Eavesdropping on whales – By Erica Forssman

Some mornings I wake up to the erratic splashes of Pacific white-sided dolphins — groups of ten, twenty, fifty, perhaps more, moving through the fog below the rocky cliff-side outside of my mesh tent door. Or a single calm breath of a sea lion as he lifts his head above the kelp. Kingfishers or ravens, hunting at the edge of the bay. The low, loud hum of a tug towing a log boom, a fishing boat pushing the waves aside, or the sound of a coho salmon throwing her slippery body out of the water into the surprising air. Or it’s the A25s and A23s, two families of orca I have learned the names, calls, fin shapes, and swimming patterns of in the past few months. They breathe almost in unison, catching up with each other while they move west, their giant lungs making it sound like they are much closer than they actually are — the sound travelling over the top of the still water while they meet our world and swim below the surface to call to their sisters, to watch a fish slip by, and to listen to the tides move little stones up and down their beaches.

Erica pic #1

I have been working as a warden at Robson Bight Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait. I volunteered here a few years ago and was fortunate to join their seasonal team this year. I run a small rigid-hull zodiac, patrolling the boundary of the reserve. Here, I contact boaters to show them out of the reserve, educate them on appropriate whale-viewing etiquette, or show them black-and-white pictures of the dorsal fins of killer whales which tell stories about familial histories, scars, recent sightings, and new babies.

This place is ecologically charged — the northern resident killer whales, several families of fish-eating odontocetes, travel here to feed on the increasingly scarce Chinook salmon. Johnstone Strait and the Tsitika River estuary are key foraging areas for this culture of whales. Their traditions find them returning to this area year after year in the summer and fall — this is a feasting time.

Erica pic #2

This region is also home to a number of their ‘rubbing beaches,’ sloped shores covered in small smooth stones that the northern residents seek out to rub their bodies on. This behavior is unique among killer whales; no where else around the globe has this species been observed to annually and continually seek out these types of beaches for this activity. We are so incredibly fortunate to share a space with these creatures who have decided that this unique place is special to them.

Erica pic #3

Around a campfire in the evenings, we listen to a radio tuned to hydrophones at several key locations in the area. These underwater microphones allow us to listen to the whales’ space. Roaring outboard engines, cruise ships, tugs, transport vessels, seaplanes, little skiffs, aluminum water taxis are common — beneath their sounds and during the lucky quiet times, we hear vocalizations in a foreign language. Eerie echoes, clicks and whistles, elastic bands snapping, tapping, bubbles, laugher, squeaks.

This is a family sharing their experience of swimming through Johnstone Strait, up Blackney Pass and into Blackfish Sound. They hunt and plan and announce new arrivals. They make declarations about changes in movement, reprimand their children, congratulate each other on leaping, on fishing, on holding their breath. We get to eavesdrop on their private world and imagine the possibilities of their experience, so vastly different from our own.

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