San Juan Islands Archive

Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

On Board the Soundwatch Boat

The Soundwatch Boater Education Progamme has been running for nearly twenty-five years. Eric Eisenhardt, the current director, is into his third season. Before that, the previous incumbent had run the programme for twenty. It feels, though, as if Eric has all the decades’ experience in his eyes and memory. He knows all the boats and most of their captains, can identify the individual orca, knows the waters around San Juan Island, the rips and tears, and small passages, the quadrants split up into hundreds of small squares, the lines of sight and the landmarks. We’re about the same age, perhaps he’s a year or two older or younger, it’s difficult to tell, the thing that swings it for me are his good teeth, a kind smile hidden in his sun-tempered beard. The sun does this to people, it seems: makes you both older and younger than you are.

Soundwatch educates people on the water about the correct whale watching guidelines, the same type of programme as run by CETUS out of Victoria. And indeed later that day we see Leah Thorpe and her crew on the water in their new boat, borrowed from the Canadian DFO. It is a slick black zodiac with brand new CETUS Straitwatch insignia. CETUS are dressed up in orange waterproofs and have an official-looking life jacket. It is much more formal and authoritarian than Soundwatch’s battered old skip, its backup, as its first boat is in the shop for repairs, and us, the four crew, two of us in shorts, Sarah in her running gear, and only John fully crewed like a fisherman in waterproofs, gumboot and hat. Although our faded blue life jackets all have the Soundwatch logo. But authoritarian isn’t always best in these delicate waters, where the work of both projects, to engage the public in what’s best for the whales, can be a nuanced, tactful business. The public, and this genuinely shocks but does not surprise me, isn’t always interested in what’s best for the whales.

This is a wholly different type of programme to what I was invited to take part in the day before, in the belly of the Whale Museum. This is at the sharp end, where the actual welfare of an endangered species is at risk on a daily, often minute-by-minute basis, from boaters. Harassment of the orca in the waters can directly impact on their survival, and is a crime in both US and Canadian waters, but easier to police in US waters, because of the clear regulations. So Soundwatch and Straitwatch, as monitoring and research programmes that deliver just-in-time education, along with the Washington Department of Fisheries and Waters (WDFW) and NOAA, the “big cheese” explains John, the two proper enforcement bodies, police these waters and stop people from harmful boating behaviours.

Around 9am we motor out of Snug Harbour on the west of the island and stop for fuel in Roche Bay. It is a prissy, pretty resort, with at least a billion dollars’ worth of yacht moored along its quays. As we refuel, the waste removal boat The Phecal Freak pulls in to clean away the resort’s effluvia. I think this is genius and want to take a photo, but am slightly embarrassed of what my fellow volunteers for the day, Sarah, an intern from Cal State Channel Islands, and John, a former IBM manager and now a board member of The Whale Museum, might think. (I also think Friday’s Harbour waste removal boat, The Pumpty Dumpty, is even more genius. I’ll get a photo of that instead, later.)

P1040415Then we leave Roche Harbour. As soon as we’ve trundled out of the harbour’s limits Eric asks us if we’re ready to go faster, and then throttles the Yamaha engine. A moment later the prow is up in the air and my hat is threatening to fly off and I can’t open my eyes for the wind, but it’s exhilarating, and I love it, especially as the water’s rough and we bounce along with my stomach rising and dropping, every now and then catching air, and once or twice really taking off, landing each time with a thud that jars the backbone.

“It’s a little choppy,” Eric apologises. But it’s fun. The water is more like a river, roiling and rolling around, and throwing us with it. As we head south to find the whales we enter the fog we’d seen earlier that morning, but which cleared up as we went north. Immediately the whole atmosphere changes. It’s mysterious, heavenly, ephemeral. Like being inside a thought and seeing it for what it is. And then out of the fog we begin to see boats. These are whale watching tours out of San Juan, out of Victoria. The international border is a few miles away, cutting the waters down the middle between land masses. And where there are whale watching boats, there are, because of the excellent and connected whale spotting network, whales.

