Tag Archives: ocean

Envisioning a Happy Ending for Lolita

For the past few days my facebook feed has been inundated with posts concerning the protest on the behalf of Lolita, the imprisoned southern Resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium. The activism and awareness spurred from the documentary Blackfish continues to gain momentum and the pressure continues to mount on those that guard the tanks.

The scene of Lolita breaching in cold north pacific waters surrounded by her family, the San Juan islands in the background is certainly a powerful, and romantic one. An image and ending almost too good to be true. Yet we are many steps away from that reality, and on borrowed time.

The conversation unfortunately begins and ends with those that, for legal purposes, “own” Lolita. The proposals seem to be gravitating toward the idea of the aquarium deciding that the time has come to retire Lolita from the show business as a way of thanking her for her decades as a forced laborer. Some have suggested the positive media coverage would offset the loss of those that attend the aquarium solely to see the orca. It would be an incredible gesture, and sadly, a dramatic change in philosophy. She remains a massive source of income for them and it seems unlikely they would willingly part with her.

Just last year a U.S district judge threw out a case proposed by the orca network, PETA, and others protesting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) renewal of the aquarium’s license. Claiming that the marine parks tank was too small and in violation of the USDAs standards. The case was dismissed as the judge determined the animal welfare act (AMA) did not specify requirements for those already holding USDA permits. It is a frustrating and despicable minefield of red tape and bureaucracy that now seems firmly on the aquarium’s side. There appears to be no hope in the near future of government intervention forcing the release of Lolita.

Meanwhile National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing Lolita be included in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since she remains a member of the Southern Resident Population. Public comment closes on the 24th of this month, if she does indeed qualify as a protected member of the population, the hope is that she would no longer be allowed to be used as a revenue stream. Should the motion pass, I’m confident the aquarium would fight tooth and nail to ensure that she remains where she is. A long legal battle would probably ensue, where, as we know, the system moves very slowly. The courts have already sided with the aquarium once for much flimsier reasons and I’m hesitant to believe that they would redeem themselves this time. I pray I’m wrong.

Which leads us back to the aquarium doing it on their own. Yes, Sea World stock is plummeting, marine park public opinion is at an all time low, and yet, Sea World’s response seems to be to throw more money at the problem and I imagine Miami’s response would be the same. It continues to confound me what my fellow man will do for profit but it is most likely the only voice that they will answer to. We must continue to ensure that revenue continues to fall, in hopes that they realize they must cut their losses and salvage what public opinion they can. They must reach a point however, where the cost of keeping Lolita is higher than what she brings in. It feels so taboo, dishonorable to make Lolilta’s case come down to money, but I fear it’s the only outcome with a happy ending.

So we will protest, we will hold signs and picket. Give copies of Blackfish to our friends that continue to attend the parks. Support animal advocacy groups, volunteer, and write our congressmen. Real change is happening and I pray that it comes before it is too late for Lolita, Corky, and the others.

The best case scenario may be a net pen, the waters of Juan de Fuca on her skin. After forty years of swimming in slow circles, it would be a miracle to see her travel hundreds of miles with her natal pod. She could hear the calls of her family, her relatives, and maybe remember what it means to be a wild whale after all these years. It’s hard to admit that she may have changed irrevocably, who wouldn’t after all those years alone. I may never buy a ticket to an aquarium, but would happily hand over my money to stand on the shore and see her in a cove, on the open water. No corny music, no tricks, no bleachers, no applause. Just a whale trying to be a whale again, chasing fish, and vocalizing without fear of the calls echoing off concrete walls. And know that the age of captivity, is coming to an end.

In the Holy of Holies

The boat slides into the rocks and triggers a memory. Not a visual one, or olfactory, but auditory. The sound of pebbles racking against the hull of the boat almost makes me turn around, half expecting to see a dorsal fin gliding across the water behind us. Both boat and orca move the smooth, tiny rocks of this beach sound the same way. But today we were alone, just the two of us cautiously approaching the main rubbing beach of the Northern Resident orcas.

I step to the stern of the boat and look back over the water. It’s weird to see for the first time a place I feel I already know so well. High atop an old weathered tree hangs a white box looking for all the world like a security camera. For a summer that was my keyhole. And I would press my eye against it as close as I could, drinking in the scene. But now, for just an afternoon, I got to stand here and see and smell and feel a piece of orca lore. If the bight is hallowed ground, this is the holy holies.

Twenty minutes east of Robson Bight as the orca swims lays this beach where, for all eternity as far as we know, the orcas have come. This beach, an outlier itself in a land of jagged rocks, steep cliffs, and deep water. The beach is smooth and gradual, the reflection of the trees turning the water turquoise, like some tropical paradise. In the shallows, sometimes with barely enough water to cover them, the whales come and rub vigorously on the smooth, quarter sized pebbles that compose the beach.

