A tale of the whales’ tails of British Columbia
At the junction, the flukes sideways recede from each other like wings.... In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in the crescentic borders of these flukes …
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 86)
Like Ishmael of the novel, I thought I would ‘sail a little and see the watery part of the world’ but, rather than hunt whales as in the book, I fortunately was able to join the Earthwatch project ‘Whales of British Columbia’ in order to fulfill my ambition to see a whale’s tail. Having already been an Earthwatch volunteer (see field diary for Elephants of Tsavo), I was convinced that this would be the best way to see gray whales, rather than a city break plus a commercial whale watching trip. I had heard stories of whale watching boats that are ‘like skyscrapers lying on their sides’ and of people who didn’t see whales because they were not in the right place at the right time. Earthwatch thus seemed the way to do it, and I was not disappointed. The experience (totally) lived up to my (very high) expectations.
The day of the flight to Vancouver, I woke up and thought, ‘Well, the whales won’t come to me,’ so off I go! Should I get off at St Pancras to get to Heathrow? Or stay on one more stop and go to work? A bit of a no brainer, really!
23 August 2009
I had planned to get to Vancouver airport early enough to get a window seat for the flight to the Earthwatch rendezvous site at Tofino on Vancouver Island. I need not have worried as all seven passenger seats in the plane (4 down one side and 3 down the other) were window seats! The real adventure started with spectacular views from a tiny aircraft, followed, after landing at Tofino, by glimpses of road signs announcing the direction of the ‘Tsunami escape route’. There were eight volunteers (some sponsored, others self funding) covering a wide range of interests and backgrounds, from the USA, Australia, and Germany, together with myself from England. We met key researchers Dr William Megill (University of Bath, UK), Dr Dave Duffus (University of Victoria, Canada) and others on the dock at Tofino and, after helping collect supplies, were whisked off on the research boat ‘Stardust’ to Ahousat where we were based for the week. A commercial whale watching outfit full of tourists floated by and, when a volunteer exclaimed ‘amateurs!,’ I knew I was going to enjoy it! We were provided with health and safety training on the boat – always make sure three parts of you are touching the boat, and, if you fall in, yell as much as you can on the way down because the cold will take your breath away once you hit the water. Happily this advice had never been needed. That evening we had introductions and a first briefing on the project from researchers, who were immensely welcoming and appreciative of the ‘extra pairs of eyes and hands’ that the volunteers provide.
24 August 2009
I slept amazingly well in the small dormitory shared by the 5 female volunteers. The peace and serenity travelling down the channel to the sea was almost tangible, compared with the hectic atmosphere left behind in London. Excitement mounted as the William Megill advised the two of us on the top of the boat to look out for whale spouts. How exciting to be in ‘whale country’ at last! We inspected every rock and crashing wave, not really knowing what we were looking for, but when you see a real spout, you know at once! (and I spotted the first one – competitive, moi?). No time to think of saying ‘There she blows’ but just an excited ‘Yes, yes! Over there, look!’. The whale dove, so we headed on to a quiet bay to drop the underwater camera (shaped like a fish and unsurprisingly nicknamed ‘Wanda’). Just as we were being told what to do, a humpback whale surfaced right next to the boat, and dived deeply showing its flukes and eliciting a loud gasp from all those who had not previously seen this truly amazing site. No time to whip out the camera, but that first image will stay in my mind for ever.
Although I wasn’t the one doing the writing, the process of reading out and logging the GPS and other information on the feeding grounds using data obtained by ‘Wanda’ made me (and others) feel a bit ‘queasy’. I had feared I would get seasick, but the sight of two large gray whales nearby, feeding, diving and showing their amazing flukes was wonderfully distracting. Excitement overcame the researchers; through the camera, they were able to confirm that the whales appeared to be feeding on a particular type of small mysids, or shrimp. However, I must admit that because of the seasickness, I really wondered how I was going to manage and, if truth be told, how in spite of the thrill of seeing whales so closely, I could possibly recommend this to any one. We got back to a lovely homely warming meal (but many of us still had the sensation of ‘dock rock,’ swaying as we walked with the sensation we were still on the boat!)
