Tofino had good moments and sad moments for the crew onboard Orion. Two members of the right whale team had the final day of their voyage and head back to their land lives. Our layover day was filled with surfing, phone calls home, nap time, and food other than oatmeal. When the rain finally stopped pouring, we were able to meet with Gisele, a powerful woman with Tla-o-qui-aht roots, to learn about First Nation whaling around the Tofino area. She took us to a spot very dear to her and we were able to stand in another place where a right whale had been. We finished our time with Giselle thinking deeper about our lives and our place in nature. She is a very inspiring person and meeting with her gave us a new perspective on human’s relationship with the natural world. We said goodbye to Tofino and headed for the Broken Group Islands. Effingham Island was a beautiful place for us to anchor and was our last best chance to see wolves. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but the constant scan of beaches at low tide was fun for all. From the Broken Group we headed towards Port Renfew, taking full advantage of our weather window. As the sun was setting we came upon Swiftsure Bank, a place we had been told is a popular humpback area. It is also the spot where a North Pacific right whale was seen in 2013. Brian Gisborne, an incredible whale researcher, spotted the whale within a group of humpbacks and gave us ideas where we could go to increase the chance of seeing our whale in a haystack.
Swiftsure Bank did not disappoint. The next three days we treated Port Renfrew as our home base and headed offshore to pick apart the different haystacks. For those of you thinking, “you all got to look at whales all day it must have been so fun”, it really was. But it was also not what I expected. Looking for whales at Swiftsure Bank was stressful. There were simply too many. Now you may be thinking, “you got to look for whales all day and there were just too many”, not a bad way to spend a work week. We are attempting to tell the story of a whale population that is considered the most endangered in the world and knowing of all the places we had been for weeks, there was once one here, and it was alive. We agreed to take on the responsibility of telling the story, but it was a lot to handle. Every whale we saw, two people had eyes through binoculars, staring and never losing focus. It was hard work. The swells were such to cause seasickness looking in the binoculars too long, but what if that was our right whale? Seasickness or spotting the third right whale in decades? In our minds, every whale blow we saw was a right whale, sometimes looking at the same whale for twenty-five minutes never seeing a dorsal fin and not being able to look away until it was a confirmed humpback sighting. Looking at whales all day is extremey exciting, but the passion and hope for one of the hundreds of whales we saw to be a right whale was exhausting. For hours we had binoculars glued to our eyes staring at the backs of whales as they slipped between swells. I won’t say I hate dorsal fins, but right whales don’t have them, and I could have gone for seeing less dorsals that day.
Swiftsure Bank is an amazing place and a perfect spot for us to spend our last week. Seeing over one hundred whales in one day was something none of us had experienced before. The horizon was full of scattered fifteen foot blows from North Pacific humpback whales and we had whales off our bow, stern, port, and starboard sides. The whales were traveling together, leaping out of the water, slapping their flukes and pectorals on the surface communicating with each other. It was whale nerd paradise. The only thing that would have made it better was more sunlight as the lack of light dictated when we had to turn around and head back to Port Renfrew. Being surrounded by whales was an incredibly loud experience; a mix of crew members yelling, the sound of the whales trumpeting blows, and the echo of 80,000 pounds slamming on the water surface. Once we turned and left Swiftsure Bank it was silent. We had no words for what we had just seen. Having heard Gisele speak so passionately about saving the environment a couple days prior, to being surrounded by whales, we all had a lot on our minds. The last week was humbling for the crew onboard Orion. With Washington in view, the weather taking a turn in the wrong direction and our end date creeping closer and closer, it was a time of reflection. To give you a better idea of what fueling our personal reflections, I’ll leave you with some of the conversation topics from our time with Gisele.
Don’t pass things down, carry them up.
We are in world war three and animals are at the front line.
We must observe, appreciate, and act accordingly with our hearts and as a whole being.
There is no word in our language for wilderness, the closest word we have is home.