Tag Archives: Orcas

Silent Nights in Robson Bight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a dorsal fin.

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

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

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

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

“Hey Paul, guess what we found.”

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

The Parson Island Relay

The breath catches in my chest, my legs wobble, and my arms shake. I try to take another step forward and feel the ground slide beneath me. Mud and its ally gravity pull me to the ground. My elbows bounce off the cedar boughs and spruce branches that carpet the hillside, my head bangs against the cardboard box in my arms. I groan and lay motionless for a moment, grateful that no one but the trees and squirrels were present to see my fall. The sound of a humpback surfacing floats through the trees from Blackney Pass 100 feet away. I roll over and look up at the tops of the trees, massaging my chin and wiping sweat from forehead.

For the last twenty minutes I’ve been participating in a maniacal relay. In the six cardboard boxes are batteries. Batteries that are getting heavier every time I pick them up. Between the soothing breaths of the humpback and my more labored ones, I’ve developed a rhythm. Fifty steps. Drop. Return. Grab the next. Fifty steps. Drop. Return.

Paul and I had unloaded the batteries on Parson Island, the island across Blackney Pass from Hanson Island and OrcaLab. Now he’s scurrying back to the lab to grab Brittney to monitor the boat as the tide falls. Free us to  move the tedious batteries up to the Parson Island camera site. As we move the batteries into the woods we’re already panting, sweating, and shedding our wool sweaters. It’s a quarter mile to the camera site, most of it uphill.

“They say,” Paul gasps, “that battery technology has really improved the last few years…” he weighs the battery in his hands, “I don’t feel a difference.”

I have to agree. I could wait for Paul to get back so we can carry the batteries up the hillside together. But I’ve never been patient.

Which is why I’m laying on my back, staring up at the treetops, letting the remnants of last nights rain fall from the needles and onto my face. Despite the burning in my legs and the distance still to go, it’s impossible to not be moved by the sublimity of the scene. An eagle chitters and the humpback explodes to the surface again, its breath sounding like a trumpet, the echoes bouncing off the rock cliffs. I smile and permit my eyes to close for just a moment, feel my spirit sink into the forest floor. I could lay here forever.

“Everyone deserves to see this.”

Which is coincidentally, why I’m here in the first place. The new camera atop the Parson Island cliff demands more power than the eight Kirkland brand car batteries can provide in the winter when the sun disappears for days on end. The batteries in my arms should help the camera stream throughout the winter with minimal help from the balky generator stashed under tarps and rocks.

Fifteen minutes later, the batteries are at the top of the hill. The sound of an engine floats across the water, Paul’s back. We relay the batteries together. Past a thicket of Salal and around Cedar trees. The sunlight moves through the forest, the only marker of time as the afternoon wears on.

“After scurrying over rocks, hauling batteries up hills, and everything else you make me do,” I say, “I’ll never be able to have a real, respectable job… thank you”

He laughs and claps me on the shoulder, “come on boy, no rest for the wicked. And apparently,” he lifts another battery into the rubbermaid tub we’re using as a sling, “we are really wicked people.”

As we work the humpback continues to trace the Parson shore line. It’s surfacings the perfect background music. Soothing and relaxing to counteract our labored breathing as the relay continues. Finally we break through the salal bushes and onto the cliff overlooking Blackney Pass. The water has become a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so calm, like liquid glass gently vibrating. I can hear the mutterings of murre’s. Random rays of sun stab through the clouds like knives and illuminate the gentle rain that has begun to fall. I’m struck dumb by the beauty. How can this not change people? We unpack the batteries and begin to hook them up. Maybe this camera will.

Thirty minutes later the job is done. With our arms full of soggy and decomposing cardboard we move back down the hill. I know this trail far too well now. Walking it twelve times will do that. We board the boat and disturb that perfect stretch of water. The humpbacks have moved away from Parson Island toward Johnstone Strait. Any day now they’ll swim east down the strait and set course for Hawaii. Leaving us with the sea lions and harbor seals for company.