P1040422There they are. Their dorsal fins breaking surface as they come up for air. The spumes of water a dozen feet high, wisps of mist, and then their backs curving back into the sea, a sight of their saddle patch, a fluke breaking cover and slapping down. There are about ten or twelve orca, males, females and calves, in three or four groups. Eric and Sarah do their first boat count of the day. EC 6. (Eco Tour boats from Canada). EU 3 (the same, from the States). PM 2 (private motors). Others. MM, such as us, monitoring motors. Much of the work of Soundwatch is the recording of this data, the two pillars of the work of The Whale Museum being education and research.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. But whenever we spot the whales and when the different types of boats, the eco tours and the private boats, also spot the whales, there is a ruckus on the water to get close and to follow the orca as they head north along the west side of San Juan Island. It is a fleet, and I feel, more than fleetingly, sorry for the whales, whose lives are constantly under rowdy surveillance. They are followed all day, every day, but do not leave, because this is their home.

P1040410But we’re here to help. Immediately we are in action, approaching a yacht that is half the distance from the whales as the whale watching tour boats, many of whom are part of the Pacific Whale Watching Association and, mostly, follow the Whale Wise Guidelines. We approach and the captain is, if not friendly then at least neutral, and says he knows the guidelines. We don’t ask him why he’s not following them. He says something about trying to back up, but those weren’t his boating actions. We offer him a brochure with the guidelines on it, and he says he doesn’t want them, before a member of his party says she does. My job today is to hand over the brochures on the end of a telescoping fishing pole, and I do this, I’m relieved, without missing or falling in. We spin around and head off, Eric shaking his head a little. John writes down the encounter on the recording sheet. The Whale Museum and the Soundwatch Programme has been recording this type of encounter for more than twenty years. It is this data that was, in part, critical to having the orca population here registered in 2005 as endangered, which led to the regulations being updated and, now, enforced. The whole encounter took less than a minute. That’s all the time that the Soundwatch team have, with the boats moving on the water, with the distance between crews, to get across the basics of the guidelines, and to hand over the materials. It is intense education.

But there’s actually no time to stop. We’re now heading over to a two-tiered power boat that comes at the whales along the coast from the north, directly in their path. When they pull up they are well short of 400 yards, which is unacceptable behaviour. If NOAA were on the scene they could issue a $30,000 fine for this. Soundwatch can only monitor and advise. We’re not there quick enough to intercept their course, but we pull up alongside. There are nuclear two families, two couples and their netball team of teenage girls, all sitting along the back of the boat with their camera-phones out, snapping away.

“Hey there,” shouts Eric. Steely faces. “We’re from The Whale Museum, we’re here to educate boaters about the regulations for good practice around the whales.”

“Yeah I know them,” says one of the guys. “We just came from over there,” he says pointing to the west. It’s a blatant lie, as we watched them steam in from the north and pull up.

“Okay great, you know the guidelines,” says Eric, as our boat, a tenth of the size, manoeuvres around theirs. “But then you’re not doing it right.”

The steely faces continue. We don’t bother offering them a brochure. Eric runs through the guidelines, and then pulls away.

“I get tired of their inventions,” Eric says when we’re out of earshot. But he smiles all the way through the encounter. His job is a diplomatic one. Not for the first time on this trip I come to believe that one of the most important assets a human can offer for the benefit of the animals they are trying to help is a smile. As Mary-chris Staples said, a smile can be an invitation to engage. Without this opening up, change is often impossible.

P1040414John is scribbling down on the encounter sheet. He looks up at Eric.

“How would you rate that?” John asks. There is a scale of human interaction for the encounter that needs recording. Eric thinks about it.

“Poor,” he says, after a while. A little while later when we look back, we see the boat has pulled out of the line of the orcas’ progress.

“Well that’s what matters in the end, ay?” says Eric. “They’ve changed their behaviour.”

Later on I keep a check on that boat, and yes, they stay with the fleet after that warning. The intervention made a difference, for now.


The next few hours are filled with boat counts every half hour, the recording of every incident one of us spots, and a number of interactions with private boats and yachts who seem not to know about the guidelines. Some, like the Wind Witch, out of San Francisco, are genuinely unaware of the whales. They leave Mosquito Pass, a notorious point for boats crossing the whales’ path, heading for California.

P1040420“Are there whales here?” asks the woman on board. She immediately turns to her partner at the wheel. “We’ll cut the engine to neutral.”

“That’s great,” says Eric, although they’ve essentially already crossed the orcas’ path. We move around to the other side and pass them a leaflet, which they take gladly, smiling, and follow Eric’s guidelines to wait with the fleet.

