Tag Archives: fish

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.

 

 

 

 

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Waiting For Corky

“On no they’re not.”
“It’s true,” I answer, “they’re phasing out the circus performance bit. They say they’re going to do a more education and conservation based thing… of course, it’s SeaWorld, so who knows what that means.”

Paul and I stand on the rocks feet above Robson Bight. Two steps and we’d be free falling fifty feet to the bottom. Free whales swim here. They go right past the rocks we stand on, an arms length from shore. Every time I come here I try to will them into the bight. It’s never worked. Orcas are very into themselves.

But now our minds are not on the hydrophone resting in the kelp, or the batteries on the cliff that fuel it. They’re on a whale thousands of miles away that deserves to be here. Paul furrows his brow, there’s skepticism in his expression, doubt after decades of banging against the gates of SeaWorld, asking that Corky be allowed to come home.

“Maybe it’s just a spoof article,” he says. “Where did you read it?”
I confess that I can’t remember the source. But I’m convinced it wasn’t the Onion.
We pick our way down the rocks for the boat and the lab.
Paul lets out a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something? SeaWorld stops performances, yesterday Obama vetoes the Keystone pipeline. What is happening?”
“Maybe we’ve been transported to a parallel universe.” I offer.
“That’s it. What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
    “Donald Trump is gonna get eaten by wolves.”
“And through a loophole in his will all his money gets donated to conservation.”
“He meant to write all proceeds to the conservative party but misspelled it.”

Deep down, SeaWorld hasn’t changed. Their orcas are still commodities, big swimming black and white dollar signs. SeaWorld isn’t changing. They’re rebranding. And what choice did they have? They’ve lost a third of their visitors. Their value is worth half what is was before Blackfish. The ship is sinking and there aren’t enough lifeboats. But rather than call for help, SeaWorld has decided to bail water until they’re six feet under. This isn’t surprising. It’s still despicable. But it’s encouraging. They’re grasping at straws.

SeaWorld continues to operate under the delusion that they will be relevant and profitable a decade from now. Accepting the Blue World proposal by the California Coastal Commission would have given the San Diego park an expiration date. No new orcas. The beginning of the end.

But SeaWorld has no intention of letting Corky, the captive northern Resident of A5 pod come home. It’s a step closer to retirement for her though as human commanded tricks will not be part of the new Orca show. But Corky doesn’t have time. She’s been in that tank for four decades. Her time, and a chance at a happy ending is running out. These new, low adrenaline performances won’t start until 2017. By the time SeaWorld determines that this new marketing scheme isn’t going to save the company, it may be too late.

But as SeaWorld circles the drain, perhaps they’ll be willing to accept anything that will salvage whatever positive PR reputation they have left. What better way to change hearts and minds than retire a whale?

I don’t know if Corky can survive in the true wild. She’s been swimming tight circles for so long, I don’t think she can physically stand up to the rigors of being a wild whale. But a net pen in her native land? Where she can taste the ocean. Hunt wild fish and hear the sounds of her family. Who wouldn’t get behind that?

“They can do Corky shows live from Dong Chong Bay (the bay just west of Orca Lab on Hanson Island) and broadcast it over the internet.” Paul offers as we pull into the cove next to the lab.
He’s says it like a joke but it’s not. What it would mean for her to come back. After all these years, and have her living next door. A few hours later all is quiet. The water calm, the sun setting. Paul is back in Alert Bay and it’s just me and Brittney.

Suddenly we both sit up, our heads cocked. When you live at OrcaLab you develop this passive listening. You aren’t aware that you’re tuned into the hydrophones but you always are. And when an orca makes a noise, it makes you jump.

And there they are. What are the odds? We tear over to the lab and pull on headphones, our trembling hands adjust the dials on the soundboard. They’re in the Bight, right where Paul and I stood talking about Corky just five hours ago. Now her family, A5 pod is there. Swimming feet off the rocks I’d been standing on.

Goosebumps spread up my arms. They shouldn’t be here in early November. But here the A5s were. Back in the strait on today of all days. Keeping Corky’s bed warm for her. As their calls echo off the underwater cliffs I fight back a lump in my throat, trying not to feel guilty. After all, it’s Corky that should be here, not me.

Worth So Much More

More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.

But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.

The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.

As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these  massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.

Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.

And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.

On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.

It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.

“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”

How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.

Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.

When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.

It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.

For Americans and Canadians alike who wish to get involved, visit.

http://www.salmonbeyondborders.org/what-you-can-do.html

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.

