Tag Archives: killer whales

With a Single Breath

Several years ago, Brittney and I were walking along a trail in Juneau. Like most of city’s trails, it wasn’t far from the ocean. We worked our way through muskeg, over bogs, and past Devils Club when I heard it. I’d reached a point in my life where breathing whales stopped me in my tracks. Even if I wasn’t sure at first why. I stopped at the top of a hill, the water visible through the trees below.

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

We’re gone. Half running half falling down the hillside. I stop on the edge of a bluff, my arms cartwheeling. I turn left and run parallel to the beach, that seductive sound carrying my feet. A small depression levels the drop off the bluff and I leap into nothing, my feet skidding on the soft mulch. I land on the rocks below. I look back up into the trees and my bride to be.

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

The water is still fifty feet away, a minefield of rock between me in the water. I trip and stumble with every step. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the water. A small thump behind me tells me Brittney’s found the “slide.” She looks up, eyes alight, face mirroring my own.

“Where are they?”

A female Orca breaks the surface, her breath echoing off the rocks, off my soul. I tear down the beach after her. an impossible race I have no chance of winning. But in the company of Orcas, everything seems possible.

***

For the first time this year, it feels like Spring. We sprawl in the sun just behind the lab. Blackney Pass is glass, the water vibrant, the sea lions noisy as ever. Harlequin’s in the cove, eagles in the trees, the cat hunting mice in the Heather bush. Heaven on earth.

And we hear it.

After three years here, we’ve created a silent language of sorts when it comes to Orcas, whether we’re watching them or listening for them. When something whispers through the speaker our first glance is at each other, as if confirming that it wasn’t in our head or the creak of a chair. A silent debate begins, “was that what I think it was?”

We look at each other, a quiet intensity passes between us. Without a word we rise to our feet and walk onto the deck. Spend some time looking for whales and you start to scan the water without thought. There’s a smooth circle of ripples off to my left, just beyond the cliff that marks the far side of the cove. On a day as calm as this nothing can touch the water in secret. Nothing can slip past. It could have been a loud Sea Lion, or a boat or—.

Hello beautiful.

The Orca breaks the surface 150 yards off the shoreline. We turn as one and dive for the lab door. I grab the camera. Brittney taps frantically on the keyboard, willing the computer to life. With the miracle of technology, the whole world is about to know there were Orcas heading for Johnstone Strait. I hit the lab deck again and try to take a deep breath. My body’s shaking with excitement and my first set of pictures come away blurry.

I’ve lost count of the number of Orcas I’ve seen in my life. But they still do this to me. Last summer we found Orcas on a kayaking tour and I left Brittney and the clients in the dust. They give me tunnel vision. They’re my drug. It’s been this way for ten years, I’ve given up expecting it to change. I don’t want it to ever change.

The scientist in me reigns in the euphoric teenager. I begin to count, estimate speed, run my eyes along the trailing edge of the dorsal, looking for nicks and scars in the saddle patch. They’re spread out and moving fast on the flooding tide. When they surface after a dive I turn back and yell at Brittney so she knows where to point the remote camera.

“Hump of Harbledown! First Bay! Mid gap!”

What will I do with all this Blackney Pass geography when we’re gone?

The Orcas swim in twos and fours. A pair of big males bring up the rear and disappear around the southern corner bound for the strait. The camera system is now so intricate that we can almost literally hand the Orcas off from one camera to another as they go down the strait. Brittney’s already found them on the next camera off of Cracroft Point. And they’re beginning to talk.

We hear a melodic pin and we both give a shout. We know these guys. Or at least recognize them. Pings are a signature of G clan. I11, I15, and the G pods. A few minutes and several excited calls later Helena sends us a message. It’s the I15s. They’re a Johnstone Strait staple in the summer time. But maybe they’re making a February pilgrimage a tradition. They came through almost exactly a year ago.

