Tag Archives: Orcas

Why Do They Only Breach Close at Night?

We may have to change the name of the blog. It hasn’t rained since we got here. After driving off the ferry in Nanaimo in a torrential downpour, it has been sun and blue sky ever since. It’s wonderful to sit on the deck in just a t-shirt as mid September approaches, though I’m already bracing myself for the inevitable monsoon  that I’m sure is coming. The raincoast has brainwashed me. Even when the sun shines, I’m sure mama nature is just piling up additional rain to make up for it. See what you’ve done to me Juneau!

There is the small problem as well as the water pressure in the sink has noticeably gotten weaker and weaker in the past few days. All our fresh water is gravity fed from a spring, connected by a never ending tube of garden hoses that wind their way up a hill and through the spruce and cedar trees. There’s just five of us here and any bathing is done via the salt water tub, so fortunately we’re not using much right now. Nevertheless, a nice steady day of rain would help me breathe a little easier.

All has descended into relative quiet though. It has been nearly 24 hours since the orcas called, they’re somewhere to the north, suddenly reclusive and introverted after two weeks of tracing the shorelines of Johnstone and Blackfish. The water feels empty without them. Chelsea and I did seem them yesterday on the way into Alert Bay on the weekly pilgrimage to civilization for food and beer. Relaxed and at peace with the world, the A30s and A42s traced back in forth off the north end of Swanson Island near a place called Bold Head. We couldn’t resist stopping to watch. The contrast was shocking. Counting us three boats floated off the island, watching the two pods. I thought back to what whale watching was like in Juneau when someone saw a six foot dorsal fin. The never ending parade of boats, in a mob like blood thirsty consumers on black Friday. For a moment I felt guilty as I watched A38 rise to the surface off our bow, even from 100 yards he looked massive.  After all, I’d been part of it, had taken every opportunity to see the orcas when I could, because, try as I might, I just couldn’t look away. But here there was no ethical battle being waged inside. We were just one of three instead of thirty. We watched the families rise and fall for a few minutes and continued on our way.

Even the humpbacks have slowed down, after a week that saw double breaches and a even one surfacing in the cove just feet from shore, their prey must have shifted. But last night, as the tide ebbed and Brittney and I sat in the cabin, a sound like thunder roared from the ocean fifty feet away. There was only one thing that could make water sound like that. We stood on the deck as the moon broke the clouds, illuminating a single strip of the black water below, and a shadow, darker even than the ocean rose. The humpback’s blow echoed off the islands and we could just make out the back as it arched and pulled the flukes into the air. A minute passed before as silent as the night itself, there came a great rush, a blow, and the humpback flew out of the water, its silhouette framed by Parson Island across the pass, the frothy white splash illuminated beautifully in the dark leaped twenty feet in the air as gravity pulled the whale back to the surface. Just another small moment of joy in the world of Hanson Island.

There’s little planned between now and the 16th of September when we go from care takers and volunteers, to hosts. Throughout the year, Paul and Helena have been fund raising by offering what they call, “perks.” Donate X dollars, get a CD of orca calls. Donate 5X (see, algebra!) and get a trip to Orca Lab. Cindy and Gene put up 5X, and decided September 16th-18th would be the best time to visit. Paul and Helena politely explained that they’d be out of the country still at the IWC. “That’s ok,” they said.

Well than. Hopefully the whales come back and make an appearance for a few days, because theres only so many times we can show them the cedar trees and rubbing beach videos. Of course, if you’re willing to travel all this way, I’m willing to bet you’re perfectly happy to sit in what will still hopefully be sunny weather and watch the humpbacks, sea lions, and harbour seals cruise slowly back and forth in front of you. The night before they left, Paul  and Helena gave us a list of tasks and chores to keep the lab running in their absence as well as food and dinner ideas for when our guests arrived.

As the sun set and darkness claimed the living room and everyone began to clear the table, I asked the question I’d been meaning to for days. “These people that are coming,” I ask, “where are they from.”

