We traveled by foot up Bamard creek in the morning. Salmon carcasses and a cacophony of raven cries announce that the cycle of life that comes with salmon spawning has begun. It seems that the raven’s incredible watery sounds are meant to entice creatures from the forest. The raven is calling to the wolves and bears – telling them that the salmon are in the streams. “Come and pluck the salmon out for us.”
The activity can be read by the carcass. When a wolf catches salmon the head is missing. A bear takes one large bite from the belly – the rich meat and eggs will sustain hibernation and gestation during this time.
The remaining parts of the salmon’s body feed other creatures of the forest as well as the forest itself. A carcass carried deep into the forest will provide nitrogen and nourishment to the huge trees far from the ocean.
We sit quietly, we just missed a kill and the ravens are busy overhead. There are eagles here too. Soon it is quiet but then it all starts up again a few hundred meters further upstream. The predators know that we are here by smell and they are moving away from us but still feeding.
We see salmon carcasses with large bites taken out of the mid section – bears.
We find a dog salmon jaw – wolves – and paw prints for further proof. The jaw has surprisingly large teeth. Its a male fish and they use these dog sized teeth to fight each other for the opportunity to spawn.
The forest shows remnants of ancient harvests when Tsimshian people’s men would carefully cleave planks from trees in ways that would allow the trees to continue living, and women would peel long narrow sheets of bark to weave into clothing, baskets, buckets, even diapers… Each time they would tell the tree what they where doing and why – asking the tree for permission. We can see several of these trees still alive, the bark has now grown over the once exposed inner wood. We also see signs of more recent harvesting – tall trunks with axe cut niches for holding planks of wood, springboards, that would have enabled 19th century loggers to cut completely through the narrow part of the trunk with a long and broad two handled hand saw.
After a breakfast of freshly picked huckleberries on pancakes we set off for a day on the boards. The weather is clear and warm. We paddle past York point through Whale Channel and on to Fish Bay on Gil Island. From here we paddle up the estuary and into the creek. The tall trees on either side form a canyon of green that reaches right down to the high tide line. There are numerous eagles here feeding on salmon. The flowing water is coming from higher ground, taking large stony steps down to the sea. Further in we can see the salmon gathering at the bottom of these small falls. Occasionally they burst from the water, jumping high up to the next pool. The sun is beautiful but if it doesn’t rain again within a couple of days the creek level will drop, stranding the salmon.
Soon we moved on, paddling back out to Whale Channel. We paddled toward Taylor Bight and beached in front of the one structure on Gil Island: a house and working lab. This place is known as Cetacealab. Inside the lab and home, the sound of the ocean, as picked up by four hydrophones, is being played continually through speakers. Currently we aren’t hearing whale song but the simple bubbly sounds of water flowing over the equipment. About 10 years ago Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter were granted permission by hereditary Gitga’at Chief, Johnny Clifton, to build this lab as a place to study behavior of Humpbacks and Orcas. Chief Clifton‘s stipulation was that Janie and Hermann would share their findings with the Hartley Bay people, for purposes of education and so that the people are able to explain the importance of this cycle of life to those who enter the area solely for purposes of heavy resource extraction.
As Janie and Hermann put it “For Whales, (their not for profit organization) has one purpose, to protect and research whales along the coast of BC”. It sounds like an impossibly broad mandate but they actually have very precise areas of focus and are working in a step by step, scientific manner. Hermann is currently out making underwater repairs to one of the Hydrophones but Janie tells to us about their experiences here, some of what they have learned and what their current projects are. The big question: “why do Humpbacks sing”? is yet to be answered, however, they have been working through several projects. They have identified the individual Orca and Humpback whales in an acoustic and photo ID catalogue and they have followed an increasing resident population of Humpback whales since their arrival in 2001. They have also monitored the strong social and established feeding bonds between these whales. Over the last 10 years they have been recording and studying the humpback whale song that has been developing over centuries. Janie plays several recordings for us. According to Janie male Humpbacks build their songs through creative processes and develop the finished piece which is then taken up and learned by other whales. A song can be up to 20 minutes in length and sung continuously for up to 24 hours. Janie tells us that these song sessions are her favourite time to be in the lab as the whales music is transmitted through speakers throughout the day and night. It is theorized that the song is part of the mating ritual, not necessarily used to attract a mate but as a challenge to other males; possibly a composition contest?
We paddle off of the beach toward the pass. At whale point we are startled by a sudden breach in the still surface. A young Humpback surfaces directly in front of us, blows, arches its back and goes under. We stop hoping to get another close up glimpse. Although young, the animal is enormous – up this close we can make out its ribbed ventral grooves, knobby hair follicles and the barnacles on its body. The whale surfaces again, the hump and dorsal fin arc upwards, slip under the water and are followed by the upright fluked tail. We radio Janie to tell her about this whale and she says he has been in residence over the last few days. Some Humpbacks, once hunted very close to extinction, are now adopting new patterns. All of the once tiny number of whales migrated but now some whales are beginning to stay if the source of food is available.
It was another incredible day. Again we are very tired, the wood stove is burning and we are in our sleeping bags, falling asleep to the movement of the ocean in our bodies.
Great Bear Rainforest Stand Up Paddle Expedition · Day 5: Whale Songs