Secret Lives of Orcas

rubbing

One of the most common spells people fall under when viewing wildlife is anthropomorphizing the animals that they are watching. It is hard not to place human emotions, actions, and tendencies upon them. It helps us relate and and better understand the world among us. I’m as guilty as anyone, comparing bubble netting humpback whales to, “a bunch of buddies fishing together.” But in the scientific world, anthropomorphism can cloud your judgment, creates bias, and foul up even the most well thought out study. But when it comes to dolphins, orcas in particular, it’s hard not to make an exception to the rule.

Orca whales have the second largest brain on earth, behind only the sperm whale, a creature nearly twice its size. While we like to think of humans as the most intelligent race on earth, the orca’s brain contains a part even more well developed than our own. Orca have an extra fold of tissue between the limbic system and neocortex which humans do not posses. While research is still in the beginning stages, scientists like Dr. Lori Marino believe the additional lobe has something to do with processing emotions, thinking, and a heightened sense of self. The idea is fascinating, an animal that may be capable of recognizing itself from others, and may be processing the world in a way, while different than primates, could easily be equivalent or above us.

Which brings us to a question we may never be able to fully answer. If orcas have such a heightened sense of self, are emotionally and socially as advanced as us, isn’t it possible that they could, like us, have rituals and traditions? A whale equivalent of Christmas and the last day of school? In the northern resident community of orcas that make there way in front of Hanson Island every day, there is a behavior that is seen only in this population of 250 whales.

Just to the east of the lab on Vancouver Island is a series of beaches. Unlike the rocky steep coastline that dominates the intertidal here, the beaches are a gradual slope composed of tiny, thumb sized pebbles. On almost every pass by these beaches, the orcas stop, and rub themselves on the smooth tiny stones. Speculation runs rampant for why and when the northern residents started rubbing (it has gone on for at least 50 years). Some suggested they were sloughing off parasites, most just shrug there shoulders and assume they must like it. A creature, an entire population doing something just for the joy of it. Like it was a sport, a holiday, a tradition. Precious few people could tell you why we give presents at Christmas, have turkey at Thanksgiving, or hot dogs on the fourth of July. We just do. What if the northern residents were just like us. There ancestors did it, their mothers do it, so they follow suit as well.

For years the rubbing beaches have been walled off from humans, an ecological reserve giving the orcas a glorious respite from the boat noise in their favorite place in the strait. But there’s no rule about placing cameras there. And for the first time, Paul Spong and Orca Lab have set up two cameras over one of the rubbing beaches. When the sun shines down on them it looks like a tropical paradise. The shallows reflecting turquoise out from the shore line, the harsh rocks and steep edges at the points turn the strait back into its normal substrate. It’s like a private beach for orcas, with there own ecological wardens, chasing trespassers away. I had given up the hope of ever seeing them rub. Accepting that it would have to be something to read about, and listen to the sound of raking pebbles as they pass over the hydrophone.

But now there’s footage, probably a few hours already of orcas, gliding serenely into view slowly and gracefully pumping powerful flukes, blowing bubbles to become negatively buoyant, and sliding smoothly across the pebbles, in ten feet of water, a stones through from shore. Sometimes they stay for an hour, other times the family will pass through just once, but it’s all captured on film. Following every move of this tradition generations old, even if it’s just for a brief moment. We are peering through the key hole, getting the faintest glimpse at the private, personal lives of an animal, just as intelligent as us.

Photo Credit: Stefan Jacobs

Up All Night With the A’s and I’s

It feels like I’ve just closed my eyes when the hatch to the loft opens. “David, there’s calls,” Lily whispers. Not my problem, I’m not on until 3 am and I just fell asleep, it was just 10:30. I grope for my phone; 3:03. You have got to be kidding. I clamber down the ladder in the pitch black, probing with my toes before I commit to each step, trying to forget about the quarter sized spider that had been prowling the ladder before I drifted off to sleep. I reach the floor and open the door to the lab, like everything else here, it’s adorned with a huge painting of an orca whale against a blue “ocean” back drop. It’s pitch black outside, two small lamps on the desk illuminate the log book and the DAT tape recorder. Lily slips by, her 12-3 shift over and I slip on the headphones.