Others suggest they know the regulations—one guy even waves his brochure at us while barely stopping from his photo-taking—without strictly following them. Each time, Eric instructs John to write down another incident in the shorthand code that makes the job easier. Eric knows each of the codes by heart, of course. “That’s a 3.1 and a 5.3, PM, transiting,” he says. John marks this down, as well as the name and registration of the boat, on his two sheets, incidents and encounters.

Sometimes we have to put our own boat down on the incident sheet because in attempting to get to the private boats before they infringe the regulations and get too close to the whales, we’ve done so as well. Once or twice we’re right in the whales’ path. “MM 3.1” says Eric.

“One of the other drivers says if you’re not infringing once or twice a day, then you’re not doing your job,” says John.

Eric agrees. If you’re too far back then you’re not close enough to get to the private boats before they do harm. It’s a fine balance, but a risk that has to be taken sometimes.

Because it’s a tricky business. The whales are not all in one group, and can change direction at any time. Sometimes the private boats and yachts get genuinely caught up in the swings and sashays of the whales. But then you get some boats that are reckless and arrogant, like this one, as we watch it literally chasing behind the very line of the whales’ path, less than a hundred feet behind. This is cutting right over the whales, and is beyond unacceptable. It’s one of the times we also get too close to the whales. Eric approaches but the captain palms us off and swings away. I watch as a couple on the prow use their high-powered lens to get their photos. They don’t back off, but we do, of course, needing to get out of the way of the whales. But then the WDFW have seen what happened, and approach us, and Eric explains. “That’s what we needed to know,” one of the officers says, and goes after the boat. We watch as the WFDW officers give the boat a $1000 ticket. A wildlife crime has just been committed, and the perpetrator has been punished on the spot. I feel strangely righted.


P1040423When the orca need to rest, they line up flipper to flipper. They are voluntary breathers, unlike us, for whom breathing is automatic. So when they are ‘sleeping’ one of the pod stays awake and breathes, and in their almost-unconscious state, the others hear this and come up for air as well. Eric flaps his arms around as he tells me this, imitating a dozy orca, and it makes me laugh, as if we can all understand the state they are in, that relaxed type of napping that we experience on a warm sunny afternoon, or in the morning after not enough sleep.

They are lined up like this for much of the latter part of the day while we are on the water, as they follow the coastline up to Boundary, on their way to the Fraser River. We are in Canadian waters now. This is the most peaceful part of the day, when the whale watching boats simply chug along four or five hundred feet away in a line all heading north and east, and the orca are all together, so it makes it easier to stay away from them.  This is the moment when we sit on the water and get a little drowsy ourselves. In twelve minutes Eric and Sarah will do their last boat count of the day. John has no more incidents to report, and Eric is unworried, as all the PMs have disappeared, so we will head back in time for the Whale Museum’s softball game in the Island League. For the rest of their circuit with the flow tide northwards, the orca will remain relatively unbothered, and then return south overnight with the ebb tide, with almost no boats to contend with, with no surveillance of their passing.

“Well what do you think?” asks Eric as we’re almost ready to head back.

“It’s intense,” I say, and all three of them laugh.

“Yep,” he agrees. The work puts you in the present moment, making decisions based on what is happening that minute, as to what to do that’s best. And it is directly beneficial to an incredible wonder, this endangered species with its own social system, its dialects of communication, its greeting rituals, their distinct culture. It is also the accumulation of the data which continues to play a crucial role in the protection of this endangered species.

“One possibility for what was going to happen when they were given protected status,” explains Eric, “is that this whole west side of the island, for half a mile out, would be boat free. But a lot of the tours come out of this side, and so they were vocal, of course, in opposition. So the idea was dropped. But it could still happen.”

It would be comfortable to imagine that. The resident orca having their favoured paths through the water untouched by tour boats or private, not relying on this intense, fast turning monitoring and intervention. The Whale Museum, like many, if not most, organisations of its type, never have enough funding to do all the things they would like. Eric is both Soundwatch Coordinator and Research Curator, and the two jobs are too much for one person. Of course during the summer the whale watching tours run into the evenings, when Soundwatch are not on the water. And private boats can come out any time. One of the most obdurate populations to shift, both physically in their boats and in terms of mindset, are the fishermen. The only thing to move them, usually, are NOAA. But Eric doesn’t give up on them. Conversations can make effective conservation, even with the fishermen who want to be in the same waters as the orca, both, of course, being after the same pink prize: salmon.

