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Silent Nights in Robson Bight

IMG_5288It starts with the flutter of a Hemlock bough, almost imperceptible. It registers for the briefest moment and falls into some unlabeled file in the back of the mind. It’s subtle, quiet, it’s how every storm begins. Now two hours later the waters of Blackney are streaked with white caps and the young hemlock bends at the waist. Harlequin ducks make a desperate gambit from one cove to the other, riding breakers two to three times bigger than they are. They’re tough little things, impervious to the weather. Whatever is in the next cove over, I hope it’s worth it for them.
After a week and a half of sun, the clouds feel intrusive, cutting into our precious allotment of daylight.

The roar of the ocean feels deafening after a week of calm seas. A week that gave us the chance to return to the orca’s holy land, Robson Bight. On the map, Robson Bight appears as just a little divot in the Vancouver Island shoreline, unassuming and natural. But it’s here, in the back of the bight, where Erich Hoyt camped in the 70s. Fearless and casual, he’d sit in his row boat in the dead of night, floating on the tide, waiting for the orcas to swim by. As we cruise across the mouth of the bight for the site of the hydrophone on the east side, I try to imagine how I’d feel. What would it be like, to float on blackness, thin paneled wood between me, the ocean, and 15 behemoths? After hours with whales, many of them with nothing but fiberglass separating us, I’m not sure I’m ready to surrender my primary sense when we meet.

The site of the hydrophone in Robson Bight is on a steep cliff that drops straight into the ocean. It doesn’t descriminate, picking up the sound of tugs as soon as they clear Weynton Passage some five miles to the west. At Orca Lab we call it the Critical Point hydrophone. After the whales enter through Queen Charlotte Strait, it is on this end of the bight that they choose to either continue east into the strait, or turn back to the west toward the lab and open ocean.

But now, in the quiet stillness, nothing seems critical or pressing. Brittney and I relay the car batteries up the cliffside. Critical Point is the most vital but also the most susceptible hydrophone in the array. It has the widest range, but its solar panels are draped in shadow for most of the winter by the massive mountains at the back of the bight. For five nights we’ve been nudged awake by the unmistakable chirps of a hydrophone about to run out of power. Invariably it’s Critical Point that needs to be extinguished, leaving us sonically blind in most of the strait.

It’s easy enough to swap the batteries and install the new ones, all one needs is a wrench and an understanding that touching positive and negative terminals will lead to the shock of your life and possibly frayed eyebrows. Batteries firmly in place, I call Paul.

“Where are you now?” He asks, you can always hear a smile in his voice.

I grin back and fall into the moss putting my feet up on the rocks, drinking in Robson Bight, the rays of sun cutting through the mountains, anointing them with breathtaking halos.

“Just on the Critical Point cliff, soaking in the sun.” The honor and novelty of being here, of working for the guy that wrote the book on Orca behavior is never lost on me. This is so cool.

An hour later we’re riding the ebbing tide to the west, I’ve memorized the strait like some learn city blocks. There’s the cliff, always dead heads on the ebb coming around the corner. The Sophia’s, reef off the west end. Nice deep water off Cracroft Point.

We round the corner into Blackney Pass, the water churning as it rushes for the open maws of Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Miniature whirlpools splatter the entrance, a heavy tide rip in the middle. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Blackney in a state that I’d be willing to kayak. The water never rests.

Gulls, murres, guillemots, and murrelets manipulate Blackney’s upwelling, dive bombing for forage fish pulled to the surface. Off to the right is Barontet Passage, a long slender channel that runs east on the northern end of Cracroft. The resident orcas never go that way, but occasionally the transients – what was that?

Without bothering to slow down I yank the wheel to the right, turning ninety degrees, the bow pointing toward the opening of Baronet. A hundred yards later I slow down. Something caught my eye. Something bigger than a sea lion. I think it was just a humpback, there’s been a couple hanging out between Parson and Cracroft.

There’s a dorsal fin.

“It’s an orca.” My heart stops, resets, and accelerates. Brittney’s already digging for the 400mm lens. I don’t mean to say it with such intensity, but I can’t help it. Eight years later, orcas still do this to me. May they always.

I turn the boat so they’re on our port side. The boat we’re in is only about ten feet long and when you sit, you’re barely four feet above the surface. You may as well be in Erich Hoyt’s row boat. And on the rambunctious currents of Blackney, you couldn’t ask for a worse platform to photograph.

“Can’t you keep it level?” Brittney asks as the orcas-four in all-break the surface.

The group heads the same direction we’ve just come from. I know we’re a land based research facility, but screw it. When is this going to happen again? We follow respectfully, years on the whale watch boats paying off, the camera whirs to life with every surfacing. I dig in my pocket, and one hand on the wheel, both eyes looking out the window, call Paul again.

“Hey Paul, guess what we found.”

