On Hallowed Ground

Traveling south from the lab and through the tiny bottleneck that is Blackney Entrance leads to the wide open expanse of Johnstone Strait. After almost four months and countless trips to Cracroft Point, the image springs to mind instantly. The high peaks of Vancouver Island casting a deep green shadow onto the water, turning it the color of jade as you approach the Vancouver shoreline. The mountain range seems to stretch on forever to the East down the strait, looming over the water with their mighty shadows extinguishing what little winter sun there is. It had been seven years since I had been in the strait past the edge of Cracroft Island. Yet I could still remember the shapes and curves of the shoreline.

Back home I would habitually pull out maps and trace the expanse of the strait, and mouth the names of places I hadn’t seen in years. Boat Bay, the Cliff, Robson Bight, the Rubbing Beaches. The bight and the beaches held a special lure, the forbidden fruit of the strait where no one was allowed save for the whales and the fishing boats. Locations I had listened to through headphones for hours but never saw. The bight is now an ecological reserve, set aside as critical habitat for the northern Residents, the boundaries expanding east to encompass the whales’ rubbing beaches. The maps show the bight as a subtle nick in the Vancouver Island shoreline. It’s as if the strait scooped out a chunk of the island with an ice cream scoop, leaving a crescent shaped divot. In the back of the bight sits the headwaters of the salmon rich Tsitika River.

From Cracroft Point, the lab’s out camp, you can almost make out the bight down the strait, straining your eyes through the glare of the sun, the small bay camouflaged by the steep slopes of the St. John, Tsitika, and Derby mountains, standing like sentinels, the guardians of the bay. It is in this unassuming bit of water, that so much of our understanding and knowledge of orcas has arisen. It is here that they have rested, played, and hunted for untold generations. The place holds an uncontrollable draw, a magnetic attraction pulling me in.

But of course, it is all closed off. Which, is probably for the best. And though the commercial fishing boats are still aloud to clog the bight as the sockeye run every year, it gives the whales at least some semblance of escape and privacy from those of us that perhaps love them too much. But there is no law against hydrophones, and on the east side of the bight hangs a crucial piece of Orca Lab’s research; the Critical Point hydrophone. Anything that makes a sound west of the hydrophone in Johnstone Strait is picked up and transmitted through a thin cord of wire, piping back to the lab the calls of orca, dolphins, and humpbacks as well as the drone of barges, fishing boats, and the abominable log tows.

As the days get shorter and the clouds thicker, the solar panels that power the hydrophones throughout the network begin to sputter. The batteries stationed are asked to supply more of the power each day until finally, they too begin to crack under the increased workload. Critical Point, shrouded in shade most of the time thanks to the mountains, was the first to begin to protest. Clicks and oscillations eventually giving way to hours of pure static, especially at night. The occasionally sunny day would give the batteries a brief reprieve but the only long term solution, was to replace them.

So last week, when Brittney and I came to town, we were met on the dock by Paul. Bouncing out of the car with his usually vigor, he excitedly announced that today was as good as any to take the one hour run from Alert Bay to the bight and replace the batteries. My chance to set foot in the hallowed ground had come and we climbed back into the minuscule boat thirty minutes later, prepared to battle an ebbing tide down the strait.

The sun broke through the clouds as we entered the bight, brilliant rays of sunshine stabbing through the gaps, illuminating the dark green of the mountain sides. The water becoming that brilliant jade on one side, sapphire blue on the other. Paul brought the boat to rest near the rocks on the far side and I clambered out, soaking in the beauty and silence. It was easy to see why the orcas loved it here so much. The water was calm and the bight would seem to funnel the fish toward the mouth of the river, giving them ample opportunity to catch dinner. The steep rock face we stood on fell directly into the ocean with no gradient. One step to many and you plunge feet down into the frigid waters of the channel. In my minds eye I saw an orca pass an arms length from the rocks, it’s massive body gyrating majestically feet below the surface as it cruised past, bound for the rubbing beaches.

It was, as I’d been told, “just trees and rocks and water.” But my prior knowledge of what lived here, what had happened here, made magic spring from the trees, rocks, and water. It was here that Erich Hoyt and his team had first dove with the orcas. Where Robin Morton had first filmed them rubbing their bodies on the smooth pebbles of the beaches. In these waters the A36s had swam during those nights when they kept me up in the lab, their calls echoing off these very rocks and into the hydrophone between my feet. And now, even if just for an afternoon devoid of orcas, I got to stand on this hallowed ground, staring up at the massive mountains and experience it all for myself.

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