca swimming right under the boat and you can see all of their markings.   With seeing the Orca I was quite content to spend the rest of the two weeks not seeing whales and I would have been happy.

 A few days later however we were lucky enough to have 13 humpback whales come by the shelter and bubble net feed right in front of us multiple times, they were just beyond the kelp line which was just amazing to see. It was really special to be able to listen to the whales making their feeding calls and then see them erupt through the water with their mouths wide open. Again I was left speechless and would have felt content if I didn’t see another whale for the rest of my time on Ulric. Yet again though only a few days later the hydrophone was ringing with the sound of Orca, we eagerly waited for them to come out of Beauchemin Channel and then it just got plain right crazy. There were orcas everywhere across from us to Rennison. We had orca in the distance, orca mid channel and even orca right in the kelp in front of us. The whales slowly all headed north and we thought everything was over when all of a sudden a female and tiny calf came right around the corner. The calf was so small it was just so tiny. Then we heard echolocation as the mother disappeared into the kelp. The calf then started darting around the water and I was holding the camera when its whole head came right out of the water. Yet again another story to add to the long list that has grown constantly here that I will never forget.

 To top it off the very next day we had another mom and calf, this time of the humpback variety. The mom and calf seemed to be sleeping and slowly passed us when the calf suddenly headed straight into the kelp and started rolling around. They then slowly took off and we were left alone just smiling to each other at what we had just seen. As we were writing everything down they came back and this time we headed out onto the rocks to get a closer view. The calf started rolling in the kelp only about 10 meters from me and then one of the single most amazing experiences I have had occurred.

The calf came right towards the rock where I was stood it couldn’t have been more than 7 meters away from me when it stopped and its head slowly rose from the water. I just looked at Rachel in complete silence and we both knew something special had just happened. The calf took off and then out of nowhere started breaching; it was amazing to watch this tiny calf breach out of the water multiple times. We ran across the rocks and followed them and watched as the tiny calf just kept breaching and breaching. What an unreal few days, surely I thought it couldn’t get any better? On our final night however I was very fortunate to head out with the Guardian Watchmen when orca started to show up, they must have been lined up across Aristazabal for 2 miles and we slowly made our way across them getting ID shots. It turned out we had the A24’s, A4’s, I31’s and the I11’s. It was just amazing to get to spend more time on the water with these beautiful creatures. We followed them for hours and eventually ended up off shore on the west side of Rennison when I spotted some splashing in the distance which I thought was an orca so we headed out further, and boy was it worth it. A small juvenile orca breached 3 times right in front of us. It really couldn’t have been more perfect, the snow capped mountains in the background, the silent still water, and this little juvenile orca jumping out of the water. I was extremely lucky to get an amazing picture of this and it is definitely something I will treasure for a long time. What a two weeks on Ulric Point, what an amazing and special place which I will definitely miss.

 The next day I was back on Gil Island struggling to put up my fantastically unreliable tent. Fortunately the weather really had changed since my first few weeks here and it was bone dry and warm. It’s quite nice to sleep in a dry tent, something I have not experienced much since being here. A few days after being back I was on shift when I was standing on the balcony watching a mother and calf humpback about a mile away from us. All of a sudden the calf breached and it was just amazing to see the whole body slowly turn in mid air before smashing into the water and creating a huge wall of water on all sides. Over the next few days the weather was still amazing and I was standing on the balcony early in the morning with Hermann, the water was just crystal clear and we joked that it would be unbelievable if a humpback came by that morning because we would see the whole body underwater. Well I think some whales had been listening to us because slowly around Fawcett point came two very relaxed humpback whales. They slowly drifted around Taylor Bight and then right in front of the lab. They really couldn’t have been closer to shore unless they beached themselves. What a sight, two humpback whales both completely visible under water. Just stunning and simply unbelievable we watched them slowly drift by us and you could see their huge pectoral fins just gliding through the water.   What an image, it will certainly be burnt in my memory forever. Two days later we had more humpback fun, a lone humpback in the distance breaching constantly over and over, then he would roll onto his back and just slap his pec fins down, the air was silent until he would bring one of his huge pecs down on the water and it would sound like a gunshot going off.

 This all passed the days quickly as you can imagine and soon enough it was my last week on Gil Island. It was also Rachel’s last week and so we decided to take a day of and go over to Campania Island and climb X Mountain. What a hike! It was a long way up by it was worth it, and we even spotted some whales on the way up. When we got to the top you really got an amazing view of the surrounding area and it really made you feel how unique this area really is. I couldn’t even imagine an oil tanker 3 football fields long travelling through such a peaceful spot. After we thought Rachel would be leaving the next day but I guess fate had one last twist for her Gil Island adventure, the ferry had broken down so she had to stay an extra day. She could not have had a better experience. I woke to her shouting Orca and ran out to the lab to see two groups of orca slowly drifting by Ashdown, instantly Hermann was in the boat with Rachel heading towards the orca. When they reached them I just saw orca everywhere at least 20! They were resting and were probably averaging about 0.0001 knots. Hermann and Rachel then headed back and Claire and myself were able to see the whales. They had barely moved 30 meters and we soon caught up. It was just incredible the water was almost completely flat, there was a huge group of resting orca and the fog had just started to drift over the trees. What an image! We watched as they slowly drifted up and down and then finally woke up. Hermann had the camera and just as he was holding it up one of the orca sky hopped. WOW!! Something that I had not yet seen but will probably never forget, this whale came out of the water without making a single sound and raised the top half of his body out of the water, the sun was shining right on his white belly and he was just bright white. What an amazing sight!

