Tag Archives: porpoise

Praying for Fish

The wind blows at a brisk pace, the surface of the cove turning white as the waves break. Rain pelts with the stinging intensity of Fall. But the date on my watch continues to insist that it’s mid-June. When you look at the climate map of North America the entire continent is swathed with more reds, yellows, an oranges than a sunset painting. Except for us. Except for the little sliver of blue that runs along the Pacific Northwest, bathing us in an unseasonable cold Spring. It’s so hot in Las Vegas they can’t even fly. Here it’s so cold I need a hot shower after every trip. We haven’t had a summer like this since 2012 when it felt like it rained every day and the clouds gripped the ocean.

And I’m on edge. Not necessarily because the ocean keeps moving beneath my kayak or my base layers keep getting soaked, but because I’m paddling alone. Maybe not in the way most would imagine, but the bay feels empty. I can count the number of Humpbacks I’ve seen on one and. Sea Otters that once choked the kelp at Lester Point are nowhere to be seen, I even miss the sea lions and their obnoxious habit of surfacing uncomfortably close to my rudder.

As we teeter on the edge of… I’m note even sure what to call it—climate catastrophe maybe?—anything unusual sets off alarm bells in my head. The rest of the world’s going to hell, why not here as well? And what’s difficult is I don’t even know if their ringing is justified. Just as climate deniers can smugly point to the enduring glaciers in the West Arm, I suppose I could hold up the missing Humpbacks and Sea Otters as poster children. But after three years of paddling here, I’m not arrogant enough to pretend I’m connected with the finely spun web of Glacier Bay ecology. Hell, otter and Humpback numbers could be dropping no matter how many Hummers clogged the freeway, both species’ numbers have been rising for decades. Like us they may have shot past their carrying capacity (ambiguously referred to as “K” in the scientific community) and are now realigning. The Humpbacks could be elsewhere, the otters too. The late Spring could have thrown everything off. The point is, I don’t know. And like most people when confronted with the unknown, I tend to fear the worst.

Over the last week the water has finally gone still. I can hear the Thrushes in the trees and the gulls riding the tide in Sitakaday. On calm days the sound of a boat engine is common. But for the moment it’s just the four of us. And today we’re not alone. Harbor Porpoise are everywhere. They announce themselves with a rapid fire “pssh whoo,” a full exhalation and inhalation in under a second. They roll at the surface just like Orcas, their charcoal gray backs sparkling in the weak sunlight. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve seen since we struck out this morning. It has to be at least fifteen in little clusters of three to five. Calves roll in perfect synchrony with their mothers, pods split and break the surface with shocking speed as they chase the precious bait fish that the entire food pyramid is balanced precariously on.

Herring, Sand Lance, and Capelin, the holy grails of the marine ecosystem, their oily bodies the difference between life and death for countless species. From King Salmon to Humpbacks and most everything in between relies on their noble sacrifice. They are one of those unfortunate species placed on earth for the sole purpose of reproduction and food supply. They ask for little, but one thing they demand is cold water. It’s a request that’s becoming harder and harder to provide as first “the blob” and then a harsh El Nino winter have brought unseasonably warm water the Pacific Northwest. If anyone is benefitting from this chilly Spring I hope it’s them.

Which is why this pack of porpoise is so significant. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Have the oily sacrificial lambs returned with a parade of marine life in tow? I imagine the cove as it was two summers ago, so packed with whales, porpoise, and pinnipeds that I could scarcely paddle across the mouth without something bumping my kayak. If heaven truly does appear differently to each of us, then I expect that will be mine. A perfectly balanced ecosystem, thriving at maximum efficiency. Show me how many Humpbacks Glacier Bay can support. How many Orcas can pack Johnstone Strait. Give me salmon runs so thick their odor travels on the ocean breeze.

A trio of porpoise surface just to the right of the kayak. Beneath the waves their dark bodies seem to tremble. They move as if pulled by a higher calling and for a few precious seconds I have the pleasure of watching them shoot back and forth just beneath the surface, so close I could place my paddle over them. In the blink of an eye they vanish and resurface a hundred yards away. The moment so fleeting but no less magical because of it. I watch them vanish, their short spunky breaths still audible on the still water. A scientist in Norway recently determined that Harbor Porpoise spend almost every waking moment foraging. As I watch them criss cross back and forth I pray they find everything they’re looking for.

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50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

The sun crawls above the mountains on Vancouver Island, the rays piercing the flimsy curtains and flooding our bedroom with sunlight. Every day the sun inches a little higher above those mountains, every day it’s a little earlier. I reluctantly stir, not ready to leave the warm embrace of the down comforter. Brittney stretches and swings her feet over the edge. With an effort I open one bleary eye.

Town day.

At least that was the theory. Johnstone Strait had been pulverized by 40 knots winds for the last week, leaving the shelves of our fridge bare. No more crackers, no more lettuce, no more beer. We’ve got to make it today. The cedar boughs looking in our second story window flutter gently in a light breeze. Today offered a 12-hour window, a respite from the parade of low pressure systems that define the winter climate.

We crawl out of bed, scarf oatmeal, chug coffee, and ready the boat. We cram the tiny space behind our little wooden seats with empty jerry cans and garbage bags filled with laundry and trash (it’s important to remember which is which). The water’s of Blackney aren’t as pristine as we’d like, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The engine comes to life on the first turn and we putter out of the back of the cove. Our departure sends the resident Harlequin Ducks scurrying for cover among the rocks and Brittney bleats out an apology on our behalf as we leave them squabbling in our wake.

