Click to Zoom In Click to Zoom Out




In search of Orcinus orcas, we have cruised a day and a half from Bella Bella to Telegraph Cove, a small village on stilts on the east side of Vancouver Island, to meet Captain Jim and Mary Borrowman, owners of Stubbs Island Charters.

The morning after our arrival, we board Gikumi, Borrowman's 60-foot working boat-turned-whale-watcher. Although smothered by fog, the sun burns so brightly that we seem to float within a blown glass bottle. Except for the murmur of Gikumi's engine, silence reigns.

Within twenty minutes, the fog lifts.

There!

The tall dorsal fins of Orcinus orcas slice dark water.

Captain Jim Borrowman cuts our engines. Jim, who has been studying and photographing orcas for twenty years, is a master at positioning Gikumi far enough away to not disturb whales but on a vector of their travel that will bring them near. We cannot approach them, but they may approach us.

"This never happens so easily," whispers Jackie Hildering, the Gikumi naturalist. "This is A30's family with four of her children and two grandchildren. The orcas travel in matrilineal family groups, which they never leave. Last year, the oldest son, Strider, disappeared, so he is presumed dead. But our hearts just soared when twelve-year-old Blinkhorn appeared with a new calf. I had never seen a newly-born calf before.

"When they are first born, they have an orangish-pinkish cast and their dorsal flipper is folded over to the side. Now only seven or eight days old, this new calf is the epitome of our hope that our resident pods will increase."

The twenty German, Scottish, and British Columbian tourists crush to the side of Gikumi. Our One World Journeys crew is on the upper deck with the captain, where they can photograph unobstructed. The whales rise rhythmically to breathe nearby.

"Can't you get any closer?" complains a woman.

"No," states Captain Borrowman emphatically. "We cannot harass the whales. We are in their home now and must behave with respect. If we are quiet, they might come toward us."

Jackie confides to me: "People are so urbanized now that they have little grasp of nature except as a commodity to be approach and used. Too many nature programs on TV give the impression that you can just go up and stick a camera in an animal's face or even torture it. But you must wait. Sometimes we see no whales at all."

While we wait, three orcas -- a mother, a baby, and the matriarch and grandmother, Tsitika - porpoise toward us, exhaling at the top of each arc with a vertical spray and explosive sigh. The Captain lowers the hydrophone to register a series of loud clicks; this whale sonar, focused within "oil melons" on the top front of whale's heads, bounces off prey - in this case, salmon.

I hear a distinct break in clicks and a chomping sound. He's got a salmon, I think.

"They are feeding," says Jackie. "These are resident whales and eat only fish and octopus. The transient pods with the sharper-tipped dorsals are the sea mammal eaters; they hunt in smaller units and make no sound while sneaking up on a sea lion. They do not interbreed or even associate with the resident pods."

She pulls out a white binder full of photographs of the left side of every resident whale of the Inside Passage. "We know these guys as individuals, but each sticks very closely to the matriarch, who also makes decisions, so that three generations communicate and cooperate. The orca females live way past their productive years; monkeys and humans are the only other animals to do so. Matriarchs most likely pass on the culture and teach the young females good mothering skills."

Eerie calls come over Gikumi's speaker, almost like amplified cat mews, sliding up or down the scale. Each northern pod's language is so distinct that even I can clearly distinguish between the R, the G, and the A pod's songs.

Whale communication remains mysterious. A pod far north on Vancouver Island's shore will signal to a pod eighty miles south, and both pods will turn simultaneously and head toward one another. Many pods merge into a superpod in August, perhaps for the salmon runs but more likely to find mates outside their own families.

British Columbia is fortunate that she still has salmon and not much urbanization to pollute whales with PCBs. Our resident orcas of Washington State are in serious trouble, down to only 78 individuals. We have diminished our rivers and streams to silted-up trickles and damned-up hydroelectric plants. We have drained our toxins into Puget Sound. We have tortured creatures with boat traffic. Like a personal loss, I feel stricken about our diminishing pods: J, K, and L. We ourselves are diminished by the loss of wild orcas.

***

This day of orcas celebrates the close of our journey blessed with discovery.

In what seems an age ago, our journey began on the land, crawling up salmon rivers to record their spawning underwater. We discovered a rich movable feast of fish, weaving together many species - gulls, waders, ducks, eagles, bears, and more -- along each of the Raincoast rivers and into the surrounding forest far from the sea.

We discovered ourselves as part of the ecosystem; like bears and eagles, we will carry away fish dinner in our muscles, journeying to Washington, to California, and to Georgia. We will send salmon images through the ozone to the rest of the world.

We discovered time, expanding like a bellows in the wilderness, as if we have lived an entire lifetime up here. Yet time in the Lower Forty-Eight has raced forward, has become sharp-edged and lethal. The terrorist attack on the east coast has forever changed the world we return to.

We re-discovered how fragile life is, whether it's extinguished in a momentary flash of terror, or silently and slowly snuffed out over time. If we humans continue to liquidate large swaths of old growth forest and silt up the rivers, over-fish, and perceive wilderness as a commodity, we will eventually lose the runs of salmon, and then the bear, the coastal wolves, and the orcas. We do not know what else we will be losing.

I think about this as I balance on an upper deck and watch a baby orca surface next to its mother, in a position for nursing. The baby calf leaves us all feeling hopeful.

Other hope burns through the fog. The Spirit Bear will poke illusively in and out of the rivers of Princess Royal Island, using their salmon-glutted bodies to create new spirit bears; wolves will eat salmon and raise pups and layer adjacent howls through the forest. The orcas will continue to dive sideways under our bow, as they did a half hour ago, looking up at us humans with clear, intelligent eyes.

Suddenly I put down the camera, the pens and paper, and the binoculars. I want nothing at this moment between me and the sea and the mountains and the orcas and the grebes and the mergansers and the leaping salmon. We need to observe and to know animals as they are in their animal realm, not as we romanticize or commodify them but as they once were to First Nations -- beings who are part of us as we are part of them.

***

Below the surface of black waters, beneath the hull of Explorer, wild salmon dart toward rivers as silver, red, pink, ochre, and lime green shadows, sewing together the ecosystems from glaciers to sea. The scent of home reaches us; we're grateful to the salmon for showing us the way.