Stepping Back

When I first came to Orca Lab in 2008, I expected some sort of sign. Some sort of intimate and personal encounter with the whales to justify the sacrifices, work, and effort I had gone through to reach this place. Orcas, it turns out, have little interest in storybook endings. They went about their lives as if I were invisible. It was odd, the orcas owed me absolutely nothing, but so convinced was I that some spectacular, “ah-ha” moment would arrive, that to leave without having gotten within 200 yards of a whale was, not a disappointment, but a hit to the ego.

“Don’t you ever get tired of watching whales?”

It was a common enough question working on a whale watching boat, and I suppose it should have been predictable. I mean, the majority of my clientele had work that they actually looked at as, well, work. I just saw it as a free whale watch every day, like someone had offered me season tickets along the third base line for free. How could you get sick of that?

The question would always rise to the surface just as the humpback was slipping below, meaning I had 5-7 minutes to explain why no, I don’t get sick of watching massive aquatic mammals breath. I’m nothing more than a commercial while the show dives 200 feet below us for another mouthful of herring. The guy who banters on stage while the band tunes their instruments.

“They’re like potato chips,” became my generic reply, “you can never say enough.”

But for those that would probe, that actually wanted to know and weren’t just making conversation after realizing that no, your iPhone will not get service out here, I’d go a step further.

“Because you never know what might happen. If someone calls and needs you to take a trip… you take the trip. The last thing you want is to come home to a phone call, and find out you missed the trip of the lifetime.”

But 100 yards stands between the deck and a trip of a lifetime. For the many who have read the stories of Erich Hoyt, Paul Spong, and Alex Morton, it’s a tantalizing distance. We want a moment like Morton had, being led by the A5s through the fog, or Erich Hoyt in his rowboat, bobbing in the bight, surrounded by whales.

But that age of orca research and watching has come to an end. With restrictions and limitations enforced, we’re at the mercy of the whales to swim that football field distance and set the stage for the sort of encounter we crave. Perhaps we love them too much. Our addiction as harmful to them as potato chips are to our arteries. We crave these moments, and stand breathless on the deck of a swaying boat, hoping for a flash of white, a bubbling surface, an eruption of carbon dioxide as the whale breaks the water feet from us.

And it does happen. After three years and countless hours on the water, I had a few holy s— moments; I was splashed by an orca, had one circle the boat, it’s oval eye patch staring into my soul, and had 14 humpbacks materialize from nowhere, surrounding us in a bubble net of desperate herring. And all it took was thousands of hours, and the sheer luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Six years later I returned to Hanson Island, reluctant to share some of the most intimate whale experiences with my fellow volunteers. I had been extraordinarily lucky to have a job that allowed me to buy a lottery ticket every day and cash in on the minuscule odds. But that summer, I found a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience. As much as I’d loved my time on the water, a wriggling feeling of guilt had grown as I thought about the deafening noise my coworkers and I made in their home.

The whale watch industry grew and with it, the pressure on the humpbacks and orcas until every daylight hour was spent in the company of at least one, and almost always several boats. I couldn’t measure how much of a disturbance I was causing, but the uneasy feeling in my stomach told me however much it was, my conscience was not ok with it. I began to despise the 700 HP engines on our stern, giving us the authority to decide when the whales could be free of us. Were these experiences worth the boat noise and fuel? The hours hovering above their kitchen table, knowing if it was up to them they’d probably have us disappear?

Instead of intimate face to face encounters, I craved anonymity. I wanted to see, but not touch, observe but not alter, be it from 5 yards or 500 didn’t matter. Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I can still see that orcas tail rising off the stern of the boat, sending water cascading over us. But nothing felt as rewarding or special as a misty, fog drenched morning at Cracroft point.

As the tide ebbed I inched down the rocks, slipping and sliding over the kelp, my camera slung over a shoulder, a lens the size of a baseball bat swaying ominously. Stopping just shy of the water I looked east down the strait, the sun cutting slashes in the clouds ahead of the oncoming rain storm. Right along the Cracroft shoreline I saw them, the A23s and A25s plowing through the strait, pointed directly at me. I raised the camera, Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “get A60s photo.”

The group filed past, exhalations like gunshots ricocheting off the rocks. An image of A60s dorsal flashed in my mind, like the face of someone I hadn’t seen in years, the big notch two thirds of the way up the dorsal made him easy to ID, and as the picture filled my head, his dorsal filled my lens.

I held my breath to steady the camera, and pushed the shutter, immortalizing Fife on a 6 GB chip. He couldn’t have been any closer than 150 yards, a distance many in the whale watch industry would yawn at. But a tear slid down my face as he disappeared. A few years ago I’d have wanted Fife to know I was there, to see some acknowledgement of my love and interest. Now… I wanted anything but that. Just to have a brief window into his world, and know that his calls were blowing out the speakers back at the lab was plenty.

The whales slipped by, milling briefly in the entrance of Blackney before steaming north. As if waiting for them to pass, the rain arrived, drenching me as I stood on the deck, reveling in the knowledge that they had no idea I was there. The group slowly faded from sight, there fins merging with the streaks of rain and background of the islands. But I continued to watch until they vanished from view. After all they’re like potato chips, you can never say “I’m full.”

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