Helena pauses for a moment, “the U.S,” she answers.

Something in her answer makes press further. “What state?”

A wry smile crosses her lips, Paul lets out a little chuckle. “Texas,” she answers.

 

 

 

We’ll Sleep in November

Orcas have no concept of day and night. And as I wrote earlier this summer, sitting up, in the perfect darkness as calls echo through the headphones can be beautiful. Especially if you know in two hours you can crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep, knowing you don’t need to be back at the lab for eight hours. This is the luxury of Orca Lab in August, when there’s eight of you splitting shifts and ensuring nobody gets overworked and run into the ground. For a few days in late August and early September there were two, yes two, volunteers remaining as school drove most of the summer volunteers back to the city. Naturally, the northern residents decide that this would be the perfect time to start calling around the clock. For four days Tomoko and Momoko, both from Japan, were recording constantly, trading off every couple hours to eat, sleep, and than put the headphones back on.

So when myself, Brittney, and a girl named Chelsea arrived relief seemed to be in sight, kind of. As nice as it would be to be able to just sit down, fiddle with the soundboard, and immediately learn exactly how to follow a pod of orcas through a maze of six hydrophones, it’s not quite that easy. There’s a learning curve to understand what you’re hearing, on what hydrophone, and how to minimize that blasted boat noise. All while filling in the log book, and maybe operating a remote camera. And that learning curve gets even steeper at 3am when you’re wiping sleep from your eyes and trying to remember if you heard that last call in your left headphone or right. So for the first few days, nights fell to Tomoko, Momoko, and I. I’d doze from 10-11, get up, and drag myself back to the lab, Brittney tagging along to practice. From 11-2 we’d sit, perched on the high seats in the lab, straining our ears for orca. Nearly every night they’d arrive and the orca filled hours went by quickly. The orca free ones snailed by as you listened to the same tug chug slowly up Johnstone Strait knowing that it would pass from one hydrophone to the next over the next two hours. We’re back up at eight and at the lab as we tried to give Tomoko and Momoko the break they so richly deserved after days of sleep deprivation.

But for the two of us, the lab was just a fraction of our to do list. Since we’re going to be here for the winter, we couldn’t just know how to record and listen to whales. Our quick lesson in Orca Lab 101 was accelerated due to the fact that Paul and Helena left yesterday for two and a half weeks to attend the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in Europe. Being off the grid we don’t have the luxury of flipping a heater on, turning on the hot water tap, or running to the store for the butter we forgot to grab. If you want to be warm through the night you’d better be able to make a hot (and efficient) fire. Baking a loaf of bread means coaxing a wood stove to life and somehow knowing when it’s 350 degrees. A shower means heating water in the iron bath tub outside for four hours. And if you forgot something at the store, you’ll just have to find a way to live without it because it’s a 90 minute round trip by boat.

And yet, as I found myself handling the chainsaw, learning the safest route to town, and habitually checking the temperature in the house to make sure that it was warm enough for the pets I began to find it incredibly rewarding. Never before had turning the heat on or running to the store for lettuce felt so good. If anything they were burdens, born out of necessity. But all of that changes out here, where you are directly responsible for everything you need. Heat isn’t provided by some mythical source that pipes through those grates in your floor. It comes from the log you cut, split, and stacked, you’re there for every step and it gives you a new found appreciation for something as simple as keeping the house warm.

For many it may seem backwards, after all, we’re in many ways living the way people would have one hundred years ago (with some obvious technological exceptions: chainsaw, wireless internet, refrigerators, four stroke engines). Society has advanced, why would you want to go backwards? Maybe progress is overrated. We’ve lost touch with the origins of what we eat, how we stay warm, and where we came from. And are we really better off now than we were?

