This is originally a blog post i wrote for the Save Our Seas Foundation so it might be a little bit longer…
Since arriving on Gil Island on the 4th of May I had been eagerly waiting to stay at Ulric Point, the out camp for Cetacealab on Aristazabal Island. Although the Orca had not been seen or heard as regularly as the year before Hermann and Janie were also eager to get the out camp running as soon as possible. Unfortunately the weather during May was to put it frankly miserable and trying to cross over 16 nautical miles in a small converted fishing boat during bad weather was unsafe to say the least. So Ulric was postponed, this was very unfortunate as not only would no one be on site to get possible identification on Orca but also the Ulric Point hydrophone was malfunctioning so we didn’t have any acoustics from the Caamano Sound area. Finally on the 1st of June we got the final go ahead that Sole and myself would be moving to Ulric Point the next day. This triggered some intense preparation for moving to the out camp, as the camp had not been running it would mean we would have to take everything we needed to get it operational. The rest of the day was spent packing food, basic cooking utensils and camp stove. The basic equipment required to run the camp was a VHF radio to stay in contact with Cetacealab and receive any whale reports, solar panel and batteries for power, a scanner to listen to the hydrophone, a chart of the area, binoculars/telescope and a SLR camera for ID pictures. This was the basic equipment we needed but the list of items to take didn’t stop there however as an out house needed to be built on Ulric so lumber, nails, tools were all added to the ever increasing pile on the kitchen floor. Also as there is no freshwater supply on Aristizabal Island we would be totally dependent on Hermann bringing us freshwater from Gil Island so had four large 30-gallon water containers.
We also obviously needed somewhere to stay so we had to pack our tents and personal affects up to take with us. For me having found out in my first four weeks at Gil Island that my tent was less than waterproof I was slightly worried about how I would fair on an even more remote Island without a nice wood burning fire to dry my things on everyday. That night we slept inside the lab, the morning came fast and everyone was up early. I was ready to leave but it turned out we wouldn’t be leaving until around midday. Everything was ready to go by midday so Hermann brought the boat up to the bay and everyone headed out to help load the boat. This took some time as there was a lot. Eventually Hermann had the boat arranged in some manner that we could all fit on the boat and there was even room for Neekas (the dog) to come with us. The weather was perfect for crossing Campania Sound and Caamano Sound and we were soon leaving Gil Island in the distance and fast approaching Aristazabal Island. As we got closer and closer I was straining my eyes to see the shelter on the northern tip of Aristazabal, I might add here that the reason I was straining my eyes to see Ulric Point was because a few weeks previous I had visited Ulric Point with Hermann to try and replace the hydrophone. I distinctly remember laughing when I saw how small and basic the shelter was when we came up to it in comparison to Cetacealab on Gil Island.
Nevertheless I was very excited to get to Ulric Point and see the Northern Resident Orca. After unloading the boat in the small bay beside the out camp and carrying all of the gear up to the campsite, which in itself was spectacular, we decided to set up our tents. I choose to set my tent up beside a magnificent cedar tree that must have been at least two hundred years old. I had only set foot on the island but I could already see it was a rich environment and there were signs of wildlife everywhere. After setting up our tents we began setting up equipment in the shelter, this included setting up the VHF radio, camp stove, scanner and also the solar panel. The first thing that anyone would notice if they stood on the small balcony on the shelter is the sheer expanse off water in front of the shelter. This location gave the perfect view into Caamano Sound and the surrounding area. It was the perfect location for viewing the Orca who from previous years were known to travel around Rennison Island, through Beauchemin Channel and also through Laredo Channel. In other words the Orca should pass right in front of the shelter on a regular basis if previous years were anything to go by, June had been the highest recorded Orca sightings for the last two years. After a quick meal we decided to work on the outhouse, which in simple terms was just a big hole with a plywood toilet constructed over the top of it. By this time it was getting into the late evening and we sat on the balcony and watched the most unbelievable sunset I have ever seen. If anyone could have sat in that exact spot I sat in that night they would have seen something that I believe does not really exist anywhere else on earth or only exists in a few places around the world. An environment so unique and pristine for wildlife (especially the resident whales), even the thought of allowing huge Oil tankers to pass through the area shocks me.
The next morning was an early start and after a quick breakfast Hermann and I headed round to the hydrophone site to try and change the hydrophone again. I helped Hermann get his dive gear ready and then he dropped in off the side of the boat and after a few minutes he returned to the surface with the hydrophone. I quickly removed the old hydrophone and attached a different hydrophone. We then tried checking both at the out camp and Cetacealab for a signal but it appeared that even changing the hydrophone again had made no difference and no signal could be heard. Hermann took the hydrophone back down. We were unsure of the problem, it could have been that both hydrophones we had now tried were both faulty or there was a problem with the transmitter. Hermann decided that he would wait until a new hydrophone arrived in the post and for now he would head back to Cetacealab leaving Sole and me to it. We spent the rest of the day sorting the fresh food out to place in barrels and store safely and setting up the shelter for the next day when we would start a proper full day scanning for whales.
