A Living Ocean

RobHecate Strait is one of the roughest bodies of water on earth, but today we can see the reflections of clouds on its surface. We are nearing the end of a long day, which is nearly the last of our field season, which is, in turn, the last summer of our three-year whale survey. But it is easy to lose all sense of time when playing hide-and-go-seek with fin whales. We are surrounded. Toward the horizon, all around us, we see enormous columnar blows of whale breath. Close by, we do not see them so much as we experience them.

We are well matched in size; at 22m, an average fin whale is about the same length as our research vessel, Achiever. The similarity ends there. The newly-refitted Achiever is giving us all the speed that she can, but we are nevertheless an ungainly contrast to these sleek, speedy and vast whales hurtling their 45-tonne bodies through the water. It is easy to see how the grace and speed of these whales protected them from human harm for centuries. Until commercial whalers invented exploding-tipped harpoons, and mounted them on the very fastest steamships, fin whales were largely immune to whaling. However, within a few decades of modernity, most populations of large whales had been hunted to commercial extinction.

This legacy weighed heavily on my mind as we turned toward Rose Harbour, Haida Gwaii. Rose Harbour was one of the most important whaling stations in BC until shore-based whaling stopped here in the late 1960s.

In our fieldwork, we are collecting sightings of marine mammals and seabirds to estimate abundance and distribution patterns. The information we collect and the upcoming analyses help us identify how different populations are doing, and what the habitat needs are for species most at risk. While we are doing so, bureaucrats and politicians are making decisions that threaten the quality of this habitat that is nurturing the slow recovery of endangered whale populations.

For now, we are tired, and humbled by these elusive whales. As we move to pack up our gear, the unmistakable splash of leaping dolphins tells us that our work for the day is not yet complete. No longer counting individuals, we try to estimate the number (hundreds? thousands?) of dolphins that are feeding in this tiny patch of water. As we try to understand how anyone could risk losing this miracle to an oil spill or a poorly timed airgun blast, we do our best to write down what we are seeing. This patch of ocean is alive with dolphins and whales. I hope that the same may be said next year.

Rob Williams
September 2006
From Achiever’s comfortable new galley

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Chris Genovali, Executive Director

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