It’s obviously not a black and white answer. I’m very happy with the fact that I will never have to worry contracting the black plague or typhoid fever and that even in this remote location I know that the Vikings won yesterday 34-6. I don’t think everyone should drop everything, sell whatever doesn’t fit into a Nissan Pathfinder and head for the woods. I don’t have the world figured out and hope I never do. But there is value in reconnecting with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, and playing a part in their acquisition besides running a credit card or turning a dial. There’s a beautiful simplicity in this, even if there is a ton of work that goes into maintaining it. I am supremely confident it is much less stressful than sitting in two hours of rush hour traffic.

After a crazy first four days on the island, following a crazy four days getting to the island, things finally seem to have slowed down. Wood is stockpiled, everyone’s fridge is full, and Brittney and Chelsea are handling the lab side of things splendidly. So last night, after heating salt water in the bath tub on the rocks outside all day, I climbed in, looking out over Blackney Pass as a humpback criss crossed in front of the cove. My adoring wife even brings me a beer (God I love her) and I lean back in the most magnificent hot tub ever conceived by man. In the cities of the world I’m sure there are some very happy, very satisfied people. But I contend, that for those blissful thirty minutes, no one on earth was happier than me.

These Are the Places I Will Always Go

So, why than, did it take me six years to go back? What could possibly have kept me away from orcas by moonlight, leaky kayaks, and nights rocked to sleep by the whisper of an ebbing tide? My problem? I listened. In the months after I returned home I was told by teachers, my peers, adults, and the world in general that, while my journey was a great story and adventure, that was all it could be. I needed a real job, security, a 401K, a mortgage and three mini David’s running around eventually. And for years afterward I bought it, and tried to push myself into that square peg.

 

I busted my butt my sophomore year, taking 35 credits and somehow got the highest GPA of my collegiate career. And for the second time in my life, I decided to take a chance, and transferred from 40 below and 18 hours of darkness, to the rain soaked, humpback infested world of Juneau. And while the scenery may have changed, I still felt an obligation to the same life goals, because, well, that’s what you were supposed to do. I got a job in Glacier Bay my first summer in southeast studying humpbacks. It should have been my dream job, a foot in the door to a career with the National Park Service. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t relight the fire. My bosses were great, the venue breathtaking, and the work challenging. But I struggled with the scientific and calculated way everything was done. Standing on the boat, bobbing in the chop created by a juvenile humpback breaching again and again. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, the nature worship bubbling just below the surface. But I felt I couldn’t. Maybe it was unfair to compare the whole situation to my brief time at OrcaLab two summers ago, but it just didn’t fit.

 

I remember the first time orcas swam past the lab that summer. Paul, camera in hand leaning so far over the rail of the porch I thought he’d fall into the ocean, hollering at the whales as if it was the first ones he’d ever seen. I wanted that raw emotion, that childlike wonder and joy that bubbled over like a pot on the stove. But I kept searching, opening doors and closing them.

 

I returned to Juneau, met the love of my life, and married her. Two months later we ran off to New Zealand for three months and lived. Spending way to much money, learning how to milk cows, and having the most important conversation of our life. In a town called Rotorua, over strawberry milkshakes, we finally voiced what both of us had been burying, maybe for years. We didn’t want careers, the idea of being tied down to one place to long terrified us, and as far as kids… a cat and a rabbit seemed like plenty right now.

 

For me, the next location was obvious. It had been in the back of my mind for years, waiting for its chance to emerge. We returned to our seasonal jobs in the tourist industry. Brittney a kayak guide, and me a guide on a whale watching boat, our third season in tourism. In July we hiked Mount Roberts, flying past the tram, trying to leave the masses of people as far behind as possible. We reach a small outcropping of rock and get comfortable, our dialog has been brief and abbreviated. After hours in the woods together we know what the other needs. If you passed us on the trail you’d assume we were fighting. We don’t hold hands, there’s never much joking, laughing, or talking, not on our hikes anyway. It was more of a joint meditation, taking solace and peace in knowing the other was healing with every step. I remember going hours on the Abel Tasman trail in New Zealand with us barely saying a word and being so thankful I wasn’t alone.

