Orca, L Pod. David Suzuki Foundation
February 6, 2018
Yesterday morning Theresa and I had our French lesson. There are five women and me. Three of the women have already mastered more than I am aiming to achieve. They are my goal. When pressed, I inevitably respond to a question in broken Spanish.
After class Theresa drove me in our li’l electric car and dropped me off at Swartz Bay where I assembled my kayak and headed over to Pender Island. I stopped off at Portland Island to stretch, have a snack and loiter, guilt-free.
Winter moss. In summer, moss grows in shades of dull green, yellow and brown. In winter it dazzles in iridescent greens, ambers and yellows and displays an astounding complexity of texture and form. On Portland there are tracts of soft, thick, luxurious moss that invite you to lie down. I lay there in my kayak clothes for a while, staring up at the clouds and felt the cool winter wet ooze into my bones. Then I ate some chocolate for energy, jumped into my kayak and paddled like hell to warm up.
Leaving the island I passed by the usual suspects: there were black oyster catchers poking away with their long orange beaks at barnacles. I could see one sucking up some fresh meat. Then I glided by some Harlequin ducks, my favorite. Next I saw what looked like a sanderling, very light colouring. There was an eagle perched on Canoe Rock. I passed by a few reefs that seemed overcrowded with a few dozen seals hauled up. As I started across Swanson Channel, I was lost in thought about seals. I’ve been paddling this channel for forty years now. There didn’t used to be nearly as many seals. But I was also thinking about memory. Maybe there were, but I just didn’t pay as much attention then?
Memories about seals. One summer about 40 seals tailed Theresa and I all the way from those same reefs across Swanson right up to the cliffs on Pender. Seals are curious and like to pop up and tag along at your stern. A trick of mine is to turn around and paddle backwards. When they pop up they look quite surprised to see you staring right back at them. Sentient beings, they are. Years earlier Jan, another woman (whose name I forget) and I were scuba diving off Pender when we were joined by a friendly seal. Every time we surfaced so did the seal. It joined us and mirrored our every move until we pulled ourselves out of the water. They are indeed wonderfully curious.
Another time I was snorkeling in my wetsuit below our place and I approached the underwater entrance to their rocky lair. Two seals turned tight circles in front of the entrance, barring me from going further. But not threatening me. I was wondering, though, if I do remember correctly and there are more seals now, as there seems to be, then why? Certainly there are fewer large fish now. The fact that Orcas are starving for Chinooks attests to that.
Nature abhors a vacuum. I’ve noticed that seals tend to catch small fish, like hake, not large salmon. Perhaps now, in the absence of predators, there are more small feeder fish. This is what happened on the east coast after the cod were wiped out. Greenlings took over. It’s also possible that because decades ago there was a government sponsored cull and their numbers were at a nadir they have now returned to normal. Seals are extraordinary fishers. Their finely tuned whiskers let them feel disturbances in the water from great distances so they can feed even in the murkiest of waters.
I was thinking about these things and not paying much attention. I was heading more or less north, in the middle of the channel. A northwestern breeze blew on the left side of my face at about 12 knots. I thought maybe I heard something to port. But no, nothing. When I turned my head back I saw, holy shit, a big, bright orange freighter bearing down on me from my starboard side, aft. I hadn’t heard it because of the breeze to port and I hadn’t been paying attention. A large, Panamax freighter in the middle of a two-nautical-mile-wide channel with great visibility and I hadn’t seen it? Really? I called them on emergency channel 16 on my VHF radio and they actually answered. Eventually the local pilot, who was guiding the ship, saw me and I waited while the Bahia Blanca, registered in Panama, trundled by. They thanked me for alerting them as they continued on.
It was new, unusually quiet and even when it passed by I could not see or smell the expected diesel exhaust. Strangely, I smell more on my bicycle when a badly-tuned diesel pickup truck passes me. It must have been burning the low-sulphur fuel that is now required within 200 nautical miles of shore.
This is good news for the Arctic, too, because higher quality fuels burn cleaner and release much less black carbon. Black carbon is a major cause of global warming in the Arctic and elsewhere. It reduces the albedo (reflecting surface) of snow or ice, hastening melting. In the atmosphere it absorbs other chemicals that are harmful to health and climate. Too bad low-sulphur fuel isn’t burned in all ships everywhere at sea until cleaner fuel systems are developed.
The bulk freighter passed. Suddenly four fins popped up, right on my bow — three large male Orcas and a smaller female. I heard the familiar ‘whoosh’ as they exhaled and I could smell their spray. I waited as they passed by me, heading from port to starboard, away from the freighter.
Then the wind died. Flat calm. The sun, which had been hiding all day, shone from under low clouds. More ‘whoosh’ sounds, more spray visible. I found that I was in their midst. There were no other boats. They were moving around, some right up close to shore, some out near me. Fishing, I guess.
I hung out there for an hour or so until the sun was quite low. I didn’t want to scale the cliff in the dark. When I resumed paddling three whales swam along parallel to me on my port side. They escorted me to shore. Only when I reached the rocky shore at the base of the cliffs and hauled my boat out did they carry on along the shore to the east. When I was beginning my climb up the cliff, two large females passed underwater right beside shore.
The next morning before sunrise I could hear the heavy breathing down below. At least one was still there, but it was gone by the time it was light enough to venture down to the water. I’ve seen Orcas a lot in summer, but not at this time of year. Also, when there are a bunch of whale-chasing boats around, the Orcas seem to travel in a straight line and don’t hang around. Is this chance, or is their fishing affected by the noise of the boats? As I’ve mentioned, are we loving these creatures to death? Obviously, the lack of salmon is the main cause of their demise, as well as the pollutants in the water. But, I wonder.