Tag Archives: Port McNeil

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.”

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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.