The lab has six hydrophones in the water, strategically placed around Hanson Island and to the east into Johnstone Strait. If an orca whispers within 20 miles, we know about it. Which is wonderful most of the time, right now I’d rather they just go away until the sun rises. For a few minutes there’s silence. No boat noise, no orcas. I press the headphones tight against my ears as the sound of water gurgling passes by the hydrophones. You listen to all six of them at once, manipulating the sound board so that ones without calls only come in the left or right headphone. Right now the hydrophone, “Critical Point,” is in the center. This particular area is to the east of Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait. Depending on they’re direction, they could be out of range in 20 minutes, or in range of the Cracroft Point hydrophone for hours.

A whisper of a noise fills both headphones, it’s them. Who and how many I don’t know, but I have three hours to figure it out. The first call is followed by a louder second one, the orcas’ voices echoing off the steep canyon walls of the strait. They’re answered by a different, beautiful call even closer to the mic. This call I know. Every pod has calls unique to it, this one belongs to a pod of 6, known as the A42s. Every orca in the population has an alphanumeric name (I76, A23, B15 etc) coded based on its pod. But we’ve given them common names as well (Current, Stormy, Eve, and Springer) as if we’re talking about our friends. The more distant calls answer, growing louder, excited, another unique call sounds like some sort of demented underwater donkey (HEE-HAW!).

And just like that the mystery is solved. Two pods, the A42s and I15s, are somewhere in Johnstone Strait, chatting back and forth, their conversation private save for one bleary eyed guy, staring out into absolute blackness five miles away. The fatigue slowly ebbs away and I fall into the rhythm of these two families. They’ve been traveling together, back and forth for the past three days, passing the lab occasionally. Now in the dead of night, their world is as quiet as I’ve heard it since I arrived. The whale watching boats are moored at the docks. The tugs, cruise ships, and fishing boats gloriously absent. It’s just them and me. For the next hour and a half they float on the flooding tide, slowly moving south.

In front of me, Blackney Pass slowly materializes, the sun slowly rising through the thick bank of clouds. The water is flat calm, the mountains and hills across the pass on Parsons, Harbledown, and Compton Island reflect and shimmer in the water in front of me. At 5:55 the door to the lab opens, my relief has arrived. “Are they calling,” Anaj asks, looking at my raccoon eyes. I nod and stifle a yawn. “Have you been here since three?”

“Yea, they’ve been quiet for about 15 minutes now,” I answer, suddenly I’m exhausted again.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry,” she answers, a look of pity on her face.

“It’s fine,” I reassure her, “it was perfect.”

I told you to be patient, fine, balanced, and kind.

My mood was less than favorable this morning when I woke up. I didn’t feel nearly rested enough which, I half blame on the two occasions I woke up to two of the three cats I’m currently living with getting sick. This was followed by me waking up late to feed the pets, breaking a coffee mug, and spilling one of the prepared cat breakfasts all over the kitchen counter. Lets just say that this morning, the unrelenting meowing and husky whining that normally puts a smile on my face was hardly amusing. I half considered calling the day quits at 8:55 a.m.
Instead, I made my usual pot of coffee, did some laundry (thanks, Oliver), took Lily for a nice run around Green Lake, and went to the Yakima fruit market. As I was walking around checking items off my list, I had noticed an older woman also doing her shopping. She had the most beautiful, deep blue eyes I’ve ever seen and we ended up chatting about some tangelos. “Have you ever tried those?” She asked me. I responded saying that I hadn’t but anything that beautifully orange had to taste delicious. “Are you a vegan?” My face lit up and I responded with a smile accompanied by a nod. “I am too. Don’t you just love shopping by colors?” Finally, in this foreign state with billboards, endless traffic, and people around every corner I had found a kindred spirit.
I explained to her and another woman who had probably overheard us talking that I had just moved here from Alaska so for me, the fruit market is like heaven on earth. They both smiled and welcomed me to the area and wished me well. I continued chatting with my kindred spirit, who I later learned is named Sherry, for a few moments just about how I was fairing so far. I told her that it’s nice but the amount of people here and all that comes with them is taking some adjusting.
What was so amazing about those two women, particularly Sherry, was that even in a largely populated state, she made me feel like I was back home. For the past few days, the only verbal communication I’ve had with other people has been thanking the delivery guy for dropping off my pizza. So, I guess what made me feel so wonderful about my five minute interaction with this stranger was her effortless love and grace for a young, somewhat lonely woman.
I truly believe that these sorts of little life moments are immensely important to our wellbeing as individuals. I will probably never see Sherry again but I will remember her genuine and kind spirit for a long time. Its people like her that I find give me the best inspiration to have a gentle soul as well as an authentic compassion for other people.