Back at Snug Harbour we tie up the boat and stow away our life jackets and head back to the truck. On the way we stop and talk to a guy at the resort, who asks who we are and what we’re doing. Eric explains, talks about the different volunteer roles that Sarah, John and I have been playing that day. The guy looks up at Eric.

“You mean if I have to come out with you I have to work?” he jokes. We all laugh.

“Sure,” says John. “You don’t get to whale watch. I had my nose in a spread sheet all day.

“But you do get to be with the whales for longer,” says Eric. “We’re with them all day. The tours are only there for an hour.”

And it’s true. I didn’t get to whale watch. In fact, for a long while, I was focused more on the boats than the whales. Even though I did get to think a bit longer about the experience, ponder on my questions, take a few photographs. We were never, intentionally, as close as any of the whale watching tour boats. Once or twice we were incredibly close, but moved away as quickly as possible. And yet if my day was not spent watching whales, that was because it was a day of being with them, in their environment, in a way that was respectful, even beneficial, to their needs and their survival. In the evening I feel good. Working for the whales does this to people, it seems: makes you both less and more significant that you really are.

Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Beeping Hearts: in the Whale Museum

A little way into Cindy’s presentation to this group of college biology majors from the local university I suddenly notice the beeping of one of the students’ watches, and realise it has been beeping for quite a while. I look over and the student, a tall young girl with blonde hair and a red dyed fringe is trying to hide the watch in the folds of her t-shirt, with that half-embarrassed and half-pleased smile that says she knows, innocently, she’s the centre of attention, and not what Cindy is presenting.

A few moments later one of the two professors catches her eye and mouths her to take the watch off. The student does so and hands it along the line, where the professor presses a button and the beeping stops. The professor gives the student a smile, and the student smiles back, and then all attention is back on Cindy, who is now telling us all that Eschrichtius robustus, the Gray Whale, has come back from the edge of extinction twice.

The first time was a recovery from whaling, where, as coastal dwellers feeding in shallow waters, the Gray was easy prey to the great whaling traditions of both First Nations and then European settlers. The second great trauma for the whales was the 1999-2000 season, where around a third of the population died, the scientists agreeing due to mass starvation. During the event the Gray Whales photographed looked emaciated—you can tell a whale is starved if you can see its shoulder blade, which should be covered in blubber. (Whales have the same bones in their flippers that we have in our shoulders and arms, right down to the thumb bone, because many millions of years ago, they too lived on land and used their forearms to move about, as we did, when we were apes.) But since then the population has bounced back to around 20-25,000 individuals in the population along the US and Canadian west coast (and another smaller population in Asia). The Atlantic Gray Whale never recovered from whaling, and remains extinct.

It’s probably because they are opportunistic feeders, Cindy explains, that the Gray Whales have done so well, whereas other populations, such as the resident orcas in these waters, which feed exclusively on salmon, and preferably on Chinook salmon, are not doing so well. When the salmon population drops, the orca suffer. Since 1990 the salmon along this stretch of the Salish Sea, the collective name for the waters from Alaska to Puget Sound, have been dying in massive numbers. A new documentary film, Salmon Confidential, by the director Twyla Roscovich, featuring the BC marine biologist Alexandra Morton, lays the blame for this directly at the door of the aquaculture industry—the farmed salmon business—and its protectors in the DFO (Department for Fisheries and Oceans), and its paymasters, politicians in the Canadian Government. The evidence seems almost incontrovertible that farmed salmon fishing has introduced devastating pathogens into the indigenous wild salmon populations. And yet to protect its trade deals with the US and China, the Canadian government is engaged, the film claims, in a massive cover up.

Cindy introduces us to two individual Gray Whales. The first is ‘Little Patch’, with a white patch, obviously, on its side. Patch has been back to the same feeding grounds in Puget Sound for twenty-three years running. The second individual is Stinky Pete, not such a lucky whale, (and not the Frasier-voiced character from Toy Story 2, either) whose one-year-old skeleton fills the room in which we are sitting as Cindy gives her presentation, not nicely lined up but set down in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, waiting for the college students to put the skeleton together and, doing so, figure out what it was that killed Stinky Pete.

While the students are putting together the skeleton, I chat with the two professors. The main purpose of their daytrip to The Whale Museum, on Friday Harbour, where I am working for a few days to learn about their best practice in education, and about the success and strategies of the museum itself, is for biology class; while the students don’t know that much about whales, they do know about the different bones, the cervical and thoracic, the lumbar and caudal, about the atlas bone at the top of the spinal cord and the axis at its end, the processes of the lumbar and thoracic leading to the ribs, all beautiful words to me, words I recognise from my own limited knowledge of the human body, words that connect this great Gray creature and my own existence, we have the same bones, we both crawled, we both breathed. (Later, however, Cindy will chide the students for beginning the rib cage too high, at the cervical bones. “The ribs come out of your neck, do they?” she laughs.)

