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Searching for orcas in British Columbia

· Travel,Wildlife,North Pacific 2018

In the summer of 2018, I sailed on an expedition to explore the impact of plastic pollution on remote coastlines in British Columbia. This is a short piece of travel writing from that trip and allow appears on my bucket list.

It’s 6am and I’ve had approximately 4 hours sleep. I’m up on the deck of our beautiful home and base for the week, 72-foot challenge yacht Sea Dragon, gazing out across almost endless ocean. It’s stunning and, yet, I’m whinging to the other three people on deck. A lot. But it’s not because I haven’t slept enough. I’m behaving like I’m six years old, because we haven’t seen a whale.

We’ve been sailing in British Columbia for 5 days completing citizen science with a multi-disciplinary, all-female crew as part of an eXXpedition voyage. eXXpedition organises these sails all over the world to collect data on plastics and toxics in our oceans. In terms of reaching our voyage goals, we’re doing pretty great – I should know, I’m their Operations Manager. The trip from Vancouver to Seattle has had the usual bumps of sea sickness and unpredictability of weather, but we’ve collected lots of samples for our science partners, completed a clean up in Vancouver and another in the remote Broken Islands.

Next, we will be talking to an audience in Victoria about our discoveries this week, including how our diverse skill sets can be applied to the problem of plastic pollution once we return to our normal lives. We are scientists, artists, teachers, designers, filmmakers, photographers, marketeers and TV personalities. The true beauty of eXXpedition is how bringing together individuals with different experiences can help them identify how they can can make a positive impact on ocean plastic and opens up exciting opportunities for collaboration.

At this point, however, I don’t care about any of that. I was promised whales by those more knowledgable in this area months before we even got on the boat and we only have two days left. The Georgia Strait, and more broadly the Salish Sea, where we are sailing has a diverse marine habitat. The area is known for its whales, including humpback, minke and grey, and its at-risk Orca population. The Southern Orcas are starving to death because they feed almost exclusively on salmon. I’ve never seen a whale and it doesn’t look like I’m going to on this voyage either. The weather hasn’t really been playing ball, as it has been on-and-off very foggy, which means we could have passed our watery friends and just not known it. They could also have just been travelling out of sight below the surface. Those YouTube videos always make it look like if there are whales anywhere near you, they’ll come to your boat to say, “Hi”. I can clarify that isn’t the case in real life.

I’m given the advice by our long-suffering first mate to keep scanning the sea, so I do, as if my life depended on it. It’s a still morning and this is not a job that can really be counted as a chore, but it is quite intense. Is that a slightly larger wave or a fin? Was that splash just water movement or caused by a living creature teasing me from under the surface? I’m pretty sure I see a harbour porpoise, but it’s gone as quickly as I saw it. Then I notice my watch partner and one of our professional crew on the other side of the boat, about 10 feet away. They are looking intently off the other side of Sea Dragon. My watch partner clears her throat and says, disturbingly deadpan, “Was that a whale?” I almost die when the reply back is, a very calm, “Yes”. What? Where? It was gone as quickly as it appeared. We scan the area around the boat for ten minutes hoping for another sighting, but he’d got his air and was gone back into the depths. That was our one whale, I’m convinced of it, and I missed it. I’m clearly not supposed to see one this voyage.

I’m below deck about three hours later, when I hear a fuss on deck. I leisurely start to work my way along the boat to the noise. Then I hear it, “WHALE!” Absolutely no way, I’m going to have missed two whales on the same day. Pulling myself up onto deck, I prepare myself for him or her to have already disappeared back into the depths. I’m greeted instead by an enraptured crew, staring off the starboard side, pointing and still exclaiming. I look, and… I see fins about 100 metres away. Actual whale fins. Not just one, several… ORCAS. Oh my God. I temporarily forget to breathe, as they break the surface of the water several times with those iconic fins. The straight fin of healthy, free killer whales, in juxtaposition with my previous experience of Orcas, which consists solely of Keiko, the whale who appeared in the Free Willy films.

I’m almost immediately pulled out of my focused excitement by someone near me vying for my attention – can’t they see I’m busy! “We need to wake everyone up!” I’m unreasonably annoyed, they’ll definitely be gone by the time I’ve done that. I look out again, and they don’t look like they are disappearing but how do you know? I’m not an expert on whale behaviour. It is, however, incredibly selfish to let everyone sleep through it. I steal what I think is probably my last glance of an in-real-life whale, grab someone else from on deck, and head back below.

We’re gently shaking everyone awake. Or at least we think we are. Maybe we start out gentle and then we just start getting irritated that there are so many people on board to wake up. It’s pretty typical that this particular event is happening on the end of a whole rota of night shifts, which means everyone who isn’t on watch is very happily sleeping in their bunks. However, a whisper of “Orca” and they’re awake, and we’re all scrambling back up for what we hope will still be whales, and not just pictures and memories from those still upstairs.

Miracle of miracles, they are still there. Briefly, they look like they are heading for the horizon and then they turn back towards the boat. Closer and closer they swim, flashing their patches, until they are only about 15 metres away. Two adults and three younger whales. The smallest Orca breaches, playing in the remarkably still water. She’s putting on a show for us. Two main thoughts go through my head. The first is that they are much smaller than I was expecting. The second is how could anyone think it was a good idea to put them in a tank – they drift and swim and weave, and jump – they might be relatively small but they need space to move. Sometimes one of the adults lies completely still just below the surface. Everyone is emotional, which is probably partly the exhaustion, too. One of the crew actually cries. We spend about ten mesmerising minutes watching them – it feels longer, like time has stopped. When they turn away for the last time, we don’t feel cheated, we feel lucky and satisfied. Full of the memories and the discussions and the pictures. I can’t believe it. After all my complaining, I got my whale.

I’m still basking in the glow, when a voice pipes up to my left. “Did you know Orcas are actually part of the dolphin family? They are not whales at all.” WHAT? That person is definitely going overboard.

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