I hear the smile in his voice as we round Cracroft Point and once again, travel east into the strait.

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The Sorcerers

The swelling in my lower back has vanished. The shooting pain in my left shoulder blade melted away with an hour of squeezing into my kayak. Glaciers slide by, deities of a higher calling. They speak in languages well beyond my ability to translate. They groan and crack, their breath cool on my face, stirring the marble colored water that swirls at their feet. In my narrow, 17-foot kayak Glacier Bay towers above, beneath, and around me. Intimidating mountains thousands of feet high, obliging fjords thousands of feet deep, serac steeples, arete cathedrals.
It’s been mere hours since the boat deposited Brittney, Hannah, and I at Ptarmigan Creek in the west arm, leaving us with the Reid and Lamplugh glaciers as neighbors. Bears as our landlords, Oyster catchers the shrill neighbors. Harbor seals, their eyes still recalling the centuries as sustenance for the Tlingit’s slide cooly beneath the waves as we paddle south for Reid Inlet, its glacier, and the sublime. It was impossible not to grin. Surrounded by beauty man can only dream of matching. Reveling in our insignificance, the glaciers and mountains reminding us that our lives are but a shiver in the lives of the epoch.

One Day Later:

The deep bay juts deep into craggy rocks, giving way to gradual, sandy beaches in the back. In our kayaks we sit just feet offshore. With one hand I hold my paddle jammed into the rocks on the ocean side to keep the kayak from being swept into the bay. The other endures the harsh edges of the barnacle smothered rock, keeping the fiberglass hull off the bottom.
Twenty feet away the water depth plummets to thirty feet and at the moment all the riches on the Coral Princess couldn’t tempt me to uproot my paddle and drift into deeper seas. The calm water ripples and 20,000 volts shoot from adrenal glands to toes.
A lunge feeding humpback glides smoothly out of the water yards away, the leviathan’s coal black rostrum lingering at the surface, every bump, curve, and scratch visible, burning its image into the back of my head. The tip of his nose is big enough for me to sit on like a slippery fish encrusted lazy boy.
None of us speak afraid of breaking the spell. As if to verbally acknowledge the miracle will cause the whale to disappear. We didn’t want the water to be safe, we wanted to hover on the precipice of the cliff, leaning as far over as we dared forever at the very edge of his table.
For an hour the humpback glides back and forth within 30 yards, our eyes leaving the water just long enough to glance below us, to confirm we could still see the rocks and sand, that we hadn’t drifted onto the plate. Finally the obligation to photograph overwhelms and I pull the camera free of the drybag. Even with the wide angled lens pulled back, he fill the frame, capturing the image but failing miserably to capture the intimacy, the proximity, the enchantment.

Four Days Later:

The real world. At least as real as we allow it. Back to work, back in our green boats, vacation over. The waters of Bartlett Cove filled with wonder no matter how many day trips you led. Beneath the waves teemed otters, humpbacks, seals, porpoise, and today…
“Brittney, there’s an orca.”
I don’t mean to sound sharp, don’t mean for the intensity and fire to spit out my mouth like a dragon. But orcas do that to me. Give me tunnel vision, making the rest of the world vanish. From my seat inches above the water I watch the smooth 6-foot dorsal of a male slide back into the waves 500 yards away, making its way into the cove. This doesn’t happen.
Guiding instincts kick in long enough for me to point while the 17-year old within, the one that ran to British Columbia for this very moment screams to paddle and paddle hard.
Our five boats cut through the water toward the mouth of the cove, in the distance the Fairweather Mountains glow in the early morning light as around the point come a trio of gunshots, three more roll into view. Cationic with delight my boat slides across still water, every stroke bringing me closer, hot on my keel is Brittney and six incredibly fortunate clients.
I try to explain the magnitude, that this doesn’t happen. They aren’t supposed to come into the cove. In my mind I beg them to stay. Keep coming in, almost there, almost there.
Behind me Brittney calls out and our little flotilla stops paddling, our boats succumbing to the tide’s authority. We sit in a jumbled array as like fireworks, the orca’s break the surface. The male continues his course down the middle of the mile wide cove. While three more break the surface between us and Lester Island. Another breaks off from the male and swims toward the boats.
I should call the park, dig out my phone, document, tell someone, but I’m past words. I’m 17 again, bobbing in a kayak off Cracroft Island, watching the A36s swim by. Nearly ten years later they still hold unimaginable power over me. Keep me coming back to the water, always scanning, always listening.
They’re watching us. A juvenile no older than five materializes thirty feet off my port, the sun catching her eye before she disappears. Her mother rushes in, corralling the rebel and guiding her away. The windless day is filled with the sound of their breath. Explosive exhalation and the harsh rasp of every inhale clearly audible. There’s no boat engines, no hollering, no clicking cameras. Everyone watches in great silence, knowing nothing can even begin to do them justice.