When All You Have is Ears

In the blink of an eye, the summer is over. My four weeks on Hanson Island has come to an end. I’ll be in Seattle for the next two weeks, before Brittney and I will load up food, clothes, and pets for one more drive to Alert Bay and begin settling in for our winter on the island. Orca Lab left me with one last incredible moment though. A magical night that I will never forget.

My last few days at Orca Lab were spent at the tiny out camp on Cracoft Point, referred to simply as, “CP.” The camp is nothing more than a tiny little platform two paces by nine paces built at the very top of the rocky intertidal. A few stairs lead to the shelter. A room of roughly the same size and width as the platform. Crammed into it though is a bunk, desk, kitchen, and more electrical gear than radio shack. CP has housed underwater cameras, remote cameras, hand held cameras, and hydrophones. The reason, like in real estate, is location. An underwater cliff looms just off the platform, a good push and you’d be in 100 feet of water, surrounded by a vibrant kelp bed. As the orcas go by they often pass just meters off this kelp, sometimes just 20 yards from where you stand. I can’t think of anywhere else on earth where you can be so close to orcas without harassing them.

You can sleep in the shelter. But on rainless nights, there is nowhere better than the platform. Wrapped in my sleeping bag with it pulled over my head to keep offending mosquitoes and mice out of my hair, I was rocked to sleep by the sound of the waves crashing into the rocks ten feet below me. My slumber didn’t last long. As the tide rose the humpback moved closer and closer to CP. The vibration of his breathing reverberating off the rocks. I give up trying to sleep and lay there, listening to this behemoth. It was impossible to know how close he was in the darkness. There’s a rush of water, the briefest moment of silence, and than a tremendous concussion as the whales breach brought it back to the oceans surface. I leap to my feet just in time to see the conclusion of the splash, white water glowing in the darkness.

Leaning forward I strain my eyes, trying to make out the whale, searching for a black shape on black water on a cloudy night. For ten minutes the whale moves back and forth in front of me, just out of my range of vision. Initially I’m almost sad this isn’t happening in the daylight when I could stand, camera in hand, capturing every surfacing, preserving it forever. But in the middle of the night there was no pressure to photograph. There was nothing to do but sit in the stillness with my ears as my only guide.

The edge of the kelp bed is barely visible, perhaps thirty feet from where I sat, the water level just a couple feet below me as the tide finally begin to ebb. So it was nearly at eye level when this aquatic night owl roared past the surface, mouth agape just beyond the kelp, a jet black shadow passing left to right. For forty tons, he’s incredibly quiet. There’s a rush of water that sounds like rapids, and the splash at the end of the lunge, and that was all. It took maybe three seconds before the water swallowed him back up, covering his tracks, as if there had never been anything there but water and kelp. Heart pounding, adrenaline flying, eyes wide open, I wait breathlessly for the next plot twist.

The humpback breaches again, just out of sight, and the show’s over. For two hours he continues to move, back and forth off the platform feeding. I’ve been kept awake by roommates, music, the cat, and a rattling furnace. But this was the first time a whale refused to let me sleep and I’d never been so happy to be sleep deprived.

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The Book That Changed Everything

Growing up my heroes were athletes. It made sense, as sports obsessed as I was and the best players on my favorite teams were nothing short of demi-gods. Kevin Garnett, Cris Carter, Joe Mauer, and countless others for their ability to play a game and get paid millions of dollars in the process. They seemed like nice enough people in my biased 12-year old eyes and that was more than enough for me to spend many hours on the couch watching them run, jump, and sprint. But as I grew up, my hero worship began to transition. Writer/biologist/conservationist Alexandra Morton became one when I was 18, her book “Listening to Whales” becoming something of my biological bible during my freshman year in college. Paul Spong of course, a scientist, pioneer, and now, for all intents and purposes, my boss as well as friend. And others, mostly in the whale/orca research community. People like John Ford, Mike Bigg, Jan Straley, and Dena Matkin, many of whom have been passionately following the whales of southeast Alaska and British Columbia for decades. Sometimes working on grants from the government or universities, other times dipping into their own pockets to fund the work that they just couldn’t stay away from. They’ve funded research programs and non profits, and some of them I’ve  had the honor of interacting with. Some just a passing email, and a few I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with.

