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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