We leap neatly from the boat and onto the rocks and look out over the water. Brittney gasps. An incredible rainbow has sprung into being. As Paul motors away back toward Alert Bay he slow the boat, his phone extended through the window, photographing the picturesque scene. Even after forty some years it’s still not old to him.

I sit down on the rocks and drink it in. This. This is what makes me happy, fulfilled. Hauling batteries through the woods, humpbacks in my office. Porter gives a soft meow and jogs up beside me, rubbing his face against my arm. My hand goes to my forehead and I feel the dried sweat glued to my skin. Now if only I could find some hot running water around here for a quick shower.

A Movie Script Ending

An odd curse seems to precede my arrival to Hanson Island. Some dark foul spirit that blazes the trail and harbors ill will to Paul’s boat. In ’08, ’14, and now ’15 the June Cove has been struck with engine trouble just days before the ferry spits me out in Alert Bay. Thanks to this demon, I’ve still never arrived at OrcaLab on the day I intend to. Which is why the four of us  (Brittney, me, Porter, and Penny) found ourselves curled up in Paul and Helena’s Alert Bay home for Halloween watching the curves of Hanson Island fade into the darkness through the bay windows. So tantalizingly close.
It wasn’t all bad. We watched baseball, took one more hot bath, and handed out candy to the handful of trick or treaters that came knocking on the door. Still to be determined was when we’d cover the last few miles. Dave Towers (Yes Jared Towers Dad) was to be our taxi driver. But the southeast gusts for the following morning did no breed optimism. So we settled down for another day in the bay. We slept in. I found the Vikings game on TV. And was just getting comfortable when the phone rings.

“Hey Dave, it’s Dave. How’s the weather looking out your way?”
I walk to the window and stare out at the strait. There’s still whitecaps, the trees in the yard dance. Maybe not as bad as an hour ago? “I think it’s dying down, it’s supposed to be a little better this afternoon.”
“Great! Can you leave in an hour?”
My eggs are just starting to bubble in the frying pan, I’m wearing pajamas, all we have for food is a bag of oranges. “Can you make it two?”
“No problem… oh and it’s an open skiff. Be sure to dress warm.”
David hangs up and I stare at the phone. A rabbit and a cat in an open air skiff? I think back to last fall when we tried to put Porter in Penny’s cage. The mess, the horror, the terror, I’m still getting over it.
90 minutes later our bags are piled in the boat. Penny’s cage is between my legs, a towel draped over the corner that’s facing the bow as a windbreaker. Porter sits on Brittney’s lap, wrapped in a jacket, a look of incredulity on his face. David looks over our little menagerie with a mix of amusement and confusion.
I shrug, “we couldn’t just get a dog like everyone else.”