The next morning we were both up quite early and as I was preparing breakfast Sole spotted some Orca, at first we thought there was a group of five Orca but we soon realized that there seemed to be three separate groups. A large group of six individuals, a group containing two females and a calf and finally a third group containing a adult male and a juvenile male. They all appeared to have headed in from the west side of Rennison Island, and as they travelled east they all came together at the mouth of Beauchemin Channel. They then split again and began to travel in different directions, it was amazing to firstly see Orca on our first day but to see so many at one time. At first I had thought that they were transients by looking at their dorsal fins as they were very straight and tall which was very similar to the transient orca I have previously seen at Cetacealab but when they had all appeared to come together I was very confused and thought that they might actually be resident Orca. After splitting they all travelled in different directions, while all of this was going on we had informed the lab of the Orca but an unfortunate mistake lead to our radio being stuck on one channel instead of scanning and it turned out that the lab and also the research vessel Roller Bay had being trying to contact us about the whereabouts of the whales. After we had fixed the radio we spoke to Graeme Ellis on the Roller Bay and he headed off to try and find the whales but after about an hour he told us that they had unfortunately been unable to find the Orca. Interestingly they had also not heard anything on the hydrophone they deployed so the group census was that the Orca we had seen were indeed transient Orca. The rest of the day was quite uneventful but again there was an amazing sunset.
On Tuesday (5th June) Hermann had received a new hydrophone and decided to head over to Aristazabal Island to try and finally get the Ulric Point hydrophone working again. He arrived around midday and picked Sole and me up and we headed round the corner to the hydrophone. We decided on connecting the new hydrophone and then testing it in a bucket of water before having to go through the process of setting up for a dive. After Hermann connected the hydrophone I headed to the boat to relay between Hermann on the handheld radio and the lab. After some time we again were left frustrated, the new hydrophone was not working. Hermann was now convinced it was something to do with the transmitter so he disconnected it and took it back with him when he left to test it at the lab. Again the rest of the days scan’s revealed very little whale activity but we did have an amazing dinner, mainly which consisted of venison sausages which Hermann had brought for us as we hadn’t had meat since leaving Gil Island. The next two days really just consisted of getting up in time for our shifts and doing our dedicated scans every half an hour for 15 minutes but Wednesday although not having any whale action did provide our first real chance to explore Aristizabal Island. As we were taking turns on 3-hour shifts it left us plenty of time to explore our new home. I headed east along the beach and within minutes had found signs of life, deer prints all over the small area of sandy beach two bays over from our camp. I kept heading east stopping every 30 seconds to look at anything that seemed peculiar. Being a marine scientist and having spent a lot of time ankle deep in rock pools for much of my life I instantly fell in love with the landscape. I went from rock pool to rock pool looking to find new species I had not seen before or staring at anemones as they fed on tiny particles in the water. Naturally being easily distracted by anything remotely interesting had resulted in me not getting very far after 40 minutes of walking. So I headed off further and tried not to get distracted as much, after about another 15 minutes of walking I came across a huge freshwater creek that was beautiful. I can imagine that it is an extremely important resource for the wildlife living on the island. The weather changed on Thursday and it turned cold and it rained lightly for most of the day. On Thursday night we finally caught a sight of a whale, two humpbacks directly across from us on the shore of Renisson Island. A mother and calf, the mother was tail-slapping and at one point was almost vertical out of the water, which was spectacular to see.
Again the next two days did not provide the whale action we had expected. Even the fishing lodge (North King Lodge) located on Aristazabal Island seemed to be very slow. We hadn’t seen any of their boats catching any fish in front of the shelter, which is normally a common place to see fishing boats. As I thought more about it and listened to radio chat between other fishing lodge boats the picture began to come clear, there were was no salmon anywhere to be found. Even around Gil Island two other fishing lodges were not having any success with catching salmon. This as you could imagine was very worrying to hear as the resident Orca depend on the salmon as a food resource. It appeared that no Chinook or spring salmon had been seen. The weather could be having a huge effect on what is happening, as it has been very cold and not what Hermann or Janie were used to seeing at this time of the year, the salmon may be running late due to the colder weather. Or at least that would what we would all be hoping is happening because if the salmon don’t show up then it would be very hard to imagine what the resident Orca would do. Hermann had also spoken to John Ford who had been around Haida Gwaii and had seen no Orca. This was very strange considering June is usually when the highest sightings of resident Orca are recorded. By this point one week had already passed in a blur and we hadn’t seen a single resident Orca and it was time for Sole to leave Ulric Point. While waiting to find out if Hermann was still coming to swap Sole out four humpback whales came up right in front of the balcony, I was almost shocked to even see a whale and after a few seconds I grabbed the camera and got some ID pictures. The whales were from a larger feeding group that had been recorded off Alexander Island for a number of days. Late in the day Hermann arrived and Sole left Ulric and Megan arrived. I helped Megan get set up then we watched the sunset and then headed to sleep.