Patches the Sea Lion: Part II

Patches skimmed the steep rock face just below the surface of the waves. Every now and than his whiskers tickled as they brushed against the rocks. He pumped his flukes and rode the growing wave that his body created. Taking the corner of the cove as fast as he could, Patches sent waves crashing onto the rocks, soaking a gull that squawked at his boisterous entrance. Gulls amused Patches more than any other creature. Bobbing arrogantly on the surface, completely unconcerned until you surfaced near them, causing them to cry out and fly away in a flurry of indignation because you had the nerve to breath.

Patches broke the surface and grabbed a quick breath, feeling the mist of his exhalation run across his exposed back. The gash still throbbed from where the sea lion had fallen on it earlier and he noticed that it was bleeding again. It had been a month since the injury and it still protested at the mildest irritation. He hoped that it would begin to scab over and heal soon, the thought of maneuvering around the colony all winter with it and feeling the cold wind against his exposed blubber was not appealing. But for now he would just have to continue to live with it, and it certainly didn’t stop him from hunting.

Like most sea lions, Patches wasn’t all that picky about what he ate. He was a decent fisherman as far as sea lions go, though he still struggled to catch the ultimate prize, salmon. But bottom fish, crab, and herring were all easy enough to grab, and filled him up reasonably well. But he felt his body desiring the fatty meat of the salmon that continued to run past the rookery and knew he would need to start catching more to get through the winter. As quietly as he could Patches dove and entered the mouth of the cove. The water was shallower in here, and he could see clearly thirty feet in front of him, his world a greenish, aqua tint as rays of light from above reflected and stabbed the waving kelp fronds. It was here, Patches knew, the silver flashes of salmon could be found. They would seek shelter in the kelp beds to rest, relying on their maneuverability to wiggle through the stalks of kelp to stay a step ahead of the monstrous male sea lions that hunted in the deeper waters just fifty feet away.

But Patches had no trouble squirming among the kelp, and it was here that he had the most success hunting salmon. Many of the younger sea lions too, would work the kelp bed just off the rocks directly below the humans platform that overlooked the ocean. As the tide rose it was often necessary to pass directly below this platform, just feet from where they stood. The larger sea lions flatly refused to go near. Everything about the land seemed to terrify them and at least once a week at the rookery, one would let out a terrified roar and scramble for the ocean, unconcerned with anyone in his path. In the interest of preservation all before him would run for the ocean, trying to stay out of the way of his surprisingly agile bulk. It would than take them hours to get back onto the rocks.

The young sea lion wove through the kelp, head turning constantly as if on a swivel, his stomach growling. As he came out of the kelp bed and made a slow turn to go back the other way towards the cove, he felt something disturb the water next to him. He looked back to his left and saw that he was not alone. A harbor seal cruised peacefully in his slipstream, looking up at him expectantly. Patches had heard of this behavior but had never actually been followed by a harbor seal before. They would often trail a sea lion closely, scooping up scraps or the chance to clean up a whole fish if the sea lion missed his original lunge. But he had no intention of sharing any fish that he got, but for now, the little guy wasn’t bothering him at all.

The pair traced the kelp bed three more times, all to no avail. With a disappointed look, the harbor seal turned and dove for deeper water, skimming the ocean floor for crab. It wasn’t a bad idea, thought Patches, clearly the kelp bed was depleted of everything but sea urchins, and he wasn’t that hungry yet. But just as he rose to grab a breath before heading for deeper water, he saw it. A salmon cautiously glided into the kelp directly ahead of him, floating silently near the surface, the kelp fronds waving back and forth, obstructing his view. His heart raced as he swam slowly and quietly below the fish until he was directly below it. He hadn’t taken a breath and his lungs were beginning to ache. If he was going to strike he had to do it soon, but the kelp was still in his way. He floated on the current a few feet further, feeling the rocks scrape against his belly as the salmon slowly came back into view. The current shifted and the fronds were pulled the other way, exposing the fish. Sensing the change in the water, the salmon twitched, its’ wide unblinking eyes darting left, right, and down.

With all his strength Patches launched himself upwards, his eyes focused, the fish filling his mind. With a powerful flick the salmon bolted forward just as Patches closed his jaws. He felt scales rip off in his mouth, tasted the slimy texture on the back of his throat, and felt the fish slipping through. With a bolt of panic he snapped down and his teeth punctured skin, his mouth full of the salmon’s tail. The fish wiggled but Patches had him in his powerful canines as he ripped his head back and forth, feeling his body break the surface.