 

We talked about the cruise ships, sitting below us in Gastineau Channel, and our never ending discussion about how we feel about the industry. Were we exploiting the land we loved or were we ambassadors? Was standing on one of 35 boats, preaching the wonders and magnificence of a humpback worth the bellow of twin 350 engines in the water? Words start tumbling out of my mouth, frustration, confusion, and guilt. The words of a man who can’t do it anymore.

 

Like she always does, Brittney just listened. Letting my words and troubles wash over her as the yoke loosened from my shoulders. She let me go until I was spent, head in my hands, still staring down at the boats. How did they still look so big from up here?

 

“You need a break,” she finally said. “If you don’t know that what you’re doing is right, that it’s not helping, we need to find what is right, what is helping.”

 

I nod, the next question holding hopes, dreams, and fantasy in its answer. “I need to go back.” I say, it’s not a statement, it’s a question. We were a team, bound at the hip, and I could do nothing if she didn’t go with me.

 

“Back to Canada, to Paul’s?”

 

“Next summer, I can’t believe it’s been five years. I never thought I’d be gone so long. I guess I kind of lost my way, but that’s alright,” I turn and smile, “it led me to you. I want to show you this place that means so much to me.”

 

She just smiles, “if that’s where you need to go that’s where we’ll go. I want to see it with you.”

 

Words catch in my throat, the emotions dragging them back to my stomach. Fortunately I didn’t need any as my wife, confidant, and best friend laid her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around me. I looked, south down the channel, past the cruise ships and habitation, toward the wild and untamed Taku and Stephens Passage. I could almost hear the orca’s calls, ringing in my ears. I thought of mornings on the observation deck, runs in the woods, Helena’s cinnamon roles, and even the ornery June Cove. It may have taken me five years to figure out, and six to finally put it together, but I was finally going home. And this time, I wouldn’t be coming alone.

 

Moonlit Orcas: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 4

ImageThe pub was empty in the early afternoon, a fine misting rain fell outside fogging the windows. It was early August, my first beer in a bar sat in front of me (God bless Canada’s drinking age) and it was quiet save for the low hum of a the muted baseball game, Blue Jays/Mariners in the background. For once in my life I wasn’t watching baseball, I hadn’t checked a Twins score in a week, granted this was partly due to the internet being down at the lab. Paul had dropped me off in Alert Bay an hour ago, leaving me with a handshake and the assurance that I was welcome back any time.

And now, after all the build up, all the preparation and all the work to get there, my time on Hanson Island was done. Five weeks that felt like a blur and still do. I really should have kept a journal. But two moments still stand out, burned into my memory. Most notably and embarrassingly was the first time I was dispatched to collect firewood:

A good bit of our time was spent collecting wood. Salvaging it, chopping it, and stacking it. Cedar was the prized cut. Burning hot, it was reserved for the wood stove, the catalyst in Helena’s phenomenal bread. Logging had been one of the biggest economic powers for decades and drifting trees came up and down the channel with the tide, like pleasure cruisers out for the day. They were terrifying to maneuver a boat around. As the logs floated they absorbed more and more water, causing them to slowly sink below the surface until they sat almost completely submerged, out of sight but not out of reach of a boat’s unsuspecting propellers. Should one of these logs happen to drift close to the lab though, someone had to be dispatched to retrieve it. It wasn’t just about getting enough wood for the day, or the week, but for the winter when you could go through a whole tree in a day trying to keep the biting winter wind out of the house.

The second evening on the island, one of these drifting logs floated down Blackney Pass on the ebbing tide sitting high in the water, still reasonably dry. Anxious to prove that I wasn’t just a brilliant research assistant but one of those rugged Alaskans everyone had heard so much about I leaped into a kayak and paddled out toward my quarry.

It had a deceptively larger diameter than I had anticipated though with the bottom of the log a good foot below the surface. Holding the coil of rope in my hands I very carefully leaned over to loop the rope around it and nearly fell straight into the water, soaking my entire left side. Here I was, in the fading light, in a leaky kayak with no life jacket, completely ill prepared for the task at hand. Slowly working my way down the log I reached the nub of a branch that had been sawed off. A good half foot remained though and I tied the rope around it. I’m not sure what knot I was tying but all my loops and knots and bows were sure to stay. Very slowly I paddled back toward the lab, It was amazing how far the current had taken me from the cove in just a few minutes.

