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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.

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A Terrifying Fascination

Game 7 of the world series has ended and I lay on the couch listening to the wind outside, contemplating going to bed. Another strong gust hits and the windows begin to tremble, the town run we have planned for tomorrow isn’t looking very promising. I stretch and yawn, glancing across the room at our rabbit, Penny. She’s already curled up on her bed, 12 hours of sleep clearly wasn’t enough for her. I’m ready to do the same when the speaker on the shelf above the sink changes everything.

Usually when orcas start calling it’s distant, subtle, a mere whisper as they enter the range of the hydrophone. That first call makes you pause, stop, and listen, unsure whether you really heard something or just imagined it. This time of year there’s always the debate of whether it’s a humpback or an orca calling, especially at night when the humpbacks do the majority of their singing. Tonight there was no debate, no passive listening, no questioning whether I had actually heard something or not. Calls erupt through the speaker, loud and excited, overlapping one another. It’s definitely not a humpback, and I’ve never had a residents call make my blood run cold. It’s transients, the phantoms, masters of stealth, who never utter a sound and yet concoct elaborate and ingenious methods of tracking and hunting down their prey; seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoise. But for once they’re aren’t quiet, whatever they’ve just eaten must have been delicious and they’re calling just as loud as their resident counterparts do.

By the time I reach the lab and punch the record button the calls have reached a fevered pitch, maybe it’s knowing what these creatures are capable of, what I’d seen them do in the past that made them sound so eerie. But to me, their happy calls will always remind me of the laughter of some villain in a movie. Sadistic, high pitched, the type of joy you can take no pleasure in, that nothing good could come out of them being so happy. I’m sure the sea lions and harbor seals would agree with me. But their calls, were not altogether unfamiliar to me. I’d heard this before.

I was supposed to be studying the humpbacks of Glacier Bay, but my orca obsessed reputation had long ago preceded me. So when the orca whale biologist, Dena Matkin recorded and documented the first known sea otter fatality by a transient in southeast Alaska, she graciously shared the recording with me. As she hit play and the calls begin to reverberate off the walls of the office, everyone froze, maybe its because we knew what the whales had just done, maybe it was something else, but it gave us all goosebumps. Now, four years later they elicited the same response from me. Fear, horror, and fascination, everything, after all, must eat I reminded myself the same way I had gently told my passengers that day on the whale watching boat.

The sky is blue, the ocean of Icy Strait incredibly flat. Two hours out from Juneau, our 33-foot whale watching boat, the Islander, cuts a slow and methodical path east towards home. Off our port are six orcas, calm and relaxed they too, make their way east. I stand at the bow relieved, ten excited passengers on the boat with me. But right now I’ve transformed from tour guide to burgeoning nature photographer. A splash right below the bow pulls my attention away from the pod. A group of Dall’s porpoise materialize right below the surface, riding our wake. The resident or transient debate ended. Surely, if they were transients over there, the porpoise would not be so willing to ride the waves. I glance back at the orcas, staring intently at the dorsal, trying to decide if they were pointed enough to possibly be transients. I look to check on the porpoises, they’re gone, and a scream comes from behind me.

The orcas had closed the distance to the boat in two heartbeats and rocketed out of the water on the other side of us. The porpoise were already gone, streaking away from the hard charging orcas. With no hesitation, our boat captain throws the boat in gear, trying to keep pace with this daily dance of the food chain playing out right in front of us. The boat barely bounces on the calm seas and I hold the camera to my eye, trying to follow the action. The Islander’s going 32 knots, and both species are outrunning us. The whales bear down on the fleeing porpoise, spreading out, trying to flank them and cut off their escape.

On the boat there’s chaos, the engine roaring, passengers screaming, the voice of my friend and boat captain, T, screaming at me, “get the shot, David! You better get that shot!” Without warning, the two orcas in the middle of the chase leap high into the air, their white bellies reflecting in the high summer sun. They jump again and again, trying to pin the porpoise beneath their massive bodies. The strength, power, and speed with which they reacted was amazing, awe inspiring. As quickly as it began, it’s over, the orcas suddenly milling, flashing back and forth over the same spot, the surviving porpoise still swimming as fast as they can. We come to a stop and bob at the surface again. Adrenaline pounds through my body and my fingers shake as I scroll through the photos, a few of them showing one of the whales frozen in time forever above the surface of the ocean.

“The sheer power of the scene amazed me….. I had until now, never realized the true power of the killer whale. I sat there feeling amazed and blessed that the orcas never loosed this power on humans.” – Alexandra Morton521617_10152100638914852_1036290620_n