Love,
Brittney

Getting There is Half the Fun

Day 1:

 

I swing the car unto Main St, a chorus of honks behind me (never let a Juneau boy drive in the city). Up till now I’ve been disoriented, lost, the carefully worded direction from Brittney my only hope of finding the hostel I stayed in six years ago. In the rearview mirror I see a sign, draped over an overpass, announcing the entrance to Vancouver’s china town, and memories begin flooding back. I look right and there it is. The same green door, the same rusting lead based paint, metal numbers and a handwritten sign announce it as the entrance to the C&N Hostel. I step out of the car and onto the sidewalk, the same one I’d dragged my duffel bag along. Looking down the street is, yep, the sky train. The same one I’d thrown my bag into to keep the doors from closing. And the same bus station (no discarded bag of weed this time though the smell seems to have melted into the walls). With all the memories come the emotions; fear, excitement, anticipation, and a new one: loneliness.

 

Far to quickly I’m saying goodbye to Brittney, watching that beat up pathfinder we love so much pull away down main street away from me, the passenger seat empty. It feels so wrong and for the first time since I arrived in Juneau, I am totally, completely alone. I fight the urge to chase her down, open the door, and insist that she drive me home. But it’s not an option, these are the choices we made, that we needed to make, and Cannamore’s don’t quit. But they do drink beer.

 

Kokanee is one of those brews that I should have no business liking, it’s essentially the coors light of Canada (which would make Molson’s Bud Light I guess?). But it’s something of a comfort food for me, reminding me of Paul’s, Alert Bay, and everything I needed reminding of at that moment. I sit quietly in the noisy pub, the echos of pool, laughter, and obscenities ricocheting around me. I grab a paper and try to read it but my eyes fade in and out of focus. I just want to be there. If I can’t be with Brittney than I need to be on that island. The closest thing to therapy that I have.

 

I leave my tip on the bar and head back to my room, an old battered tv sits on top of the decrepit fridge, by a miracle of God, it turns on. And I begin mindlessly flipping through the seven channels available to me. An image of massive mountains blanketed in green, a woolly layer of fog beneath them makes me stop reflexively. I stare in awe as the narrator announces the location as Robson Bight, Johnstone Strait. I mouth wordlessly as frame after frame of orcas, orcas I recognize, remember, flash on the screen. Surfacing, diving, breaching. I was going back, my pain and sadness lessen somewhat, the dull ache remains, but whether you’d call it God, the universe, or karma, I had my sign. We were doing the right thing.

 

Day 2

 

Just how I left it. The coastal town of Port McNeil hasn’t changed, save for a new gas station, in six years. That ridiculous, “world’s biggest burl” is still there, probably because no one has any idea how to move it. Fishing boats still rise and fall with the tide in the harbor, the ferry to Alert Bay leaves at the same time, I don’t think they ever did mow the baseball field. I was prepared for the opposite. To be ready for things to be different than I remembered them as a naïve starstruck 19-year old. There’s still the same winding road just out of town that leads to the familiar campground. I find a tentsite, nestled snugly under the shadow of a massive cedar tree, and with a great sigh of relief let the backpack fall from my shoulders. After three weeks in suburbia and skyscrapers, my tent is beneath fir, aspen, and spruce. The smell of a forest, centuries old, more rejuvenating and refreshing than the strongest cup of coffee.

 

I’ve been unable to contact Paul or anyone else at the lab since I left Vancouver and my lack of will power has left surprisingly low on cash. If nothing changes I plan on taking the 8:40 ferry to Alert Bay, at least than I’m a little closer. If I don’t hear from Paul tomorrow…. well, there really isn’t a backup plan, I can’t afford to drop another $15 bucks for camping, I may be sleeping under a bridge. A younger couple next to me continues to giggle, play cards, and be cute, making me miss Brittney all the more. I will punch them in the face if they don’t stop.