But while I went to school to be a “scientist” I have found another group of people that are just as passionate about the wild as those aforementioned. They to, are protecting the open places and quiet spaces, but in a completely different way, with the power of pen and paper. The inside passage is dotted with inspiring authors creating beautiful literal tapestries about the magic of the raincoast. Authors like Lynn Schooler of Juneau, and Alex Morton who can fall into this category as well. If they made trading cards of these people I would avidly collect them like I once hoarded baseball cards. But, looking back at the last seven years of my life, when I began to transition from athlete to whatever the heck it is I am now, one mans work has altered my life more than any other.

I bought the book for my Dad, I think it was for his birthday or something. I briefly skimmed the synopsis on the back. I’d plucked it from the “Alaska” section in a bookstore I can’t remember, ran my credit card, and walked out the door. The book was, “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox. I’d never heard of her in my life. Months passed and I transferred to UAS in Juneau. That winter I applied for a job studying marine mammals in Glacier Bay National Park with the National Park Service. Two months, a rigorous background check, and one fingerprint (?!?!?) test later, and I was approved. I skipped back home to Eagle River briefly before the start of my summer job and desperate for new literature, scanned my parents bookshelf. There was the book, I’m not sure if Dad had read it or not. But examining it more closely discovered that Kim Heacox was a man, and the book centered around Glacier Bay. I must confess I “borrowed” the copy and still have not returned it.

That night as I jetted toward Juneau, I opened, “The Only Kayak” for the first time. I didn’t stop reading until the Mendenhall Glacier and Fred Meyer rolled into view and the plane touched down. I was hooked, devouring page after page as Kim opened up his entire life, as well as the bay and people he loved so deeply. The book came across as positively genuine and intimate. It begins with Kim’s first journey to Glacier Bay, his first kayak trip, and his subsequent evolution through the years from seasonal ranger, to photographer and writer, with his heart focused on the protection of Glacier Bay and Southeast Alaska. I finished my first reading and began a second, and have paged through it countless times since.

That summer in Glacier Bay I met Kim at the semi weekly music, pizza, beer drinking social at a pizza place in Gustavus that tragically no longer exists. With the same nerves that I may have had walking up to Kevin Garnett 15 years ago, I introduced myself and told him, rather cornily I’m sure, how much I loved his writing. He looked so humbled, almost embarrassed by my praise, and struck up a conversation with me. He told me how glad he was that I had found this place, that he hoped I would be happy here, and to enjoy every inch of the precious bay.

I found myself drawn to Kim and his work, because I see so much of myself in his story (or perhaps I just chose to see it that way). His coming of age epiphany occurred when he was 25 when he arrived in Glacier Bay. My momentous decision to return to Hanson Island, to continue down the path of vegabond occurred at the same age. He met the love of his life, married her, and the two of them are inseparable. And at my age he longed to be a writer and photographer.

“Don’t write about this place [Glacier Bay],” his friend Richard advises him, “it’ll never be the same.”

“No one reads my writing,” Kim answers.

“Good thing.”

Last summer my parents had the privilege of meeting him at a book signing in Palmer for his latest book, “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire.” They walked away with the same impression; a gentle, passionate, genuine man who truly cares about people and the future of Alaska. My Dad (ironically after I stole his copy of Kim’s book) mentioned me and Brittney, how we’d both worked in Glacier Bay and loved it. Kim remembered me. Kim Heacox, remembered me! I had bumped into him once since that night in Gustavus when he’d walked into The Rookery.

“Guess who just walked into the Rookery.” I texted Brittney assuming I’d spark some jealousy.

“Kim.” She replies.

“How on earth did you know?”

“Who else would you get so excited about?”