By now it was Sunday (10th June), 8 days since I had arrived at the Ulric Point out camp. I was busy making pancakes for breakfast (which was fast becoming a tradition) when out of the corner of my eye I spotted what I thought was a male Orca dorsal fin. I stopped what I was doing and starred intently waiting to get conformation before raising the alarm, after all I had been there for 8 days without seeing many whales and it was quite possible I was starting to imagine things. Luckily though I was not going crazy and the male came up again about 350 meters away to the east, I grabbed the camera and screamed around the corner to Megan that there was Orca out front. I managed to get a somewhat good picture of the male before he sank into the water again. There is something just quite peculiar and absolutely unique in everyway of seeing a male Orca dorsal slowly rising out of the water and then you hear the blow and see the water part as the body breaks the surface. To see something as amazing as that in such a beautiful environment is something everyone should be allowed to experience once in his or her lifetime. Next about 200 meters away a female and calf broke the surface, they were moving very fast west and I followed them and got some good ID pictures. As soon as I saw the female and calf I knew I was looking at residents. All the meanwhile the male had not surfaced again and I wondered if I had missed him but just in front of the shelter right in the kelp he surfaced. It was interesting to watch as he wasn’t moving in any direction he just emerged out of the water like a submarine would, and then the kelp slowly slid over his huge body and then he sank much in the same way again. As soon as they were gone I uploaded the pictures and it turned out that I had got very good ID pictures and I was able to identify the whales in a matter of minutes and I called in the report to Cetacealab. The whales we had seen were the I22’s. Hermann explained that I was very lucky to have spotted the whales, as they are very rare to see. Unfortunately for Megan she didn’t arrive from her tent quickly enough as the whole event only last about 4 or 5 minutes although to me it seemed to last forever. Finally though after 8 days I had seen resident Orca and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The weather had been quite poor and my ever-reliable tent was wet as usual so I was beginning to lose spirit, but seeing the whales made everything in an instant become worthwhile. For the rest of the day I sat intently waiting to see any sign of the Orca again but we later learned from one of the lodge boats that the whales had continued south.
The next three two days consisted of rain, and lots of it. It meant long days of staring into what looked like a huge cloud on top of the water, we couldn’t see any land and for me it was quite a difference to see how quickly the weather could change. It did however really drive home in my mind how dangerous it would be for Oil tankers to travel through this area when the weather can change in an instant from sun to absolute zero visibility and high winds. How anyone could ever argue that an oil tanker could safely pass through such terrain in such variable conditions is beyond my comprehension. My last two days on Ulric consisted of very little whale action but lots of exploring. I spent most of Tuesday (12th) afternoon photographing a minx that was travelling through the intertidal zone foraging. On Thursday I went for the last time to explore before leaving Ulric Point. It was only a short trip into the next bay but was a very interesting trip. On the beach I found a piece of driftwood that was so similar to a carving of an Orca I spent about half an hour lifting it up and getting it upright so I could photograph it. On the beach I was really shocked to see so much debris washed up, the beach was only about 30 meters wide but the amount of plastic on the beach was shocking. This is a huge island that no one lives on apart from our out camp but yet there is signs of human life washed up all along the shore. I can only imagine what would happen if an oil tanker had an incident and oil leaked into the water it would end up everywhere, it would affect so many animals. Wolves, bears, deer, minx and eagles are some of the animals to name a few that depend on the coastline in this area and an oil spill would no doubt result in the death of a number of these animals. On the way back from my exploring I was lucky enough to find an eagle feather sitting right underneath where one of the eagles sits. This was very special for me, as I had spent a long time watching the eagles right beside our camp and seeing them also as well as the fishermen struggle to catch fish was quite worrying. Most of all there is nothing more beautiful than hearing the call of a bald eagle; the sound is just amazing and is surely one of the things I will miss most when I leave the Great Bear Rainforest.
That evening I checked over all the procedures with Megan making sure she knew how to check batteries, where to move the solar panel for getting the afternoon sun and how to fill in all the data sheets. After making dinner we were about to sit down and eat and then out of nowhere 5 humpback whales passed right in front of us, I managed to get pictures of the whales and again we identified them as some members of the feeding group that had been seen just off Alexander Island. The next day Hermann arrived to pick me up and before leaving we took a new transmitter to the hydrophone to try again, finally it worked and we had a really good signal from the hydrophone. Instantly we could hear humpback-feeding calls. It felt good to finally get the Ulric hydrophone working so we could listen for any Orca that may be slipping past us. Afterwards we headed home, two weeks gone in what felt like an instant. Overall I think what most amazes me about Aristazabal Island is that the ecosystem is thriving and life is everywhere you look. This environment really is unique and is one of a kind, to have this many whales in such a small area around Gil Island and Aristazabal that we know off is quite unbelievable. Something I feel should be protected with every means possible but others appear to only see it as a quick route to making money, it is quite surprising to me that something this beautiful could be potentially destroyed or severely damaged in one accident with an Oil tanker. Do we have the right to abuse an environment and resource that is so vital to the survival of animals that have been around for much longer than us?