I step up and over the top of the boat and onto the bow, the waves rocking the boat gently against the shoreline, emitting the sound of rushing pebbles with every crest. I hop lightly off the bow and feel them crunch and slide under my feet. I step clear of the surf and see my footprints imprinted in the rocks. Damning evidence of my intrusion into this mystical place. I lay on the beach and, like the orcas, begin to squirm and roll back and forth on the pebbles, their sounds filling my ears. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough to me. Brittney laughs and rolls her eyes as she steps gently from the boat. We talk in hushed voices, as if we’ve just entered a church, and prod slowly up the shore.

We had a reason to be here. The rubbing beaches are strictly closed off to the public, giving the orcas their own private sanctuary much like Robson Bight. But someone had to pull the batteries of the long defunct rubbing beach hydrophone, the victim of a fifty knot storm in October that had torn the cable free. Without this premise we’d go nowhere near this place, even in December, when the orcas hadn’t neared the beach in a month, it felt almost taboo to stand here.

A steep cliff makes up one edge of the beach and stretches out to a point into Johnstone Strait. I boulder up and walk to the edge, the bottom still visible even on this massive 17.1 foot high tide. I find the batteries and the second camera, the one that looks straight down into the water off the cliff face where the orcas would cruise right past just before they reached the pebbles. Like at Robson Bight I see them in my minds eye, cruising peacefully past, bound for their favorite spot in the strait. We get the batteries off the cliff and perch on a massive log washed against the shoreline. We dig out some food and stare out at the water, this unassuming little stretch of earth that means so much. Camera in hand I snap pictures while I eat, hoping to capture as much of it as possible and failing to do justice. It’s tough to think about leaving so soon, and I a great longing fills me to see the whales here, just once while I hide unseen in the bushes. It’s a dream that will have to remain a dream, and I look up at the camera, thankful that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy it from a distance. We climb into the boat and gently push back into the water, gliding across the brilliant blue/green waves, bound for the gray surf of the straight, the southeasterly starting to turn up the current.

Before we go home there’s one more place I want to find, and we shoot across Johnstone Straight, heading for Cracroft Island. As we reach the shore I slow down and and we move slowly west toward Hanson Island. I see the hollow wooden skeletons of a camp. Structures with no roofs or walls, tiny wooden platforms and benches on the rocks. This is it. I stop and look at this unassuming little kayak camp. “This is my birthplace,” I thought.

It was here, seven years ago that I had visited, kayaked, and fallen in love with this place. Straining my eyes for that elusive dorsal fin that has dictated so much of my life. I look behind me and remember the A36s, cruising west past our camp, oblivious to the life they were altering forever with every surface, every breath. A part of me wants to find a place to land, to step ashore here and crouch where I did those nights when the A4s swam by, allowing me to hear but not see. But the wind has other ideas, as does the quickly fading sun of the second shortest day of the year. We pick up speed and continue west, picking our way through the deadheads and kelp, tracing the footprints of the orcas that would be back to chase the salmon. Like they have every summer. For all eternity.

On Hallowed Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected Hiking Partner

The wind howls and the waves charge, crashing against the shoreline, shooting up the steep edges of the cove before slowly draining back into the ocean, preparing for another attempt. But a quarter mile away in the woods, the sounds are muffled, the wind denied entrance by the protective arms of the trees. The only evidence of the winds raging up and down Blackney Pass is the rustle and swaying of the treetops towering high above. And the three of us yes, three, myself, Brittney, and Porter the cat tromp deeper into the forest. Away from the wind and waves and into the serenity that only the forest can give.

It had been Brittney’s idea originally. After all, the massive windows of our cabin overlooked the ocean and the forest, and poor Porter had been desperate to step outside and meet the squirrels and birds for himself. We’d tried the same thing two summers ago when Brittney was a kayak guide in Gustavus, and Porter had, after earning her trust, vanished without a trace for five stressful days. He was found just two streets over, hunkered down in somebodies wood shed. We decided he had a crummy sense of direction. But it now seemed unfair to be surrounded by this untouched land and confine him to the cabin every day, so she started to take him outside. And something funny happened, he started to follow her, like a dog would follow you when you go hiking. And just like that we had the most peculiar and unlikely hiking buddy imaginable. A nine pound cat willing to hop over logs, scale massive glacial erratics, and bound through the velvety club moss like he’d been doing it his whole life.

Just a mile beyond the ocean, the sounds of the storm vanish completely. The temperature rises, and it’s tempting to just collapse into the downy soft moss and stare up into the trees forever. The forest has been allowed to grow for so long, unhindered by logging that the undergrowth completely disappears, the shrubs unable to gain a foothold thanks to the selfish fir and cedar above, devouring the sunlight.