We cruise out of the harbor and round the corner, heading east into Johnstone Strait. The wind has vanished, the sky is dry, I breath a sigh of relief. Porter buries his face in Brittney’s jacket, but Penny stands on her hind legs, trying to see around the towel. She’d drive the boat if we let her, fearless.
We weave through the islands and passes, their names echoing in my head like old friends. Pearce Passage, Plumper Islands, Blackfish Sound. I can trace the route on the palm of my hand. It’s been a week and a half with three ferries, one border crossing, and too many trips through the backpack digging for clean socks, but as we round the final point and the wooden buildings come into view, every second is worth it. My chest feels light, my fingers tingle. Was it joy? Relief? Excitement? As if every positive emotion is swirling inside simultaneously.
“Dr. Spong,” I’m beaming as we embrace and I look over his shoulder at our cabin. Smoke billows from the chimney, Helena leans nonchalantly against the railing. Brittney and I try not to get too close to her. Not out of animosity, but because of her vicious pet dander allergy that makes my sweater a chemical weapon.
In a matter of minutes our bags our piled in the living room near the wood stove. Every smell, every memory coming back tack sharp. The speaker connected to the hydrophones pumps in the sounds of swirling water and a distant tug. Sonic comfort food. Macaroni and Cheese for the ears. Within the hour we’re splitting wood, scanning for humpbacks, falling back into the beautiful rhythm of the island. I walk past Brittney bent over the chopping block, Porter sprinting up in down the hill, his euphoria matches ours.
“Do you feel like you’re floating three inches above the ground?”
The shadows grow long, the sun dipping behind the island painting the mountains in a soft glow. I step out onto our porch, drinking in the view. A mile down the sea lions roar and bark, the noise rising to a crescendo. With no warning dozens of them launch themselves into the water. I furrow my brow, what on earth is making them all – and I see them.
Dorsal fins. Five of them. Just off the rocks, smooth curved dorsals with knife sharp points. Biggs. Transients. Oh my God. For a heartbeat I’m rooted to the spot, too stunned to move. On our first night? Muscle memory takes over. I skid across the deck, throwing open the door to our cabin and scream, “Biggs at the sea lion haul out!” I’m gone before Brittney can respond, tearing over to Paul and Helena’s, heart pounding, I haven’t seen orcas in months. I repeat the message and head for the observation deck, camera in hand.
The light is so dim every photo is like a blurred and pixelated photo of Sasquatch. There a mile away. It doesn’t matter. As the last of the daylight fades we strain our eyes to follow the group as they go around the corner, leaving the sea lions in a frenzy. The movie script ends, the whales vanish, and we stand in near darkness. No roads, no cars, no stores. Just us, the trees, the ocean, each other. Back where we belong.

Porter Supertramp

Porter stares longingly out the sliding door. Like a kid with his face pressed against the glass, watching the rain fall in sheets for the second straight week. Frustrated, he paws at the door until we open it. Outside he stops short of the soaked grass, rain pelting the tin roof, reminding him, all of us, that summer is over. With a dejected look he walks back into the warmth.
It’s been that sort of fall in southeast Alaska. Sometime in August the heavens opened the floodgates and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Puddles litter the dirt roads and driveways like little lakes. Rivers flow between them, connecting them, turning the road into a washboard, car shocks moaning in protest, CDs skipping.
And once again, we’re on the move. Packing this, debating that, Porter and Penny wide eyed with alarm. Moving again? At least this time the posters can stay on the wall, unneeded clothes can hang in the closet. Last summer every box and duffel had to return to the exact same spot in the Pathfinder or it wouldn’t fit. Not this time. We have a whole year of our lives meticulously planned. We know where we’re coming back to. Where our next paycheck is coming from. Sell outs.
But for now it’s time to wander. To cheer silently when the beat up old Pathfinder coughs to life. The cat taking his position in the driver’s lap, Penny poking her nose through the gaps in her house, always looking forward. It’s time for ferries, lunches out of plastic bags, for Prince Rupert to have hotels with lenient pet policies. Most importantly, it’s time for Hanson Island. For quiet coves and sleepy sunrises, Harlequin ducks chittering good morning. For silent walks through the forest, listening to the whispered messages of the cedars. It’s felt like a lifetime since we were there, or maybe just yesterday, it varies.
How much longer do we want to do this? Whenever we talk about what we’re going to do “going forward,” the subject settles on buying property, settling, wrapping ourselves in Gustavus’ warm embrace. Hanson Island stops us cold. Reminding us of town runs, sea lion haul outs, and transients on Critical Point at 3:00 in the morning. And we know we’re stuck. That houses will have to wait. We have the rest of our lives to be domesticated. To fence ourselves in. We’ll be ready someday. Ready to drop our roots among the birch on the glacial outwash near the bay we love so much.
But not yet. We understand that what we have on that little island is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That a chance like this will never come around again. How do you willingly give that up? I don’t think we can. So when people ask if this is our last winter there we smile and shake our heads.
“Probably not.” We answer. “Paul and Helena may have to kick us out.”
When do you know that you’re ready? What if we’re destined to bounce between two places that we love forever, unable to commit? What a beautiful problem to have. Some winter it’ll feel right. We’ll stay put. We’ll go to every Gustavus potluck, every fundraiser, make new friends, discover what we never knew we had. But Hanson Island will forever be a part of us. An essential nutrient in our life. A place we’ll always long for, always love.
Right now I can’t wait to get back. To wrap myself in that island as long as I can, to enjoy it for as long as possible, knowing that our time there has an expiration date. That worrying about it won’t make it any better. Nothing to do but take as deep a breath as I can, savor every sunrise, every 50 knot storm, every night hauling the boat up the beach on the rising tide. Because we’ll never get to live like this again.