Whether this is significant to the I15s or not, they sound happy to be here. Their calls echo off the underwater canyons and swirl through our heads. They always sound so happy. For the next hour we watch them push deeper into Johnstone Strait. There’s one final camera we can find them on, the Critical Point or Robson Bight camera. Situated on a cliff at the east edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve we find half of the I15s mid channel.

But as I watch the calls intensify, they’re far too loud to be from the cluster I’m watching. I pull the camera back out and am rewarded with three Orcas breaking the surface just off the rocks. My body stiffens and I clumsily pan the camera from left to right, trying not to screw up the shot. Remotely it’s hard to track with them. Gauging distance is tough when you’re not in the flesh. It’s not the first time I’ve promised countless worldly possessions to spend a summer on the cliffs overlooking the Bight. Paul thinks I’m joking when I tell him I’m willing to spend a summer there as a “monitor.”

“That’s what the camera’s for.” He says.

“Yea… I know.”

Born too late. The wild west of Orca research has come and gone. No more hiding in the Salal at the Rubbing Beaches either. Passages of Erich Hoyt’s and Alex Morton’s books still make me green with jealousy.

The three Orcas—two females and a calf—are so loud the calls come through the headphones with static. But I don’t dare turn away for the few seconds it would take to turn it down. I grit my teeth and watch them break the surface again. I pan the camera further but can see nothing now but leaves and branches. End of the line. Two hours after sighting them, they’re out of sight.

The calls fade away as they leave the range of the hydrophone and I’m left with an empty expanse of water and the islands of Harbledown, Swanson, and Parson painted with a golden light that would make Midas envious. Snow still clings to the mountains on Vancouver Island, but with the warmth and the I15s, it feels like summer.

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Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.

Dear Tilikum

Dear Tilikum,

First, I apologize for not writing this sooner. I’m sure you could have done with some more reading material with all your down time. I mean, how many times can you read the Harry Potter series before your eyes start to cross? What have you heard about this Harry Potter world in Orlando? Seems a bit silly if you ask me. Anyway…

May I call you Tilly? Tilikum just seems too aggressive. An unfair name for an unfair life I suppose. I don’t know what they’re telling you when they drop herring down your throat, inject you with antibiotics, and do whatever horrors they must to keep an amazing animal like you alive in such horrid conditions, but it’s not your fault.

None of it. You understand?

Anyone torn from their family, abused by strangers, and penned up in the dark night with the walls inches from their flippers would do the same. Let no one tell you different. In our desperate hours we do desperate things. You, like the rest of the wild world, is best left alone. To be revered, admired, and loved from a distance. Something we want to reach out and touch but can’t, or at least shouldn’t. He who loves a flower does not pick it to watch it whither and die in a jar. You water it, tend it, keep the weeds away. You should have been no different. Left to flourish in your aquatic garden. Left to swim next to your mother for your entire life, your birthright.

From the moment you were born you had everything you needed. But humans are an unsatisfied race. We’re not a happy race. We’re angry, we’re violent, we do unspeakable things to each other just because we have different ideologies, different skin colors. And sometimes, a lot of the time, that cup overflows, the toxic water splashing onto the innocent, precious species of this earth. Species like yours. Orca’s learned long ago to live and let live. Residents, Transients, Icelandic, Offshore. No wars, no clashes, not until we pushed you all together, in a tiny pen, and told you to get along.

I know you’re not feeling well Tilly. I don’t know how dire it really is. It’s hard to trust anything that SeaWorld releases. But it seems like you’ll be leaving us soon. I hope you’re not in pain, that you can breathe easy. I wish I could say that I hope you get well. But I don’t. The release of death is probably the most humane thing that can happen. Let that spirit go. Leave that imprisoned body. At long last, be free.

Do Orca’s have an afterlife? Here in B.C they’ve documented what may have been an Orca burial. Observers saw a mother disappear near a cleft in the rocks with her dead calf and return to her pod without it. Is it a burial ritual? Or are we anthropomorphizing you? Our arrogant human egos selling you short yet again? Wherever you’re off to next, I know it’ll be better, I hope you love it. Few Orca’s deserve it more.

