The power of the whale

Trip Start Sep 23, 2009
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Trip End Oct 09, 2009


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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The following morning, we ventured into the Gator Gardens, an eerie goblin forest at the centre of the island.  The bleached grey corpses of cedars stood stark above a rampant orgy of growth; mosses and lichens encrusted bushes and trees, hanging from any surface they could colonise.  Fat fungi devoured fallen trees.  The sky began grey, misty, lifeless.  The air was motionless and the only sound was the cackle of the raven, surveying his domain.  The swamp water was black, stained by the tannins of decaying vegetation.  Reeds and grasses grew from this nutritious soup, until they too died, to rot away and return to the swamp.

Beyond the Gator Gardens was a lush verdant forest of rich red cedars, stately Douglas firs with thick rivers running through their bark, and hemlocks with their droopy tops.  We picked huckleberries, which were deliciously tart, and tried the thick-skinned salal berries.  It was an atmospheric and intriguing place, and we decided that it was worthy of further exploration.  But first, we had to see a man about a whale.

Next to the forest was a caravan park, for holiday makers and permanent residents.  The most appealing dwelling was an old school bus, festooned with vibrant flowers, and situated at the edge of the forest.  From there we drove through the reservation, as we looked for a route back to the docks.  Wide avenues shrunk to gravel tracks after a few metres, then turned a corner and expanded again.  Beautifully maintained houses existed next to caravans and tumble-down shacks.  We felt hopelessly lost and eventually asked for direction.  An eyebrow was raised.  "Just down there!"  We were already heading in the right direction.  And, after driving 5 metres, we rounded a bend and the sea came into view. 

We waited at the Government dock for 'Nereid', one of the whale watching boats from Mackays.  The big aim of the day was to sight orcas- the area has a number of resident pods, and very high success rates for sightings.  We set off, scanning the ocean for fins or spray.  On a small island, a bald eagle watched us go by from the top of her tree.  Around the point we came to a colony of Stellar's sea lions, engaged in their favourite hobbies of squabbling or snoozing.  Occasionally one would slide off the rock a head off into the ocean to hunt. The common seals were just as laconic as the sea lions.  They gazed back at us with sad eyes and mournful expressions, like wise old men with the woes of the world on their shoulders.

We glimpsed spouts of spray in the distance- an orca!  It was a male travelling alone.  Then, from the opposite direction, three more approached.  To add to the excitement, a pod of dolphins swept through, harrying the larger creatures before vanishing. The solo male joined up with the trio- a 60 year old female and her two male cousins.  They stayed near us for much of the afternoon, spyhopping, tail fobbing and chilling out.  The whales tended to remain around the surface, sometimes vanishing for a minute or two.  They travelled slowly and it was easy for us to keep pace with them.  The water was clear enough that we could see them beneath the water- the white false eye, and occasionally a flash of white belly when they rolled over.

Eventually we had to say a reluctant goodbye to the orcas.  We returned towards Alert Bay, to an area favoured by humpback whales.  Again, the spouts were the first indication that the whales were there.  It was a pod of about 8, engaged in hunting. The whales would come to the surface, take a few breaths, then dive.  Their tail flukes stood on end as they descended.  Then we would be back to scanning the ocean, trying to work out where they would surface again.  The one which came up 10 metres from the boat really took us by surprise.

Then the skipper, Bill, spotted a whale lunge feeding.  We travelled closer.  A mob of seabirds marked the spot, as they attacked a bait ball of fish which had been forced up to the surface.  The main source of the fishes' terror became clear when the humpback erupted from the depths, mouth agape, swallowing all in its path. Sea water poured from its jaws as its enormous maw closed on a large portion of the shoal.  The birds began to gather again, and three sealions turned up to pick off their share of the feast. The noise was phenomenal- the crash of the water as the whale lunged upwards then splashed back into the ocean, combined with the raucous squawking of the frenzied sea birds. A few breaths and the whale vanished under the sea again, to return for a second mouthful.

The fish were decimated after a few passes, and the predators drifted away.  So did we, firstly to Hidden Cove where we needed to drop people off.  I was asked to write the report of the day, but our wildlife viewing was not done- on the shore near the resort was a black bear.  She was feeding, turning over rocks to search for shellfish. We watched quietly, and she seemed undisturbed by our presence.  She was a glossy animal, fat and well-fed. Lumbering along, she carried on feeding, then clambered on to a fallen log and gazed at us.  Ready for her close up, it was the perfect shot- then she returned to the beach and continued poking around the rocks, once again totally ignoring us.

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