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.”

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