After the whales turned around and headed straight into Taylor Bight and started foraging, they were spread out everywhere. We drifted into the bay and just watched in awe as the orca went about their everyday lives. What an unforgettable orca experience and one which will probably be my last at Cetacealab.

 It has been an amazing 3 months and words really can’t describe the experiences I have had. The whales, the scenery, the Gitga’at people, Hermann and Janie have all been just unbelievable and I will certainly not forget this place. Anyone who would even spend half a day in the Great Bear Rainforest would soon realize what a special place it is and I feel truly grateful that I have been lucky enough to experience everything it has to offer. It is hard to describe this place, it is such a healthy and peaceful environment, it has so much to offer to us and it would be a sad day if an oil tanker route were accepted, as we would lose everything here. I will miss just about everything on Gil Island (apart from my tent) and will no doubt find myself back here at some point in my life!

Monday, 09 July 2012 16:49

Saying Good Bye to Cetacea Lab

This Blog entry was written by Megan, one of our Interns just days after she left to fly back to the UK. We felt it should be shared and read by all as it speaks from the heart as to how truly special this entire and area and the people who are trying to protect it are.

Leaving Cetacea Lab

Prior to my arrival at Cetacealab I had many thoughts and feelings about what my time on Gil Island would be like. It was a mixture of anticipation and excitement, but mostly it was the butterfly feeling you get in your stomach of the unknown. I knew I would see whales, and most of my thoughts for the last 19 years of life had been centred on them, so for that reason alone I knew this was a dream come true. But the feelings that I have left with are far different from what I even imagined. The people that I have met, the things I have seen and done and the switches that have flicked in my mind since I first set foot in the Great Bear Rainforest have been far beyond what I ever initially imagined.

The fear of leaving this place only actually occurred to me the evening before I left. Sitting in the wooden armchair by the bath with Amber purring in my arms, whilst quietly sobbing in to a lemon tea, watching the sky turn pink and listening to the prehistoric sounds of the ravens sitting above in the magnificent cedar; I knew then the next morning was going to be an emotional challenge.

On my last morning I awoke in the lab about 5am and decided not to waist a single second. I grabbed my waterproofs and the life vest and took to the Canoe. It was lightly raining and the water was so glassy calm that each drop could be seen bouncing off the surface. The only sound was the water dripping off the ore as I made my way round the Bight. That was until I awoke a sleepy humpback whale 200 meters ahead of me. He took one gigantic breath and then dove. Wow, just when I thought last nights visit from two humpbacks at sunset was my final whale encounter. It just goes to show how unforeseen my experiences of this place have been. Sole, by this time was on the deck with camera in hand for the whale’s next move. I lightly tapped the ore on the side of the canoe a few times to let him know where I was and after 5 minuets the whale surfaced across the other side of the bight. I watched him leave pass York Point and by this time I was soaked by the rain. After 3 hot cups of coffee and the last minuet stuffing of sleeping bags and thermals into my oversized backpack it was time to load the boat and say our goodbyes.

Standing at the back of Elemiah with Neekas trapped between my legs’s waving goodbye to Janie, Katie and Kirsty on the lab deck with tears streaming down my face is the last memory I have of Whale Point (2012). After another emotional goodbye to Herman and Neekas, a peaceful wander around Hartley Bay and an amazing seaplane adventure over The Great Bear Rainforest with Jen and Sole we all made our way back to Vancouver.

After such an incredibly life changing 6 weeks the only words I really have left is thank you, thank you, thank you!

So thank you to the Gitga’at for keeping this incredible land so pristine and intact, your humble beliefs have left me speechless. Thank you to every single person and creature that has passed my way over the past 6 weeks at Cetacea Lab. Thank-you for the what you have taught me, for the things you have said that have moved me, and the thoughts you have given me to take on my way back around the world.

But most of all Thank-you to Janie & Herman. Thank-you for their incredible hospitality, for their amazing humour and whit, for their strength for when things don’t go according to plan (which often happens whilst 40 feet up a tree with the wrong screwdriver) & thank-you most importantly from the bottom of my heart for the work that they are doing to ensure that the whales that inhabit this pristine and irreplaceable part of the world will be better understood and forever protected in these waters. The task at hand is one of such great importance and I have the sincerest optimism that every person that sets foot on Gil Island will forever be changed, Mind, Body and Soul, just as I have.

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