When you take your last breath, when you finally fade away, please remember this. You are not alone. You are loved, and there are millions of people across the globe standing up and screaming at the injustice that has been your life. Your life, your death, will not be in vain. And the day is coming when the tanks will be empty. When the Orca will no longer be a commodity but a wonder. A sentient being instead of an asset. We’re going to keep fighting Tilly, in your memory, in your honor. I pray you know that there are humans that are good and decent to all creatures great and small.

Rest in peace Tilly. You are missed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.

Photo Courtesy of: http://kepplar.deviantart.com/journal/HELP-FREE-TILIKUM-425641192

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.

The Southern Residents and Repeating History

Off the waters of Washington state live the most magnificent, beautiful, and intelligent creature on the planet. A species that has learned to exist without wars or visible disputes of any kind. They maintain a peaceful, complex, and intricate social structure with bonds that we cannot even begin to fathom. And it is all in danger, of vanishing forever. For many it’s already too late. Like Rhapsody, whose body has gone to science in the hope of finding out what ended her life.

It is all so chilling because it’s not the first time that this story’s been told. In the serene and beautiful waters of Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles to the north, the same tragedy is playing with a 20-year head start. The genetically unique AT1 Transient pod, that has lived, stalked, and hunted within the sound for generations is just years from extinction as it comes up on three decades without a successful birth. For AT1, the prognosis is simple and obvious. On good Friday, 1989, the whole pod swam, unknowingly through the lethal slick of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They have not reproduced since as friends and researchers like Eva Saulitis watch the pod disappear one by one, a slow tear jerking countdown to zero.

For the southern Residents, it’s more complicated. For decades they’ve endured live captures, bullets, overfishing, and the toxic runoff of the increasingly urban Puget Sound. In many ways it’s miraculous they’ve persevered for so long. They can still lay claim to, “Granny.” An orca that was born the same year the Titantic sank and is still seen every year off the San Juan Islands, a talisman to the resilience of the community. And yet, Orcas are dying that shouldn’t be. When Plumper (A37 of the northern Residents) finally vanished from the lab’s view in August 2014, there was such a finality to what we were seeing. It was his wake. His time had come, and all of us, including him and his brother Kaikash seemed to know it. But sweet 18-year old Rhapsody shouldn’t be washing up in Comox. She should be with her mother, siblings, Grandmother, and Aunts, with one or perhaps two calves to her name. This wasn’t her time and it’s hard not to feel guilt, knowing that our species shoulders the blame for her demise and dozens just like her, whether from captivity or PCBs.

The southern Residents are at 77 individuals. The time has come for drastic action before the genetic bottleneck tightens anymore. So that in 20 years, we’re not watching the last of the pod fade into darkness, leaving the waters of the San Juans and Puget Sound in great silence. How empty and desolate it would feel. Imagine Orcas Island with no Orcas. It’s not impossible, the only place in California you can find a brown bear is on the state flag.

It may mean sacrifices on the part of us as human beings. To surrender the pleasure and joy that only comes from watching a line of dorsals materialize off the bow of your boat or kayak. Or perhaps going without Chinook salmon in the freezer this winter. Or maybe as simple as riding the bus to work and reducing the carbon exhaust pumped into the atmosphere.

These aren’t tigers or elephants, we can’t just start captive breeding programs and reintroduce them. But they do need help, and we have a chance, maybe not to make amends, but to right some of the wrongs that we’ve brought against them. To even the playing field as best we can for a species that doesn’t deserve the cards we have dealt. North American progress, american history as a whole, has been filled with extinctions, manipulations, and destruction. We’ve hunted the Gray whales, sea otters, wolves, and now the Orca. But today sea otters again bob in the waters off of Monterey Bay, wolves run through the forests of Yellowstone, and North Pacific gray whales represent one of the healthiest and strongest whale populations in the world as they continue their amazing recovery from industrial whaling.