The Last of the 36s

Every four years or so a new catalog comes out. Not a clothes catalog or card catalog but a whale catalog. A yearbook of sorts. Every whale in the Northern Resident Population represented. Their face is their dorsal and saddle patch, organized into neat, orderly matrilines that define their lives.
The previous catalog came out in 2010 and was never out of reach on the Hanson Island observation deck. Its pages tattered and folded, annotations and revisions scrawled in black ink noting deaths, births, and disappearances. Over time the ringed binder that held the thick pages together began to fray and tear until the page holding the A5 pods tore at the plastic binding. Surge, Fife, Havannah, and the others threatening to tumble clear of the book and onto the wooden planks.
The time to retire the 2010 catalog has arrived. The updated 2014 edition sits on my computer now, hogging a considerable amount of disk space, documenting all 298 of the northern resident orcas. The first page of the report has always been reserved for the A36s. But as I scroll to the matriline a hollow emptiness fills the page. There’s just one whale left. Kaikash, A46. The tell tale cut on the top third of his dorsal. I can hear his calls echo through the white, unblemished page where two other six foot dorsals used to stand. His brothers Cracroft and Plumper have passed on, leaving Kaikash as the lone surviving grandchild of A1, better known as Stubbs.
Having a bond to an individual whale may seem silly. But when you know them all by name, their history, their voices, it’s hard not feel a connection. Even though they have no idea I exist. But those three brothers; Plumper, Kaikash, and Cracroft kicked my anthropomorphism into overdrive. Kaikash and Cracroft were the cool ones, the lady killers. Plumper, with his less imposing name, the awkward middle child. But they stuck together. Plowing up and down the strait, massive dorsals held high. The boys club, not a female in sight, persevering without mom.     That’s how they looked to me on a rainy August day in 2007. I didn’t know who they were yet but it didn’t matter as they swam past me and my kayak, making me forget all about basketball shoes and hardwood glory. Turning my life upside down. Leading me to OrcaLab, to whatever it is that I do with myself.
Cracroft past away in 2010. And last August Plumper struggled against the tide in Blackfish sound, gave up, and drifted back the way he’d come, his brother following loyally. Which left Kaikash to fend for himself. The death sentence for most orcas, unable to survive without mom, brother, sister, and cousin. But here he is. That dorsal still defiantly displayed on page one, the final relic of the A36s, of my rebirth, of my story. I can’t imagine there’d be a blog without those three.

Last summer I hammered away at the chopping block near the lab. As the tide rose and the sun beat down a kayak group pulled into the back of the cove. I stared in amazement. Hundreds of miles of beach and they have to pick the one that’s inhabited? I keep swinging, halving and quartering the rounds, wooden shrapnel flying left and right. After lunch an older man picks his way across the beach and boldly walks up to the wood shed.
“Excuse me.” He calls, waving his arms.
I pull out my headphones, sweat running down my face. “Yeah?” He better not be asking me to wait until they leave to keep chopping.
“This is OrcaLab right?”
I nod, “sure is. I’m not sure where Paul is right-”
“Oh that’s ok. I know you’re all busy. I just wanted to ask one question. Years ago my family adopted a whale through a foundation, I think he swam around here. He was A5.”
“That was Top Notch.” I answer.
“Was?”
“Yeah… he died, quite awhile ago, shortly after his Mom. That’s how it usually happens unfortunately.”
He bites his lips, eyes on the ground like he’s dropped something. “I figured,” he mumbled, “thanks.”
So it goes in the Orca world. Friends we barely even know saying goodbye. Vanishing. No wakes, no farewells, just an empty spot on the page, and a greyed out square.