The whole land used to be like this. The forests of Cracroft, Vancouver Island, and the Broughton Archipelago sported massive trees and a maze of trails beneath leaving passage for man and cougar, deer and bear. Hanson Island was spared, thanks to the collective effort of many, and I whispered a word of thanks as I climb over a fallen log, tiny hemlocks growing stubbornly on it’s trunk, yearning to be like their idols above. There is something refreshing and healing about these old forests.

While the ocean is constantly ebbing, flooding, and crashing against the land, the forest is nearly always still. The ocean changes suddenly, sometimes without warning. The forest is gradual, methodical, in no hurry at all. Secrets fall to the bottom of the sea, vanishing from sight as they plummet downward. The forest is an open book, its stories and tales remaining visible for centuries. They are the ying and yang of ecosystems, and yet they compliment each other perfectly with forests protecting salmon streams. The trees are rewarded by the precious nutrients the salmon return with and give back to the forest as their bodies decay. A perfect thank you gift for guarding their stream.

A massive cedar tree lays on its side, stretching for dozens of feet in each direction. Even in death you can still picture how proud it must have been in life, towering over the island, looking out over Blackfish Sound like a sentinel. You can almost hear the final crack and crash it made as it finally surrendered to gravity and plummeted to the moss below, the impact echoing in your ears. Decay has set in, and the bark peals away in my hands, falling through my fingers like sand. But on the trunk sit more tiny hemlocks, taking advantage of the light now penetrating the canopy. As the cedar falls, it ensures more life will follow, clearing a hole for the sun, allowing the saplings to grow. The next generation of the old growth forest.

Porter sees none of this, he just weaves through the hemlocks, meandering to the end of the cedar and with a nimble leap, lands on the moss below, his big blue eyes darting everywhere, ears orientating to every crack and whisper of the wind. The wind howls above us again, this time with more force, and the trees sway ominously, the forest suddenly full of creaking as trunks rub against each other. I feel the first rain drop fall down the back of my neck. The wind gusts again as we head for home. Even the forest isn’t impervious to forty knot winds.

Hunkering Down

The internet has returned. After scaling trees, swapping transmitters, and bushwhacking a new trail through a jungle that would do the Jurassic period proud, we have returned to the 21st century. It was something simple, it always seems to be with technological nightmares like these. So now we won’t have to trouble with 15 minute boat rides through three foot swells, praying that the weather holds long enough for Brittney to do her homework. After weeks of frustration, cursing, and gnashing of teeth, Paul announced the breakthrough much too casually, opening our door and quietly saying, “we have a connection,” before walking away as quickly as he came. Though now with the internet working I don’t know what we’ll talk about, brainstorming possible solutions has dominated our conversations for the last month. Our wood pile is full, the gas tanks are filled, and the stress of making it to Cracroft Point every day is gone. Perhaps now we can finally start to answer the question we’ve been trying to answer for a year, “what are you going to do all winter.”

The humpbacks continue to commute back and forth in front of the lab, and will for at least a couple more weeks so they’ll continue to keep us busy and entertained. We’ve come to know many of them well in the past two months; Ridge, Guardian, Inunkshunk, Ripple, Conger, and KC. The ocean will seem empty when they’re gone. The rest of the animal kingdom seems mostly unaffected by the oncoming winter months. Massive flocks of gulls continue to dive bomb innocent schools of herring, sometimes in numbers so thick the surface of the ocean becomes a white blur, their squawks and yells drowning out even the sea lions. The sea lions and seals will still trace the shoreline poking into and out of the coves, a constant hunt for the chum salmon that continue to resolutely run through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait.

Besides snooping into the business of pinnipeds and gulls, I plan on spending a lot of time trying to stay warm by any means necessary. Tea, fire, Bailey’s and coffee, I’m sure we’ll try all of them before the winter is up. Besides that I’ll continue to write, try to read the while Alert Bay library, and follow the various Minnesota sports teams as they all finish in last place, again. It’s surreal to think about the fact that for the first time since I was five, I’m faced with a winter with no real obligations. No school, no job, nothing. There’ll be work around here of course, chopping wood, keeping the electronics going, praying to God the internet doesn’t explode again. But it’s hard to think of these as work when they’re tied to your survival.

Yet this is what we set out to do. To immerse ourselves in the challenge, the joy, and the beauty that surrounds us. Even when the fog clings to the islands until they disappear and the rain falls with no end in sight, this place still glows. It’s hard to imagine living in a city after a couple months here. Perhaps by the time the humpbacks return and the orcas call again I’ll have the novel written I’ve always wanted to complete. Maybe I’ll have mastered a yoga pose besides child’s pose. Perhaps I’ll manage not to drive Brittney completely crazy. Whatever happens, I want to come out changed and I hope it’s for the better.