I don’t think it’s too late for Rhapsody’s kin. But it is time to try something different, because whatever help we’re giving them clearly isn’t working. They need time, space, and most importantly, the salmon that make up more than 90 percent of their diet. Save the whales doesn’t have to just revoke memories of Greenpeace and the 70s. The war is not over, and it is our time to fight for the animals we love.

Springer

The greatest Hanson Island story ends here, but it begins far to the south. Off the dock of a ferry terminal in Puget Sound near Vashon Island. In early January 2002, ferry goers inherited a mascot, a tiny, emaciated, two-year old orca whale. The little whale became an instant celebrity, following the ferry back and forth day after day. Yet the lost whale was in trouble, separated from her family, malnourished, and in dire need of the attention and physical contact she craved.

Biologists up and down the Pacific Northwest coast rushed to Puget Sound in an attempt to discover where the tiny whale belonged. Saddle patch photos and acoustic recordings traced her, not to the nearby southern Resident community, but to the A4 pod from the northern Residents off the northern coast of Vancouver Island, 250 miles from home. She was A73, commonly known as Springer. The previous summer, she had failed to return to Johnstone Strait, as had her mother Sutlej (A45), both were presumed deceased. Springer had returned from the grave, but how she had made it all the way to Washington was a total mystery.

And so the debate began about what to do with this tiny whale that had violated international law by crossing the border. Had she been rejected by her pod? Did she have some communicable disease? Had she already grown too attached to the boats that choked the sound? A wild orca had not been taken into captivity in U.S waters since 1976, but this was different. Without human intervention, Springer seemed doomed. But public opinion made it clear; Springer needed to go home not to a tank.

But no wild orca had successfully been reintroduced to the wild, the closest had been Keiko of Free Willy fame, who had lived a solitary existence in the wild before dying of Pneumonia. The federally funded U.S program NMFS (National Marine and Fisheries Service) balked at the idea, claiming lack of funding and the difficulties that had transpired in Keiko’s rehabilitation.

While the debate raged, Springer received round the clock attention as people tried to keep boats, ferries, and others from interacting with her. It was a hopeless endeavor, as Springer continually rubbed against boats in search of a surrogate for other whales. Whatever was decided, rehabilitation or captivity, Springer could not spend her life off the Vashon Ferry dock. After two months of debate, NMFS accepted a a plan that included seapen rehabilitation, translocation, and finally, a reintroduction into the wild.

In the meantime, Springer needed to get healthy in order to satisfy Canadian officials who feared returning a possibly diseased and contagious whale to its already threatened northern Resident population. Over the next three months Springer became one of the most monitored patients in the world, receiving antibiotics to clear up a skin condition, ketoacidosis, and worms. Slowly, her condition improved. And so a new debate began, where and when to release Springer. The solution was in Orca Lab’s front yard. A fifteen minute walk through the woods behind the lab leads to a small, skinny, and protected bay known as Dongchong Bay. The plan was to place the net pen in the back of the bay, and wait for Springer’s family to swim by.
Moving day came on July 13, 2002 when Springer was lifted by crane from her holding pen in Puget Sound onto a catamaran for her big trip north to Hanson Island and home. The following day, Springer’s pod appeared, swimming south in Blackfish Sound past the mouth of the bay. The moment of truth had arrived, and the net pen was opened. Springer showed no hesitation, pelting straight for her long lost family. But it was not quite the storybook ending everyone had hoped for as Springer and pod eventually departed in opposite directions.

Free but still orphaned, Springer returned to her old pod mate; boats. Two days after her release, Springer positioned herself squarely under a boat, making it impossible to maneuver without hitting her. She would have to learn to live with wild orcas again, and just as importantly, they had to learn to live with her. Her first few interactions appear to have gone poorly as she was seen with teeth marks raking her body as pods seemed reluctant to add another hungry and growing whale to their ranks.