Adrenaline now beginning to kick in I tried to paddle back upstream, my paddle on the right side interrupted by the log on every stroke. For a moment panic surged through my body and I imagined the log and I floating helplessly into the wide expanses of Johnstone Strait. Keeping the paddle on my left side though I paddled as hard as I could like it was a canoe. The kayak bumped into the log on every stroke, keeping me straight but slowing my progress. After about five minutes I was back at the mouth of the cove when an explosion from behind almost sent me back into the drink. I tried to turn around to see what on earth was behind me but the kayak rocked yet again and I gripped the log for dear life, my knees knocking together. What on earth was I doing out here? Was this my life now? Risking life and limb for some firewood? The humpback, that’s all it could have been behind me, never surfaced again and I very shakily paddled the rest of the way into the shadows. Only to stand up and fall into the water, my head banging on a barnacle encrusted rock. In the adrenaline I hadn’t realized my feet had fallen asleep. I dragged the log above the tide line, giving it a swift kick I regretted immediately. From the windows I could see Paul and Evan doing their best not to laugh when I looked their way. Welcome to the island rookie.

More beautiful and romantic were when the orcas came into range at night. Paul’s hyrdophones heard every noise in the ocean for miles around and didn’t discriminate. Boats, dolphins, tugs, waves crashing into the shore, and of course the orcas. Any time they made a peep it was up to someone to go to the lab, hit record, slap on the headphones, and listen. I learned to love the sleepless nights, watching the moon slowly move across the sky, reflecting off Blackfish sound as the early morning summer light slowly reappeared. Stay up long enough and just maybe Helena would surprise you with cinnamon rolls, steam still streaming out of them, icing oozing over the sides.

Those nights by yourself gave you plenty of time to think. I was due to return to Fairbanks in the fall, a place that could not be more different from the water drenched rain coast of British Columbia. I loved the climate, how the forest turned green with just a few hours of rain, every square inch filled with life, the greenery stretching all the way to the ocean before finally conceding to the power of salt water and tides. I needed to come back, not necessarily to this place, but to this climate. It was in the lab one night that Juneau first crept into my conscious. I had taken a chance, running off to a place I’d never seen, to live with people I didn’t know, and encounter things I hadn’t prepared for. Like rampaging humpbacks, invisible cougars, and those goofy boat engines and I was anxious to do it again.

One of my final night shifts saw the orcas take an unexpected turn into Blackney Pass and continue north into Blackfish sound, moving right past the lab. Helena and I were both up, and we put the headphones down for a moment and stepped onto the porch. The ocean was flat calm, there were no boats or waves, no light save for the half moon above us. From miles away we could hear them in the perfect silence. Their blows gliding across the ocean, echoing off the rocks.

We said nothing, words would have ruined it as we listened to them come closer and closer, Helena taps my arm, and in the moonlight I could see her pointing to a spot on the water, right where the moonlight was widest. A shadow moved across the beam of light, than another, and than three more as the pod all surfaced, their silhouettes illuminated for the briefest moment. And than the phantoms were gone, slipping back into the inky ocean. There’s the rustle of water as the waves close over the whales’ backs, and all is silent again. As if they were never there. I turn to Helena, a pair of tears running down my cheeks, my heart in my throat. I wanted to thank her and Paul for opening up their home, for letting me taste this life, for letting me be a part of something so much bigger than me but all I could do was smile.

I rub the fog off the inside of the window and make out the outline of the ferry pulling into the Alert Bay dock, the first step on my way back to the real world. I set the empty beer mug on the table, grabbed my duffel back, crusted with mud and dirt now, and trudge into the rain. On the ferry I snap a picture of the Alert Bay sign through rain streaked windows, and feel the boat slowly, painfully pull away. I slip on my headphones and settle back for the 45-minute ride, silently vowing to myself that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be here.