But town isn’t the first stop. We turn southeast, angled for Cracroft Point, the shelter, and the solar batteries which are once again drained of power. We skip past the sea lion haulout and round the corner of Hanson Island, the expanse of Blackney Pass opening up before us and dotted with whitecaps. We hit the first bounce as we pass the two islands that sit just off of Hanson Island, affectionately known as Little Hanson.

We’re maybe a hundred yards off of north Little Hanson when the engine revs, sputters, and dies. I swivel around, expecting to see a meddlesome strand of kelp trailing from the propeller, but it looks clean. In just a few seconds, the combination of an ebbing tide and southeast wind has turned us sideways to the waves, the tiny boat rocking violently as it falls into the wave’s trough. I turn the ignition, and the engine roars back to life. But as I slip it into gear it cuts out.

Oh god.

Brittney’s face is the picture of calm, and I try to look equally at ease, “that’s odd,” I quip.

I bring the outboard engine up and lean as far out over the stern as I dare, looking for anything that could be fouling up the propeller. The black blades gleam spotless in the morning sun. Everything looks normal. I take a step back and trip over an empty jerry can, my shifting momentum causing the boat to rock all the more.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on a boat when the engine died. My last summer as a deckhand in Juneau our boat died, only to get picked up by an afternoon storm and deposited on the rocks. The same nervous feeling begins to crawl into my gut and I glance at little Hanson’s shoreline as the waves push us towards it. Better that way than out into Johnstone Strait.

There’s little room to maneuver, but I drop to my knees and pull out the boat’s gas tank from it’s slip beneath the engine as far as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body, an ambitious wave breaks over the stern and I feel the icy chill run down my legs. I give the fuel line a cursory look, everything looks connected. I grab the fuel pump like a dying man grabs his rosary, and give it a series of frantic squeezes. Please please please.

I climb over our mountain of laundry and turn the key. Cough, sputter, die. Shit. This whole time Brittney has sat quietly in her seat, watching.

“Is there anything I can do?” She asks.

“I don’t know if there’s anything either of us can do.”

I reach into my pocket and find the phone. Cell service is always a coin toss out here. But a trio of bars appear like beacons of hope. I dial Paul.

“We’re ok,” I begin with more confidence than I feel, and I lay out the situation. We agree that we should get to shore, try to find a sheltered spot, and he’d call the mechanic, the coast guard, or however else may be able to get us out of this. We’re going to shore no matter what. The ocean’s decided that for us. On the other side of the two little islands is a wind shadow, the water shines turquoise and placid. If we can make it there, it would be infinitely easier to figure out what’s gone wrong.

I grab the paddle, thanking any deity listening that it was onboard, and climb onto the nose of the boat. We inch down the shoreline for the small channel between the islands and a respite. We round the point and my heart drops. Draped across the channel is a massive log. It spans the entire distance between the two islands, just low enough to keep us from passing. We try to turn the boat and paddle out but it’s hopeless. The wind and the waves have complete control, and I brace myself as we collide with the log.

I call Brittney onto the bow, expressions of hopelessness spreading across our faces. We can’t stay here. The tide is ebbing and in a few minutes the boat will be left high and dry, trapping us for 12 hours. I do the only thing I can think of. I leap onto the log, bow line in my teeth, and together we slowly pivot the boat around so that the bow is facing the oncoming swells. With Brittney on the bow, I scurry along the rocks, pulling the boat along while she uses the paddle to push us off the emerging rocks. A tiny indention in the rocks offers just enough protection and we hug the windward side of the rock, the boat bouncing off the shore.

The phone rings. Paul again. His theory is that it’s the fuel line or water filter. But it takes both of us just to keep the boat from slamming against the shore. There’s nowhere safer to go. The ocean has us pinned in the tiny channel that will be devoid of ocean within the hour. I toss Brittney the stern line and the paddle and leap back aboard. I throw everything I can onto the seats, trying to give me enough room to operate. For a moment I stare at the engine, 50 horsepower of deceit and betrayal. I pull the gas tank free once more, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, the grinding of the hull against the rocks.

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

I touch the fuel lines tenderly, gently pulling. And one swivels and pops loose. Hope floods my body. This is it. This has to be it. I reset the O-ring, pull the cap over the tube, and tighten. Brittney’s almost bent double the paddle braced against the boat, battling valiantly. I hesitate. Do I tell her to jump aboard, send us adrift, and pray the engine starts?

“Hold on!” I yell. I throw the gas cans and laundry into a heap, press the trigger, and lower the engine so that it’s just immersed in the water. Knowing the precious propeller is inches from the rocks, that every second brings it closer to the bottom, I pull the choke, say a prayer, and turn the key. The engine comes to life.

“Get on!” I yell. Brittney tosses the paddle aboard and follows after it, pushing the boat off the rocks as we back slowly out of the channel. Blackney Pass has turned into a swirling cauldron while we were adrift and we move slowly out into deeper water, the nose pointed for Cracroft Point. As I reach for the phone the water around us explodes, a flash of black and white. For a wild moment I think of orcas, but they’re too small. The Dall’s porpoise follow us like guardians across the channel, surfacing a foot away.

Did they sense our apprehension? Our fear? Were they celebrating with us? I let out a deep breath and grab the wheel like a lifeline as our little task force battles against the tide and the waves for the Cracroft shore.

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