 

Day 3

 

My next night is not on Hanson Island. Still bleary eyed, I stagger off the ferry and into Alert Bay, hoping against hope to see Paul’s tiny aluminum boat, affectionately known as, “the car,” moored in the small boat harbor. No such luck. I’d awoken to an email from Paul, telling me to call when I could, and headed out in search of a pay phone. But damn the cellular age, every pay phone in Alert Bay had apparently been deemed a waste of space, and unceremoniously ripped from the ground. With 60 pounds of gear on my back (who knew chic peas could feel so heavy), I stagger to the visitor centre. I knew Paul had a house here, if only someone had the good grace to tell me where it was.

 

The teenage boy at the centre looks at my blankly when I ask for a payphone. The poor kid, he was here to point people to the totem poles and Namgis first nations long house. Not deal with lost vegabonds with dark circles under their eyes and shaking legs. As he searches for something helpful to say I have expect him to just start regurgitating totem pole facts out of habit. Against the odds I ask if he knows where Paul Spong lived. There are, after all, only 300 people that live here (imagine Gustavus confined to a two mile island). Now he’s really nervous, “I can’t give out personal information,” he stammers.

 

It makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t be the first goofball looking for, who Alexandra Morton lovingly called, “the chronically tardy New Zealander.” There was no convincing the kid to bend the rules just this once though, and, unsure of where to go, I start walking back towards the terminal. On a whim I walk into the boat harbor office to find a middle aged guy with dark hair and four days worth of stubble on his face. Sensing a kindred spirit I state my case.

 

“Oh Paul!” He chuckles, and glances out of habit out the window into the harbor. “I see more of you kids trying to get out there than you can imagine.”

 

Graciously he lets me use the phone, and I call the lab. Contact. Paul has two boats, the miniscule “car” and the much bigger June Cove. Just like the last time I was here, the June Cove is in the shop, leaving them with just the tiny, compact car sized boat to get around. As we talk, an older lady with flyaway white hair, alpaca sweater, and friendly face walks into the office. “I know where Paul lives!” She says after talking with the stubbled harbor master.

 

Paul tells me to sit tight in Alert Bay, he’ll come for me as soon as he can, and we hang up. The lady introduces herself as Linda, and happily offers to drive me to Paul’s place on the other side of the island. I find the hidden key to the door, and collapse on the couch. I feel exhausted as I glance at my watch: 10:45.

 

Day 4:

 

Tuesday morning and the waiting game continues. Paul’s house overlooks the western end of Johnstone strait, I can see Hanson Island in the distance. Cup of coffee in hand I scan the water with the spotting scope, hoping to see the car moving steadily towards me. But something else makes me forget all about it for a moment. The crystal clear water of the strait ripples, a phalanx of black pin pricks emerges and my heart skips. I wasn’t going to have to wait for Hanson Island to see my first orcas, they’d found me. The pod is several miles out and traveling east, away from me. I strain my eyes trying to keep them in focus. I follow them until my eyes start to water and return to my now chilled cup of coffee. I grab Paul’s phone and dial the lab again. On my third attempt I get through, “I’m leaving shortly,” he announces, “I’ll be there around 11.”I set the phone down, my heart racing, throwing backpack, coffee, and oatmeal back into the back pack, every few minutes I rush to the spotting scope like a kid checking to see whether Santa has come yet or not. I’m ready to come home.

 

 

The Hardest Goodbye Yet

There are some mistakes you only make in life once. Obvious things like petting a bear, licking a fire, and trying to get out of downtown Seattle at 5:15. In 45 minutes we moved a mile, staring at green lights but unable to move. We vowed to never be tempted downtown at this hour again. But as we watched the collage of red lights slowly move forward and listened to a melody of infuriated drivers screaming at one another, I silently gave thanks that soon my commute would be from my tent to the camp kitchen. My freeway the unmarked game trails of Hanson Island, my home the warm table next to the wood stove in Paul and Helena’s house, a can of Kokanee in my hand. But my freedom comes with a price, the hardest goodbye so far.