Orcas’ Love the Beatles Too: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 2

Car after car drove slowly by, rolling to a stop at the ticket window, the line slowly growing until at least ten cars were waiting to catch the evening ferry from Port McNeil to Alert Bay. I was consciously aware that any car could have Paul Spong behind the wheel, and my lack of preparation was embarrassing. Briefly I considered just walking up to the counter and asking if they knew the good doctor. But some piece of pride, the same piece that insisted on camping on the ground with hungry cougars prowling about kept my butt firmly on my bag.

I stared into each car, in what I’m sure was a very creepy manner, trying to make out a silhouette, as if he’d be holding a sign to the window announcing: “Dr. Paul Spong! Orca Guy! All lost kids from Alaska please follow me!” I gave up trying to see inside the cars and instead started to wonder, “what sort of car would Paul Spong drive?”

Born in New Zealand, he’d earned a P.H.D in the neurological field at UCLA, and moved to Canada in the 70’s to take a position at the University of British Columbia. Part of the contract involved doing work with Skana, one of the first orcas to be successfully captured and was being kept at the Vancouver Aquarium. Paul devised a simple experiment intended to measure the visual acuity of the giant mammal. But his life changed forever when, after thousands of trials, Skana began to give the wrong answers. Not randomly, but one hundred percent incorrect.

For the first time, Paul found himself the subject or the experiment and he was enthralled. His workload piling up at the lab, he couldn’t pull himself away from the whale. He quickly learned that auditory stimulation was a much greater reward for Skana than food. What came in the following months was a melody of tunes as Paul played everything from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Bach. Skana loved them all. Paul was forced to accept that Skana was much more intelligent than any other terrestrial mammal he’d come in contact with. She was almost certainly, going crazy in her little pool, her calls reverberating and echoing off the concrete walls, with just a few humans for company. Capable of speeds up to 30 knots, Skana was resigned to swimming in slow circles day after day. It was apparent to Paul what needed to be done: Skana needed to go home.

But when he did present his findings, a storm of controversy followed at the aquarium. They didn’t want Skana to be a sentient intelligent being. They wanted the equivalent of an aquatic dog that would do tricks and keep people coming through the turnstiles. Paul was quickly becoming public enemy number one and was finally given an ultimatum: “you can check into a psychiatric ward willingly or not.”Undaunted by his controversial findings (orcas were at the time considered little more than mindless killing machines), Paul walked out the door. Within months, he found what he was looking for. Wild and free orcas to follow and study, in their natural habitat.

Now, 30 years later, he was driving onto the Port McNeil ferry for what to be the thousandth time while I was desperately trying to decipher, what kind of car a pioneer in the world of orca research would drive. Finally an old slightly rusted Subaru looking car pulled onto the pier, every seat save the drivers’ was stuffed with boxes so high, I couldn’t see inside at all. There was something about it though, the character, the age, or just the fact that I couldn’t imagine Paul driving a huge lifted pickup with a bunch of logs in the back that convinced me.

The car stopped thirty feet in front of me. I walked over just as Paul got out to hand his ticket to the teller, “You’re Paul Spong aren’t you?” I asked. He turned and looked up at me.

“He’s shorter than I thought.” Was the first thought that crossed my mind.

“I’m sorry, do I know you,” he asked. For the briefest moment my stomach fell. There’d been a miscommunication, I wasn’t supposed to come, I had the wrong guy, I’d braved Cinnabon, the bus station, and cougars for nothing. But a look of recognition crossed his face, “Oh that’s right, you’re David, yes?” I smiled, and felt the jittery weak kneed feeling you get when you shake the hand of your hero.

“Yea Paul, I’m David, it’s great to meet you. I can’t believe I’m here.”