I move past Kaikash’s lonely spot and keep flipping through the catalog. “298 is a lot of whales,” I think, “more than there’s ever been since the study started.” I reach the page with the A4s, and my melancholy vanishes. There she is. Springer, A73. The miracle whale. From death bed to motherhood. Her baby Spirit’s picture just below, a strong black line connecting them. Nearly every pod has young calves, a good sign. More stories to be told, more memories to be made. Death just as much a part of living as birth. They all start out like Spirit. I smile and close out of the catalog.
“They’re just like us,” I think.

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.

Quiet Places, Open Spaces

Shadows stretch across the bay, the surviving sunlight turning a deep gold against the water and trees on the far side. We sit on an old, rotting 2×4 propped up by rocks, watching the island in the middle of the bay transform into a peninsula as the tide ebbs away. Around us boxes of food stand in pyramids, accentuated by a case of beer and a bag of dog food like a massive sack of flour.

But Walrus is in no hurry to start the haul up the hillside to his cabin shrouded in the woods. So we sit, beers in hand, with nothing more pressing than watching the water slowly drain out of Dong Chong Bay.

A great blue heron materializes out of the woods, it’s prehistoric shrieks echoing off the steep vertical cliffs around us, alighting on the island. A raven swoops passed and alights on the branches of a birch tree above. He speaks softly to the bird in a tongue I don’t recognize. Undoubtedly it’s the native language of the First Nation people that called Yukusam (the native name for Hanson Island meaning “shaped like a halibut hook”) home. The words seem to permeate from the trees and ocean, as alive and authentic as the island itself. If the trees could talk, it would be in this voice. Not the voice of my ancestors who had arrived and hunted, logged, and eternally altered the very land we loved.

The large, rocky plateau we sat on was far too smooth to be the work of the ambitious and almighty glaciers that long ago preceded us. They deposited erratics and islands with the callous randomness of an artist flinging paint at the canvas. This was deliberate, a stronghold for the logging trucks and chainsaws that Walrus had fought and defeated.

Even in this beauty, in the perfect stillness, it seems pertinent to mention it and Walrus nods in affirmation, as if he needs any reminder of what took place here.

“In the U.S we put aside these pieces of land as wilderness that can’t be touched, developed, or mined.”

Walrus lets out his high pitched laugh, “but is anywhere untouched?”

“Exactly.”

I remembered camping in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay. Alone, surrounded by acre upon acre of wilderness. Only to watch commercial jets rumble over, their contrails leaving white slashes across the blue sky. The cruise ships rumbling by, black exhaust spewing above the mountains, wakes unconcerned with the wilderness boundary. Untouched wilderness indeed.

He wanders over to the case of beer and hands me another, the crack of carbonation drifts across the water. With an indignant call the heron rises from the rocks, wings beating a slow rhythm as it vanishes.

“How can we even classify something as wilderness?” He asks.

“That’s the thing. Are we trying to recreate a land before Europeans? Or native Americans?”

Regardless, the ghosts of North America cannot be revived. The mammoth, the Stellar Sea Cow. We talk about how the great plains were once home to 12-foot bears, lions, and camels. An indescribable amount of biomass and apex predators. Until man arrived and claimed the top of the food web for him alone.

“Extinction started with the arrival of man, not Europeans of course.” He cautions.

“Of course. It’s a European arrogance, that we can put back together the pieces that we’ve ripped apart.” I say. “It’s the best we can do I suppose though.”

“When the Spaniards arrived in central America, they found the Mayans already had chickens.” He looks at me, his long grey beard crinkles into a smile, his eyes dazzle beneath long curling eyebrows, “they just assumed, hey, they’ve got chickens here just like back home!” He pauses and takes a drink, “of course they were Asian chickens,” he finishes laughing, letting the message sink in.