 

Nine months ago Brittney’s uncle offered her the chance to house sit for him while he selfishly went on his honeymoon to Europe for five weeks. With the island squarely in my sights I knew I couldn’t wait another month. I’d miss the peak of the orca summer season with my only consolation being a weekly pilgrimage to Safeco Field. I had to go back. But Brittney had to stay. Over the past couple years we’ve talked a lot about pushing ourselves, growing as people, taking chances, and stepping outside our comfort zone. Leaving Juneau was a huge risk, but we had each other. This coming winter will be a great challenge, but we’ll have each other. It’s time to see how brave we can be alone.

 

For the first time in her life, she won’t have a roommate (unless you count the three cats, dog, and rabbit) and she’ll willingly admit that it’s hard for her to be alone. Now she gets five weeks of it. But what is so admirably is that it wasn’t forced upon her, no one guilted or pressured her into the upcoming living arrangement, this is her choice. She’s choosing to face her fear head on, and overcome it.

 

Granted, there are millions of people in this city and countless yoga studios, it’s not like she’s under house arrest or anything. But anyone whose married knows you can spend all day with people and still feel alone at the end of it if the house is empty. I can track orcas all night, but whenever they let me sleep, there will still be just one body in our two man tent. In a way I feel trapped. The thought of leaving Brittney behind makes my whole body heart, but the thought of staying in Seattle for another month while orcas stream past the lab makes me squirm in my seat. For the first time since Brittney worked in Gustavus, we don’t belong in the same place. Our challenges lie 400 miles and a country apart.

 

There are two ways we can go about this. We can be miserable, consumed with the pain of knowing the other is so far apart (and yes, there are times we will give in to this). Or we can seize the opportunity that it is. A chance to grow as individuals, to become better people. Pursue those personal goals that have floated in the back of our mind that we haven’t had a chance to pursue yet. And yes, we will be the only people we’ll see for most of the winter, so some time apart may be a good idea for sanity this winter as well.

 

So tomorrow we’ll make the drive to Vancouver and say goodbye. I’ll board a bus Saturday and begin to make my way back to where I started. But today, I’m not going to think about it. I’m going to savor every moment with this wonderful woman that I get to share my life with, and take solace in the fact that I get to spend the entire winter, and the rest of my days, with her.

Thanks Alaska

I sat in more traffic in one afternoon than I had in the last five years. I watched a homeless guy grab a stack of free newspapers, turn to me, and ask if I’d like to buy one for a dollar. I’ve gotten lost, paid 22 dollars for parking and 9.50 for a Sierra Nevada. I don’t know what I expected.

After all, we did just move to a city that has four times as many people as the entire state we just left. I guess they all have to live somewhere. But the magnitude of change is staggering and I don’t know if I could ever get used to it. What’s more though, I don’t think I’d ever want to either. Every square inch, from Bellingham to Seattle has mans’ fingerprints. Shopping malls, on ramps, and suburbs sprinkled liberally up and down each side of the I-5. Somehow I imagined Washington feeling more… earthy, natural. And perhaps compared to L.A, New York, or Houston it is. There are parks of course, with beautiful running trails hugging the shorelines of the lakes, huge oak, fir, and cedar trees creating a beautiful canopy, scattering the light on the trail ahead. But it’s hard to be enamored when bike, jogger, and dog walker stream steadily past, and traffic from the nearby interstate thunders by. It is nature, but like everything else, mans imprint is noticeably present.

This is not meant to be 500 words slandering Seattle. I’ve met some fantastic individuals, the city is clean, the people environmentally conscious, and orca paintings are splattered over countless buildings. Alaska has simply spoiled me with natural wonder and peace. A quiet secluded cove, an imposing glacier, and a curious bear never that far from hand. Perhaps I didn’t realize how bad I needed that until I left. I miss how easily accessible it all was. That 15 minutes could get me to a picturesque stream, fly rod in hand, coho salmon bubbling below the surface. Here it takes two hours, the river damned two miles further upstream. I understand the amazed looks of people on my tour when I explain Egan is our highway. That getting stopped at a light was a traffic jam. That a glacier in your back yard is a huge deal. I understand why people come to Alaska in the first place now. Seeking something that’s still natural and wild. And, sadly, why they expect to be able to find it within two hours of leaving their cruise ship.