Boats, Busses, and Cougars: My First Journey to Hanson Island. Part: 1

In the last nine months I’ve learned how to carry three plates of food at once, how to make a passable latte, and how to describe where the hell Hanson Island is in the amount of time it takes to make change for a tall caramel mocha with whip. But since there are no lines or lunch rush on the internet, I’ll happily go into more detail now about the island, the lab you can find there, and the man that started it all. There aren’t that many ways to reach the island, it’s not like Alaska Airlines and Northwest offer nonstop service or anything. So I’ll share the way 18-year old David got there in the summer of 2008:

A flight from Anchorage to Seattle, a celebratory cinnabon and a thirty minute flight got me to Vancouver with thirty pounds of sugar in my stomach and a maze of public transportation between me and my hostel. Three buses and two trains later, lugging a fifty pound Army duffel bag (I had yet to discover the miracle that is expedition backpacks) and I was in the heart of Vancouver. I couldn’t find that hostel again if I tried. My reward was a room the size of a closet, that had last been cleaned sometime during the Reagan Administration, and a broken air conditioner that seemed to welcome in the late June humidity with open arms; I’d never felt better.

The next morning, I boarded a greyhound bus leaving from the most stereotypical bus station of all time. Complete with filthy bathrooms, empty liquor bottles and an abandoned bag of weed under one trash can. The greyhound took me to the ferry and across the channel to Vancouver Island and another seven hours north to the tiny logging town of Port McNeil. The road along the eastern side of Vancouver Island is punctuated by coastal towns; Parksville, Courtenay, Fanny Bay (giggles), Cumberland, and Campbell River. Right after Campbell River though, highway 19 veers sharply inland through the rigid, majestic mountain range that composes Vancouver Island’s backbone. For two hours there are no towns or ocean views, just a never ending tunnel of trees, with whitecapped mountains peaking through the green framed windows. Port McNeil, is the second to last stop on the line, with only Port Hardy further to the north. It’s also the nearest the bus could get me to Hanson Island. With bus to submarine conversion technology still being decades away.

I planned to spend the night in Port McNeil and it was just another mile walk, dragging my duffel behind me to the campground and the campground host who, upon learning that I planned to sleep in a tent, felt it wise to inform me that there were three black bears…. and a cougar prowling about the campsites on a nightly basis.

Cougar? What the hell is a cougar? Black bears, fine. Alaska was filled with the mischievous spry critters. In the trees, in the undergrowth, occasionally in a garbage can. But cougars were a whole different animal, no pun intended. I was one year into a degree in wildlife biology and I had no clue what to do with a large cat. I could explain how it’s muscles received oxygen and how it’s cells had divided as it grew in it’s mother womb, but nothing that would help me if it came knocking on my tent flap at three in the morning.

But I was eighteen, naïve, and feeling invincible. I threw down my credit card and asked for one cougar free campsite. Walking to my site I passed two teenage girls, excitedly reliving their thrilling encounter last night with….. the cougar. I’m sure they were exaggerating its snarling and charging behavior though. My night was cougar free and I fell asleep with steak, potatoes, and rice in my belly thanks to the sympathetic retired couple across the camp who took pity on me after my bowl of cooking ramen fell into the fire. Putting my tent away the next day I happened to look up and found a black bear looking back as he stood near the dumpster fifty feet away. After all the jungle cat talk though a bear felt almost tame, I shrugged and went back to packing my tent.

All I had to do now was catch a ferry to Alert Bay, the miniscule village on the comma shaped island of Cormorant Island, just a couple miles to the east. But that was as far as B.C’s public transportation would take me. Because my final destination was not a city or a town, there is no dock, road, or parking lot. Just a tiny little unnamed cove with a trio of small buildings constructed in homage to the 1970’s back to the earth design.

This is the place known as Orca Lab. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds home and research station. Strategically placed at the mouth of Johnstone Strait, the lab overlooks Blackfish Sound, the highway in which 200+ orcas swim down every year, chasing salmon. I had arranged to meet Paul at the ferry terminal and sat on my duffel bag bouncing in anticipation watching cars drive onto the ferry bound for Alert Bay and realized that I had one small problem. I had no idea what Paul Spong looked like.