“You don’t read that in your history books. Or Columbus’ Haitian massacres, or the sculptures depicting people of African descent. We weren’t first, but we in some way won. So we get to claim credit, and dust our transgressions under the rug.”

He smiles again and we tilt our beers back, I’m talking conservation and anthropology with one of the founders of Greenpeace.

“That’s one of the difficult things about anthropology and natural history. It’s a lot of extrapolation and assumption, we can’t know much for sure.”

“Which is why we need time travel,” he says.

“I know where I’d go,” and I point out the mouth of the bay, to sparkling waters of Blackfish Sound, “right here.”

I talk about trying to imagine Dong Chong without logging roads, the orca lab site before the lab, my desire to see this place in as natural a setting as possible. “Post ice age of course,” I finish.

He nods, “I bet it’d be something.”

“Salmon so thick you can smell it on the wind,” the very thought gets me excited, “blackfish so thick you can walk across their backs,” I say quoting Billy Proctor, the legendary jack of all trades that had lived in and around the region since the 30s. “In another age of conservation maybe.”
We lapse into silence, drinking in the scenery, the peace and tranquility that cannot be quantified. No bottom line, no profit margin or material good could ever begin to explain what these places mean. Because they live not on paper but inside. The by products of the wind and trees, ocean and waves, saying more without a word than I ever can. Causing a spiritual upheaval I can only begin to explain.

It’s for this reason, that we’re coming back next winter I tell him. Like Paul, he’s spent decades on Yukusam, unable to find anywhere else that compares for the same unwritten reason.

“It’s going to be almost a year since I had a real job. It’s been incredible.”

A knowing smile pushes through the beard, “it’s hard to think about going back to it isn’t it?”

“You have no idea.” I answer, knowing full well he knew exactly what I was talking about.

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.

Wanderlust Knows No Age

Cindy moves slowly along the rocks, one hand on her cane the other in mine as we move slowly step by step up the tideline. The steps to the guest house are just feet away when we stop for a breather. There is no fear or discomfort on her face, no sound of frustration in her voice. She had come all the way from Houston, Texas, she knew what she was getting herself into. With a determined look, her jaw set, we begin again, down the jagged rock, feet probing for a flat spot laid smooth long ago, past the loose pebbles and with two quick steps, onto the deck. Her face relaxes immediately, a smile spreads across her features. The same look we all must have had when we finally realized we had made it. Her husband Gene follows and together we all climb the stairs into the guest house.

I’ll admit I was nervous. Not just because we were representing Paul and Helena’s life work, though that was reason enough to panic. But because I was still living in the dark and terrible corner of the stereotype. I had met countless couples from Texas, some with huge belt buckles and ten gallon hats as they ambled down the cruise ships gangway. Nearly all were courteous and friendly, that wasn’t my worry. Too many though, wanted to know how much it cost to kill a brown bear. Had I? Why not? Any of these mountains being mined? Tell me about this oil money you guys get every year. I’d find myself morphing into part car salesmen, part street corner evangelist. Trying to explain the non gun toting, non developing appeal of the Alaskan wilderness. That the world would not collapse if the Arctic Refuge remained what it was, a refuge. That shooting bears with a camera was a much more rewarding and intimate experience. And no, I don’t want to discuss any of Alaska’s governors, former or current. The worst was the climate change question. It was phrased the same nearly every time, “do you believe in global warming?” As if it was a religious cult akin to voodoo.

I’d explain that yes, the world is in a natural warming phase but that man kind was helping it along. “It’s like steroids in baseball,” I’d say (it always does come back to baseball). “Barry Bonds didn’t need to take them to hit homers, but it sure helped him.” I’d stare into their faces, as if hoping to see a flashing light bulb appear over their heads. More times than not though, it was a smirk, they’d heard “natural warming phase,” that’s all they needed to hear.