25 August 2009
The next day, I was advised to go on the smaller, faster boat ‘Drifter’ and, as predicted, I was fine, in spite of the 12-foot swell caused by storms out at sea. Looking upwards to the tops of waves is a bit unnerving but, at suitable intervals, we stopped to drop (and pull up) heavy equipment used to test salinity, temperature and depth of the water where the whales were feeding. We rescued a volunteer from the other boat (nicknamed the ‘sea sick machine’). We got back early enough to have some free time and go for a long walk in to the forests which form the hinterland of Ahousat, a village just about 100 yards from end to end and accessible only by sea. Evidence of bears caused excitement, although we didn’t actually see any, ending up at a remote and beautiful lake/reservoir surrounded by rolling hills and mountains covered in pine forests. Lectures were provided every evening (after supper was cleared) on specialist topics, particularly the reasons for declining gray whale population in the area.
26 August 2009
Fully expecting to suffer again from seasickness, I bravely determined to go out on ‘Stardust’ again. Miraculously, I had found my proverbial sea legs and was absolutely fine for the rest of the week, writing the notes and munching away at the same time! This time the whales were even closer, and two fed and played near the boat at one point coming straight at us! Two researchers dove into the kelp beds (rather them than me!) to verify the findings of the instruments. The vastness of the beautiful landscapes, with nearby whales and distant whale spouts, was quite overwhelming, and we basked in the sight, sound (and smell!) of whales.
27 August 2009
Although seas were still rough due to storms further out, the weather continued to be fabulous – clear and sunny, but cold out on the water. Teams divided, as some went searching for otters in kayaks, or chose whether to go on either the smaller faster boat or on ‘Stardust’. Others spent time identifying the whales – by name – by matching photographs with existing catalogues. We were warned of the dangers, in case a large wave picked up the boat and brought it down on the rocks, but the William Megill was fantastic in the way he explained everything and held the show together, the 8 volunteers and about 10 young researchers. We saw whales again (as indeed we did every day) and work continued on measuring the conditions, particularly relating to feeding patterns and habits. In the late afternoon, volunteers helped with the testing of a robot (to be used to take measurements in deep water) that was being tried out off the quay at Ahousat, as well as rushing for ice cream to the amazing local store (a real ‘Aladdin’s cave of stores and equipment, complete with a trophy of a cougar shot years ago by the store’s owner).
28 August 2009
On the last day, we woke to cloudy skies, but going farther out into the channel and open sea fitted the mood, as whales still appeared through the mist. A few commercial whale watching boats appeared, and how glad we were, by contrast, to enjoy the serenity, peace, and research experience that accompanied our Earthwatch expedition. We had amazing discussions and conversations as we traveled on the boat and back at the house in the evenings. We were all carefully asked whether the experience had lived up to our expectations, and we agreed it had exceeded them! Not only had we been involved in a valuable project, but it had caused us to reflect on ‘the bigger picture’, to ‘gather ourselves’, consider our place in the universe, and think about where values and priorities should lie in terms of what is important and what is not. As we left the cove for the last time, the mist had really come down, and it began to rain. It seemed almost as if the whales were saying, ‘This is our place, time for you to go.’
29 August 2009
Sad to leave Ahousat, we embarked for Tofino, seeing harbour porpoises, sea otters, and puffins still on the last day. Approaching Tofino itself, we were surprised to see cars, not having seen any for a whole week! As one volunteer expressed i ‘It’s like being transplanted into other peoples’ lives for a week’.
As the commuter train sways and rocks its way into London, I hold on (at three points - two feet and a hand) and pretend I am on ‘Stardust’, close my eyes and see…whales. It was a privilege to have been involved.
‘Whales of British Columbia’ is not for the fainthearted. Hazards can include fears of a small plane, the ‘seasick machine’, gi-normous mosquitoes, danger of falling off the back of the boat, and possibility of bears (the locals tried to avoid attracting bears, but the volunteers would have liked to!). Did it live up to my expectations? Yes, I expected to be seasick and I was! But don’t let that put you off, because with the right tablets, you will find your ‘sea legs’ on the second day. If I did it, anyone can!. We also did get very wet but, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, it’s just wrong clothing.
Make sure you have everything to cope with conditions, from hot days and the need for high sun factor, to waterproofs and the sort of clothing, headgear, and gloves needed for a winter sporting trip. If you mind sharing a bathroom with 15 others (a second became available after a day or so) and want Michelin-starred food, then think carefully before you sign up. If, on the other hand, you want to experience the utter passion and dedication of young researchers, led by the unique William Megill, then go…as soon as you can. If you can’t go, then you can still support the project, for help is needed in many ways. The wish lists of the researchers included: a new boat so they can go further afield, computers, a microscope (it was held together with black tape), and a new tail for Wanda because it fell off.
Valerie Shrimplin, 13 September 2009