We’re not going back to Alaska though, at least not in the immediate future. But we do have the next best thing waiting for us, on that little island, nestled in the middle of what could easily pass as Southeast Alaska, just with bigger trees. If I want solitude, starting July 21st I’ll have it. Free of freeways, traffic jams, and warm running water. Maybe I’ll be craving some taste of civilization come next April. Will desire the luxury of heating the house by just turning a dial. But right now I kind of doubt it. Some people would call it “roughing it.” Or maybe just, “a great life experience while you’re young.” But now I think it’s the only place I truly belong and I blame Alaska for making me this way, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

Cryptic Canadian Road Signs

We awake early on day two, relieved to discover we’d made it through the night without a bear investigating our cat food soaked tent. We disassemble the tent like a pit crew. If we learned one thing from New Zealand, it was how to get our beloved little tent stuffed back into it’s bag in just a couple of minutes. We throw everything back into the car and leave Teslin Lake, a million mosquito’s, and a quart of blood behind by nine o’clock.

Fifty miles down the road leads to gas stop number one. Being the OCD type that I am I’d mapped out our feel stops in a meticulous and embarrassing way weeks in advance. Fueling in Canada is a giant tease. You glance at the price and your heart leaps. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, and gas is just a buck fifty-three! What riches! We’ve budgeted for nothing. Honey! Run in and buy the finest box of wine this gas station has to offer!

But than reality returns, you’ve been fooled by America, it’s damn stubbornness, and the Imperial system. There are 3.79 liters in a gallon. $1.53 x 3.79 = $5.80/gallon. There is weeping, gnashing of teeth and you stand there, pump in hand, begging the numbers to stop ticking up.

The weather is fantastic with just enough clouds punctuating the sky to keep the sun from baking us as we make our way south along the Alaska highway. Whomever is riding shotgun has one primary objective, keeping Prince Porter happy. He continues to bounce back and forth between driver and passenger and occasionally makes a bid to crawl under the wheel toward the gas and break pedal, just to make sure we’re paying attention.

When I was one, my parents and I moved to Alaska and we spent ten days driving the Alaskan highway with me strapped firmly in my car seat. As I grab Porter after his fifth attempt to control the gas pedal I solemnly vow to never attempt that with my hypothetical children. One hyperactive kitty was enough. At least we could scruff him if we had to. For Penny the rabbit, life had not changed in the slightest. She lounged comfortably right behind the driver’s seat. Food, water, and litter box less than half a jump away. Every time I glanced back I was met by two big brown eyes staring intently into the back of my seat.

The biggest battle though was the CD player. The 1996 Pathfinder had been welded long before the reign of MP3s, bluetooth, and FM transmitters. Our phones and iPods sat helplessly in our backpacks. So we went old school, burning CD after CD and cranking the volume out of the one good speaker on the passenger side. Tragically, she must have been built before anti-skip technology as well, and every jolt or bumpy road would cause the CD to skip so maddeningly one of us would angrily punch the power button. We turned off the Alaskan highway and onto highway 37, the Cassiar highway and began to head south. This was so entertaining we almost didn’t need music anymore. The road narrowed, the concrete cracked, and the dividing lane disappeared. Two miles in we rounded a corner sending gravel into the trees. I looked ahead to see a miniscule red square crudely propped up on sticks next to the road, maybe six inches high. By the time I opened my mouth to ask Brittney’s opinion we’d flown past it and into the hidden pothole it was “marking.” Thus was our introduction into Canadian caution signs.

We spent the day navigating the highway, constantly watching for red caution squares. We reached Kinaskan Lake campground that evening and were greeted by a gorgeous lake reflecting the sun, clouds, and mountains. We “splurged” on wood for a campfire. When gas is $5.78/gallon, five bucks for wood feels like a steal. Porter promptly dove into the woods attempting to hunt squirrels and failing terribly. A feeling of peace began to fill me. The stress and doubt of the day before slowly being replaced with excitement. We were living the life that we had talked of since we’d returned from New Zealand. We had to be the oddest vegabonds the campsite had ever seen with the prowling kitty and curious bunny that kept sticking her head out of the tent. But as the fire crackled and the evening light made the lake glow, I knew we wouldn’t have it any other way.