Kim recalled our brief exchange of words that slow October afternoon and went a step further with my father, offering to help us settle and move to Gustavus if we ever so desired. This gracious offer has sat in the back of my mind ever since, and Kim, if you ever read this, we may just take you up on that offer someday.

There’s No Rosetta Stone For Orca

In the inky blackness of night, a northern resident pod of orcas moves into Blackfish Sound and toward the lab, heading toward Johnstone Strait and the rubbing beaches. With no hope of identifying them visually, I lean against the railing of the lab, ears turned toward Burnt Point and Blackfish sound, listening for the sound of their blows, that echo like shotgun blasts for miles in the dead of night. There’s a whoop from behind me, muffled by the glass of the lab. I turn and in the dim light of the desk lamp, see Paul’s wife Helena, arms raised, a grin across her face. “R calls!” She hollers at us.

The R pod, rarely seen even in the summer, were on there way. There presence as unique as the noises they make which features several unique calls shared with none of the other northern residents. The celebration is short lived though. Over the next several minutes, as more and more calls move from orca to hydrophone to headphone, even Helena, who has listened to the residents for 30 years, is less convinced of what she’s hearing. The orcas turn before they reach the lab, the chance to listen and count the number of blows and add another piece to the puzzle is lost. We’d have to wait for morning to solve the mystery.

By 7 a.m we knew it was not the R’s that we had hoped for, but the I15s that had riled up Helena and all of the assistants in the early morning hours. The I15s were notorious for, “imitating” a pair of R calls and had been duping eavesdropping scientists for years. The following evening the I15s moved serenely by the lab at their slow, tranquil pace they were known for. Instead of just passing through they halted, almost directly in front of the lab and stayed for almost an hour. Spyhopping and surfacing, as if they were apologizing for the dirty trick they’d played on us the night before.

The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.
The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.

Two days later, we awoke to the real thing. The R4 pod entered Johnstone Strait and stayed for two days before departing to the west, attending to whatever business they have in the Queen Charlotte Strait and beyond. The I15s imitated the Rs calls, two days later the Rs arrived. Convenient coincidence or something at a much deeper level? Four decades into research and we still haven’t the foggiest idea.

There’s a fundamental problem with trying to understand what these orcas may be “saying” to each other. Each pod has roughly 12 calls in their repertoire and are used over a variety of behaviors. Some are used exclusively during social interactions, others primarily during resting, but their language is fluid and it is clear that the same call can have different meaning depending on the context that it was used. It leaves us with an almost impossible task. To watch an animal that spends only five percent of its life where we can visually observe it, and try to guess what’s going on beneath the waves as they call to one another. Paul believes the next step is to find out who in the pod is talking. Is it the matriarch doing most of the talking, calling the shots? Or are her sons, daughters, and grandchildren part of an open democratic forum? One thing is certain, there decisions are not random. They don’t just happen to chose to go past the lab, or leave the strait, or go for a rub. Those big developed brains are doing something, calculating, and analyzing their environment.

And so here we sit, forty years after Paul, Michael Bigg, and other orca pioneers started. We have discovered their tightly wound social bonds, the order and structure of their society, we know what they eat, and the sounds we make. But we may have pushed our research of these animals to the breaking point while we wait for technology to catch up. How can we determine who in the pod is talking? What are they doing

underwater when their calls are emitted? There are things such as the critter cam, a small camera that attaches via suction cup to the animal which would allow us to, “see” what the orca sees. It’s an obtrusive and ethically questionable idea. And in their murky, underwater world, how helpful would it be to try to see what an acoustically driven animal sees. What we need is a device, that could be somehow attached, unobtrusively to the animal that could record when the individual calls, its position in the water column and there location. If we could start to associate not necessarily their behavior, but their location in their three dimensional world, perhaps we could begin to take the next step in knowing exactly what the hell is going on down there. We are a visually driven species studying an equally intelligent acoustically driven species living in a medium completely alien to us. This could take awhile.