BLACKFISH SOUND—If you didn’t know better, you might assume that the numerous volunteers and staff of the OrcaLab research station are all pointy-headed academics in possession of marine biology degrees.
That would, it turns out, not be entirely correct.
“We do get lots of marine biology students, and students in acoustics,” said Leah Robinson, who has worked the past five years at the remote station, nestled in the trees along the shore of Hanson Island. “But for some of our assistants, it’s really just their interest in the whales. One girl, who just left to start university, is studying economics. But she loves cetaceans.
“It’s amazing how whales bring out that love in so many people.”
Last week, Stubbs Island Whale Watching teamed with some of those people to give back to the whales, in the form of a special late-season sailing with all proceeds donated to OrcaLab and its work.
The first of two fund-raising trips hosted by the pioneering whale-watching company, the event produced $1,500 and an additional $1,500 in matching funds by Stubbs Island for a $3,000 total donation to OrcaLab.
In addition to the traditional presentation by on-board naturalist Zoe Schroeder, passengers were treated to a second educational presentation by Robinson, who was invited to explain OrcaLab and its work.
Founded by Dr. Paul Spong in 1970, the lab was an effort to study wild creatures without interfering with their lives or habitat. It has since expanded its work with a network of hydrophones positioned in key areas around Blackfish Sound and Johnstone Strait and a video monitoring station on Cracroft Point that allows the collection of both surface and underwater images.
Audio is streamed throughout the year on the internet at www.orca-live.net, and has grown in recent years to include vocalizations and even portions of songs from humpback whales, who previously were thought to sing only in their warm-water, winter breeding grounds off Hawaii or Mexico.
“One of Paul’s main missions with OrcaLab, besides low impact on habitat and anti-captivity work, was to share the sounds with people around the world,” Robinson said. “Through the orca-live site, we’ve got live audio streaming 24 hours a day. Unfortunately sometimes all you’re hearing is boat noise. But through the summer, specifically, you hear a lot of the Northern residents, and in the winter we get a lot of visits from the transients, so you can hear them vocalize throughout the winter. And in the fall, as mentioned earlier, you can hear the humpbacks vocalize.”
Last Friday’s fund-raising excursion was heavy on humpback sightings, a comeback story remarkable in that, as recently as eight years ago, no humpbacks were known to frequent area waters.
But the 22 passengers, made up of an almost equal mix of Vancouver Island residents and German visitors, got much more bang for their fund-raising buck.
The MV Lukwa, captained by Geoff Dunstan and with a crew that included Stubbs Island co-owner Roger McDonell, had no sooner exited Telegraph Cove than its bow was crossed by a pod by a huge pod of between 200-300 Pacific white-sided dolphins, porpoising their way at high speed toward Beaver Cove. The Lukwa turned to run with the pod, and, after the boat stopped and cut engines, McDonell ran out its hydrophone so passengers could hear the mammals call underwater.
From there, the Lukwa turned to Blackfish Sound, passing by a harem of Steller’s Sea Lions hauled out on the rocks on its way to numerous humpback sightings, both near and far, and a cruise past the OrcaLab station.
The Northern Resident orcas had left the area just a couple of days earlier and had not been seen since. But, near the scheduled end of their four-hour voyage, passengers were asked if they would mind getting back to shore an hour late if it meant possibly seeing some transient killer whales. The assent was unanimous and, following a sighting radioed by a lone Zodiac inflatable operator, the Lukwa sped west through Johnstone Strait until coming upon small pod of perhaps seven transients, silently hunting around a small island where harbour seals took shelter.
“It was a good day,” said McDonell. “I think everyone will go home happy, and they’ve helped a very good cause.”
Stubbs Island Whale Watching will hold a second fund-raising trip this Saturday at 1 p.m., to benefit the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society of Vancouver Island. The tour will focus on the wide variety of marine bird life in the area, but “we might see some whales, too,” McDonell said.
To reserve a spot on board, call 250-928-3185.