Cindy looks out the window, drinking in Blackney Pass, a humpback surfaces, a sea lion splashes, she looks born again. “I’ve waited 13 years to see this place!”

They had won the two night stay on Hanson Island for their contribution to the June Cove boat fund. And two bad knees and Gene’s replaced hip wasn’t going to stop them. I smile, instantly relaxing, I should have known I suppose. Anyone willing to work this hard to reach this place didn’t deserve to be lumped in with their geographic region. I remember travelling to New Zealand, how I would tell people in the hostels I was American and the reception I received. So I just started saying Alaska, half the people seemed to think that it was part of Canada anyway. I didn’t bother correcting them. Poor Tomoko and Momoko, our fellow volunteers had to have the same nightmare. They were from Japan and any mention of Japan and whales had to instantly lead to an avalanche of embarrassing issues. The Cove, Whale Wars, and the IWC, just to name a few. We were all victims of the stereotypes our homeland depicted. And all guilty of the same assumptions.

We walk into the lab after dinner, the place from which everything they had seen, heard, and read about Hanson Island originated. They move as if they’ve just entered a church, quietly, respectfully. Cindy looks down at the sheet of paper that diagrams the six hydrophones and our location, her fingers tracing the outline of the shore line. I show them where they saw the orcas earlier that day on their way to the lab and all three of us jump as a sea lion throws its whole body out of the kelp just feet from the shore again and again.

Quietly they began to share the stories of their lives. Not about home in Houston, but there travels north. “We just keep winding up going north for some reason.” Cindy says as she admits with a small smile that she picked a programming company not for its competence but because they were based in Vancouver. They were drawn to the same world as us. A world of water too cold to swim in but too beautiful to stay away from. Of islands, strung together like diamonds on a necklace, each hidden cove and bay full of mystery. And of course the whales. They’d seen more of southeast Alaska than I had it turned out and it was my turn to listen greedily of stories from Tenakee and remote lodges on the island of Admiralty.

“We got to Seattle and decided we weren’t ready to go home once,” Cindy recalled, “so I went to the ticket counter and asked for the next flight back to southeast. He wanted to know where I wanted to go, I told him I didn’t care. We’ve been all over, but always independent, we’ve never taken a cruise ship up there,” she proclaims proudly.

“Bless you.” I answer with a smile.

Here were people that found joy and beauty in the same way we did. There bodies may no longer allow them to sleep under the stars on the rocks or among the trees, but they weren’t about to let that stop them from exploring. To stop marvelling at the breath of a humpback, the wing span of an eagle, or the simple and perfect beauty of a sunrise over the water. “I wish we would have started doing stuff like this sooner,” she says, “you two keep exploring, do it while you’re young, there’ll be plenty of time to worry about life later.”

After two short nights here they were gone. Leaving the same way they’d come, determinedly and carefully moving down the rocks and onto the boat. Looking back I wish I would have thanked them for the impact they’d made. The barriers they’d torn down, that it was because of people like them that I loved guiding so much and find myself missing it since they’ve left. I want to share peoples discoveries again. To lead them carefully to the salmon stream with a bear poised on the beach. Around Point Retreat where I know orcas are waiting and turn with a big smile and ask, “you heard of Sea World? Do you want to see how it’s supposed to be.”

And than humbly step aside, my work completed. Allowing the animals, the smells, the sounds, the view to do the rest of the talking for me. Speaking more eloquently, beautifully or convincingly than I could ever dream.

But most importantly they left me with this. The next time I’m working a trip and the couple announces they’re from Texas, I won’t fear their questions on oil, brown bears, or the refuge. Instead I’ll think of Cindy, with tears in her eyes as she talks about watching A37 swim past the lab on what may have been his last night on earth. Of Gene’s insistence that, “we’re just going to stay here forever.” And of the two of them, refusing to let age stand in the way of their adventures, making their way up and down those rocks never wavering, knowing exactly where they want to be.

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.