An article from Jennie Drent, Earthwatch volunteer, Whales of British Columbia
Never having the grades in science or math to become a marine biologist, the Earthwatch Organization gave me a chance to gleam some experience I thought I might never have. I'd been thinking about joining an expedition for a few years now, ever since I got the National Geographic book on adventure travel; however, I didn't have the time, money or guts to go through with it.
This year, happily, all three happened to line up celestially and I signed up for the expedition called the Whales of British Columbia. It focused on the volunteers helping out the scientists researching the feeding habits and migration of grey whales on their annual southward migration. I love whales, water and the outdoors. The trip was perfect.
The volunteers, seven of us, enjoyed a rather short week at Camp Xusela, which is on an island northeast of Port Hardy, BC. Roughing it in terms of no plumbing, no electricity and no refrigeration are all part ‘n' parcel of a marine biologist's life. However, what Xusela makes up for in not having a flushable toilet are the views and nature literally on its shore-step. Every morning at breakfast, we looked out over gorgeous vistas, and had the honour of seeing wildlife such as a family of harbour porpoises feeding, a seal poking its head up from the depths, and a hummingbird we often mistook for a large horsefly.
The keepers of the camp and torches of knowledge guided us through their day-to-day activities. They are William, head honcho whose focus was on the grey whale itself; Jackie, who studies mysids, tiny shrimp-like creatures grey whales find hard to resist; Jen, whose ears are concentrating on the acoustics within water, and how it differs when sound travels through different mediums; then we have two young mechanical engineers, Ben and Rob, who are concentrating on building the best mini-sub the world's waters will ever hold.
From the start, we all clicked. We, the volunteers, felt we would get in the way or screw up their research irreparably, but our mentors were patient and friendly. For Jen, we helped map kelp beds not far from camp using a GPS and two-seater sea kayaks. It was great fun despite the kayak my friend and I always got had wonky rudder pedals.
We helped Jackie do kelp drifts from the research vessel Startdust. Jackie needed three people to help her on these drifts. While she took care of the fish cam to record mysid density, one person had a GPS for taking waypoints, the second had a stopwatch for making sure we get the required three minutes, and the third stood with the helmsman to record the start and stop time along with the Latitude and Longitude positions. I was the third person - twice, and I must note there was a secondary job for the third person; it was trying to remain standing as the drifting Stardust rock ‘n' rolled with the waves. The trick is to bend the knees. Not only do you remain on your feet, but also it's a heck of a work out for your legs.
For William, we helped him spot whales as we took a trip to Dawson's Landing, in total a 22-hour sailing round trip. Dawson's Landing is a floating community located in River's Inlet. We volunteers dressed as if we were about to hit a severe winter storm and not taking a sail in the middle of July. Whale spotting and the supply of hot drinks by Jackie, Rob and Ben helped keep our minds off the fact we were wearing four heavy layers under our lifejackets. We spotted quite a few greys; at least it was a lot to our perspective. From the scientists' points of view, the number was miniscule. Numbers of grey whales have dropped in numbers since 2005. That year, William tells us, there was no ocean upwelling, which usually brings nutrient rich water from the dark depths of the ocean; so far, no explanation has been found. We also saw a couple of humpbacks, one of which gave us a show by breaching a couple of times. It is truly spectacular to see an animal weighing a colossal number fling itself out of the water like that. At first you see a dark shape emerge before it twists to show its white belly, then twists a bit more before kissing the water's surface, displacing a fair amount of water in a tidal wave. Then the whale lazily said ‘toodles' by waving its flipper at us.
Returning to camp the next day, we had three pacific white-sided dolphins hitch a ride on our bow wave. I don't know what it is about dolphins that make a person giddy and excited, but it happens. It's not that whales don't have an affect; whales are large, slowish and suspicious, which makes me, at least, feel humbled and reverently hushed in their presence. They demand regal respect.
On land, we helped crop photos of grey whales' dorsal (back) areas for their identification index. In a mass effort, we helped nail up a tarp to cover the work area for Ben and Rob as they worked on their mini-sub. We helped in cleaning up after each meal, and actually made a couple. Despite the limited resources, the meals our hosts and hostesses prepared were delicious - all meatless due to no refrigeration: meatless chilli, meatless stirfry, curry, pesto and pasta.
Our evenings were spent around the campfire, which one of our fellow volunteers got roaring quickly with her pyro-expertise. We talked about the cetacean community, its scientists, and funny stories about past expeditions. But no campfire is complete without William singing American Pie and strumming on his guitar, charbroiling marshmallows while setting chocolate and graham crackers alight for smores, accidentally tripping over a person's foot, knocking over the coffee table, spilling two glasses of wine and nearly missing the campfire (again, I apologise), plus watching the firelight twinkle off the revived disco ball (a volleyball covered in tin foil).
At the end of the week, I had learned a few things: I'm allergic to horseflies or blackflies; identifying grey whales is mainly done by the left and right dorsal view; we weren't as hopeless to the scientists as we first thought; don't drink tea on the prow while sailing head-on into a stretch of water where two currents meet unless you want to drink your tea off the deck; a tube of kelp can be played like a trumpet; and, lastly, pack as lightly as humanly possible, because lugging 50lbs of duffle bag, plus backpack, up fifty steep steps isn't fun at 11pm.
We will all have great memories of this trip. The new friends, the stories, the two-hour hike over tree trunks, bogs and mosquitoes to see a bit more of the island, the curing of sea sickness only to succumb to it again on land, and the mighty whales. Not many people get a glimpse into that life, and I'm lucky to have shared it with a wonderful group of people.
Find out more about William Megill and his Earthwatch expedition by visiting the project web page.