By August however, Springer seemed to have found a degree of acceptance. A young female orca (Nodales, A51) from the closely related A5 pod began to serve as a surrogate mother, guiding Springer away from nearby boats. While eventually Springer reunited with her closer relatives in A4 pod, Nodales probably saved her life in those first few turbulent weeks back home. As summer came to a close, and the orcas began to disperse for the winter, everyone held their collective breath, knowing that the winter months would be Springer’s biggest test yet. The following summer she returned with her natal pod, fat and healthy. At the lab she received a heroes welcome. The massive wooden sign still hangs above the observation deck, adorned with a spyhopping orca, hearts, and the message, “Welcome Home Springer.

Every few days I run through the forest to Dongchong Bay. The forest is spongy and bouncy, it feels less like running and more like bouncing on a trampoline. Arriving at the bay always gives me pause, a small rocky trail runs along the left hand side of the tiny bay, breaking free of the trees and giving a full view of the bay and Blackfish Sound beyond. In my mind I can see the net pen, the notoriously energetic orca springing clear of the water in breach after breach. Her loud squeals and calls echoing off the watery canyons of her home. She’s a mother now, no longer just a nice story but an integral and contributing member of orca society.

I wonder if she remembers this place, this bay and the multitudes of people that healed her, fed her salmon, and most importantly, were able to let go and let her go home when the time was right. I wonder if she ever pauses at the mouth of Dongchong as she goes by. If she can still hear her voice ricocheting and bouncing off the rocks, hear the crack of her splashes as she returns to the water. If she has any idea what a miracle her life is.

My Second Birthday

My eyes snap open and my legs kick me out of the sleeping bag. I’m instantly awake, sitting straight up, my head grazing the roof of the tent. Next, to me I can see Dad’s outline, sitting up as well. We both sit motionless, suspended in time. Neither of us speak, we know what we’re listening for. Thirty seconds go by before we hear it again. A series of gunshots retort from the strait just yards from us. The sounds echo off the trees, seeming to bounce off the very sides of our canvas tent. The noise fades, and still neither of us speak, not daring to mention what may be in the water next to us. Something very big is swimming by. Finally, I break the silence.
“I think it’s them.” I whisper. Dad doesn’t answer as the gunshots erupt again, this time we’re both counting. “Seven?” I ask.
“That’s what I had,” he answers, “Two really big ones, and four or five smaller ones.” His affirmation is all I need. I unzip the fly and climb out. The air is heavy with moisture, but it’s not the sticky humidity of the equator. This is the raincoast where precipitation falls daily. The very air seems saturated with it, turning the whole landscape green, making everything grow higher, bigger. But tonight it’s a little clearer and a smattering of stars poke around the clouds. But the moon remains under a blanket of thick cumulus as I grope my way cautiously toward the water’s edge. The strait is still and silent, cloaked in the night, revealing nothing.

I slowly put one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where the rock ends and the ocean begins. There is no gradual increase in depth, step off the edge and into twenty feet of water. As I creep forward I keep my head up, eyes squinting, staring into the inky blackness. My feet reach the edge and test the tolerance of gravity. I lean as far over the side as I dare, trying to position myself as close to the ocean below as possible. Somewhere, probably less than 300 feet from me is a pod of orca whales.

And in this moment I am born. I fall to my knees, the carved rock digging into my legs. But I am in a place beyond a little discomfort in my bones. It took nearly two decades but I’d found my home. The damp chill, the smell of the forest, and the noise of these orcas as they surface infuse my whole body. The moment spins into my very DNA, I am where I belong.
All I have are my ears and I cup and orientate them every which way, not wanting to miss a thing. I want to stay here, frozen in time forever. People could come and go as they wish, seasons could change, as long as I’m permitted to stay. As my life spins and refocuses, part of me slowly dies. The basketball scholarship is suddenly irrelevant. College in general transforming from opportunity and necessity to pointless obstacle. I have everything I’d ever want or need right here. A tent, wilderness, ocean, whales. Rich beyond my wildest dreams.
Silently I beg the whales to come closer, to break the surface within my sight. But a family of orcas has a much higher calling than the desires of a boy leaning over the rocks that they’ve swam past for generations. As the blows grow faint I let the darkness and whales envelope me, change me. I sit on the rocks trying to catch every last sound, holding onto the dream of seeing them long after they’ve passed. Their breathing now barely audible over the lapping waves.
* * *
The water is fifty degrees, 500 feet deep, and rolling beneath me. Yet I feel safe, entombed in fiberglass. The Necky kayak stretches seven feet ahead of me and another seven behind. She is a blinding, pupil wrecking, turquoise color. But after four days on the water I feel confident with a paddle in hand working my way up and down Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.