He broke the fish into bits, hearing the the squeals of the gulls all around him, snatching at pieces of his precious lunch. In three quick gulps Patches managed to get most of the fish down. Pride swelled inside him as three other sea lions raced up, eyes groping the water column for scraps. But they were too late. Patches floated at the surface, finally having a chance to catch his breath, feeling the sun warm his body as he stuck his flukes straight in the air. He drifted serenely in the current, in no real hurry to go anywhere with his belly full of fish.

Patches: Part 1

The rocks were crowded and wet with the waves of the ebbing tide still lapping at their base. It smelled too, with dozens of sea lions jostling and roaring for position, climbing and stomping on each other, all trying to reach the drier and exposed portions above. But it was an uphill battle in more ways than one. It was hard to climb on their flippers, and the sea lions above outweighed the ones below by at least 500 pounds. Obesity can have its’ luxuries.

At the edge of the rock, clinging to the edge inches from the icy waves was a young male sea lion named Patches. He lay curled up in a small nook that kept him from being launched off by his neighbors who seemed determined to uproot the three big bulls five feet above. One made a vain leap for the ledge, only to be met by a deafening roar and six inch teeth. The younger sea lion retreated unceremoniously down the rock, tripped, and fell the last few feet back into the ocean, plunging ten feet before floating for the surface.

Sea lions don’t roll their eyes, but if they did, Patches would have. What was the point? In an hour the tide would shift and begin to flood, and an hour after that they’d all be back in the ocean. It was better to settle for a nook with a little tide pool and a barnacle sticking in your back as long as you got some sleep. Not that Patches ever got much sleep. There was always someone clambering over you, convinced that the next rock over was the one for them. Here you got by on quick cat naps, got back in the water, and fed as much as you could. Gaining weight was the only real way to move permanently up the rock.

Patches rolled over to see his remaining rock mate, still eye balling the ledge above and the three massive bulls occupying it. What luxury! No barnacles scratching you, or boat wakes washing you off, just four hours of glorious sleep. Despite the ferocity of the previous assault, his rock mate seemed dead set on trying to succeed where his partner failed. He moved tactfully and casually, waddling awkwardly toward Patches, as if he had nothing more in mind than a stroll down the angled rock into the water. Carefully he put his flippers on a carved step leading up and slowly pushed himself up until he was eye level with the ledge.

The nearest bull would have none of it, but this time he struck. Patches felt his eyes widen and his body recoil as the teeth struck the young male, causing specks of blood to fall onto the rocks, only to be washed away by the sea. The young sea lion leaped for safety only to land directly on Patches’ wound.

The gash was small but nasty, about six inches in diameter with a single puncture wound in the center along the left side of his back. After days of nursing it and keeping it away from the sharp rocks and the aggressive teeth of his rivals, he felt the wound split again, a shooting pain reverberating along his back. Patches roared and snapped at his rock mate who, despite being larger, had clearly had enough for one day and leapt into the water, his belly flop sending a wave of water over the rock and Patches.

Shaking his coat dry, he tried to go back to sleep, but the attempted thievery from the first two sea lions had made the mature bulls above uneasy, they were unwilling to share their rock with anymore upstart young males. With a bellow and a crash that shook the whole rookery, one of them leaped down beside Patches, charging at the small nook he had folded himself back into. With a yelp of surprise and fear Patches dove for the ocean, feeling the sting of salt water on his cut. Diving deep he paddled hard away from the rock and his aggressor, finally rising to the surface 100-feet away.

He was sick of the whole game. Why they all had to haul out in the same stupid place was ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be better if they just distributed themselves evenly? It’s not like the British Columbia coast line lacked for rocky intertidal zones. And yet here they gathered, piled in massive brown heaps, crushing each other to death while the big ones above roared and slapped the ground with their flippers, letting all who could hear know who was in charge.

Tired and hungry, Patches swam slowly north along the shoreline. Not far from the haul out was a peaceful cove. Many of the sea lions avoided it because of the humans that lived there. But Patches didn’t care. It was obnoxious the way they ran down to the rocks and made weird gargling noises at him, but they were harmless really. And the harbor seals would chase fish into the cove, and there was nothing easier than a fish trapped on a rock face. The thought cheered Patches considerably, and he swam faster, past the last rookery, toward the tiny cove with chum salmon on his mind.

The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?