We’ve barely left the beach when the rain begins anew. For three days the sky has rotated between gray and drab gray. We’re surrounded by water. Salt from below, fresh from above. The rain jacket has become a permanent accessory and those of us in the kayak tour have begun to recognize one another by the color of our rain gear. But I’m dry, or at least would be if I’d wiped out the cockpit of my boat. The puddle of water from last nights rain finds the wool lining of my pants and slowly begins to saturate it, the water greedily sucking at my body heat, leaving my skin cold and blue.
But no matter. It’s my last day in the strait and I intend on drinking as much of it as I can. Our group inches out of the small cove we’ve camped in. The place is nothing more than a tiny pinprick, a comma in the novel that is the shoreline of Cracroft Island. I’m not sure I could find it today if I tried. How is it that I have been here only days and it already feels as if I’ve known this place my whole life? The orcas have been absent since they crept by two nights ago. And now the boat to take us back to the world is on its way. Time is running out.
I glance east down the strait and my heart stops. I blink and it’s vanished. But if it’s already gone, than it must have been… and the fin appears. Tall and proud, like a sword being pulled from it’s sheath it rises. Higher and higher into the air, pulling a smooth jet black body out of the water. The orca’s blowhole snaps open and the exhalation ricochets off the cove, the trees, the mountains, my ears. His two brothers appear behind him, gliding past the kayaks, indifferent to our presence. That’s fine, I’d have all the time in the world for them.
* * *
The light fades and the islands across the channel become silhouettes. Seven years and three miles north of that soggy August day, I’m still here, another summer in Johnstone Strait. I’m not with a kayak group this time but working at a research lab, appropriately christened Orca Lab. A scruffy beard is physically all that’s changed from the wide eyed boy crouched on the rocks. Though, I have a porch to sit on now; no sore knees for me. Basketball is far behind me, college too, as I’d spent years trying to find anything that compared to hovering in the darkness, waiting for them. But it always came back to where it started: Johnstone Strait.

The last vestiges of sun disappear, the water becoming almost invisible. As if they’ve been waiting for darkness, the sound of gunshots reach me for the countless time. The blows come rapidly, too quick and numerous to count. The sounds of the orcas interlace with the array of life in the water before me. In front of the lab, dolphins splash, sea lions roar, humpbacks trumpet, and gulls squawk.

Like the pod that passed as phantoms in the night years ago, they have little time for me. Like this place they are wild and untamed. They have taught me it’s okay to feel the same. That I’d rather be here than have a career. That waking to squirrels dropping pine cones on your tent is much better than a neighbors music. That coffee and oatmeal on intertidal rocks beats an hour long commute. That warm running water, washers, and corner stores are overrated luxuries. That here I can be myself. That this is my home, born and raised.

The pod weaves through the throng of marine life and continues south, heading for the same tiny cove where it all began. I listen to them slowly fade away, leaving me with the sea lions and humpbacks splashing and diving in the night. And still, after years of whales swimming past, in sunshine and in rain, I can’t pull myself away just yet. My sleeping bag is waiting, beckoning just feet away. But I’m not ready to stop listening to the symphony of animals playing in front of me. They pulled me out of my tent seven years ago and they can still do it every time they pass. There’s a magic to hearing them in the dark, bringing me back to the night of my birth. Seven years ago all I wanted was to see them. But now something has changed. Now I’d be content just to listen forever. With all the light stripped away, leaving me in the total darkness. Where all I need are ears.