However the second reason the students are here, or the benefit of the trip, and one that delights me beyond what it should, is that their biology class is being combined with physical education. Their heart rates are being monitored: hence the student not knowing how to switch off what I thought was her watch. I look around. Yes, they’re all wearing them, some have two watches on, of course, a detail I did not at first notice. Later, they will stop for lunch, and its nutritional value will be calculated. This doubling up of educational experience, the first professor, a tall man with a calm face and a poker hat, explains, will, he hopes, make links between the sustainability of the whales and the sustaining of the students’ own bodies. It is a wonderful experiment, I think, artistic in its composition, if art is or can be about the revealing of what is hidden about our connected living.

The students don’t have much trouble piecing together the skeleton, and from there its quite clear to discover, from the broken bones along one section of the thoracic spine and ribs, that Stinky Pete died from boat strike, a disease of trammeling modernity, glimpses of which I will see the following day when out on the Soundwatch boat patrolling the western side of San Juan Island, when a private yacht practically runs right over the passaging orca (and will be given a $1000 dollar ticket for it by WDFW, Washington’s water police) to get its holiday pictures. The boat was probably a big one, a tanker of some sort, with a huge propeller, and one which Stinky Pete did not hear, perhaps because of the huge amount of noise pollution in the water, or simply because he was a juvenile and had not yet learned how to discern threat and danger.

But in fact Stinky Pete did not die from boat strike. He died from starvation. Some of the broken bones, one student notices, have healed. Which meant Stinky Pete probably lived for another six months from being hit. He starved, because his way of feeding—rolling in the shallows, digging and wriggling right into the mud to reach his prey, crab, crayfish, human rubbish—would have been too painful for him. Stinky Pete died because it was too painful to eat. Stinky Pete felt and responded to pain. And yet people still ride their boats over whales so they can show off their photos to friends and family when they’re finished with the charter.

“So what are the things we can do to help protect the whales?” asks Cindy, near the end of the session. Reduce noise, says one. Protect their migration routes, says another. This has worked for the critically endangered Atlantic Right Whale, whose numbers have started to rebound after boat paths were rerouted to get out of the whales’ passage. To reduce pollution and clean up the oceans: when a necropsy was performed on another dead Gray Whale, half a ton of litter was found in its stomach. Clear up old nettings so that they don’t get entangled: a new disentanglement unit has been put in place in Baja, California, where the Grays mate and give birth. Although not much can be done about predation from other whales: the transient orcas are responsible for about a third of all Gray whale calf mortality. Although perhaps something can still be done about the 140 Gray Whales permitted to be slaughtered each year by Russia as part of its traditional peoples’ rights. Half a percent of a population of families each year.

Cindy then takes the group on a tour of the museum. I went earlier on a private tour and learned much about the resident orca populations, so duck out to get some lunch, let the knowledge settle in, think, and write. A story is filtering through me about the forty-five resident orcas that were captured and taken from the waters, and the dozen or so more who were killed, by the sealife centres such as SeaWorld, which has been struck by so much negative publicity recently since the release of the film Blackfish. Of the forty-five who found their way into the captive system, only one remains alive, Lolita. Considering orca can live up to 103-years old, so far, and counting, in the wild, their premature deaths in captivity is only one indicator of its banal wrongness. The fact that Lolita still uses the same calls as her L-pod family is another. The fact that she swims around in an illegally-sized bathtub is another. There are at least forty more. I go online to try and discover the names of all the other wild orca who were captured. Nowadays, when a new calf is born to the pods in the wild, The Whale Museum runs an adoption programme to raise money and there is a competition to name the new arrival. It seems an intelligent and generative idea to connect the local populations with their water neighbours.

The Whale Museum itself is a successful institution. Established in 1976, it runs education programmes and conducts research into the resident orca, and is one of many marine organisations in the region who have successfully contributed to the identification of the orca as an endangered species, therefore demanding special protection. Such protection was given in 2005, after a long thirty years of data collection and a battle to have them protected. The local volunteers, the NGOs, the organisations, even the government, all work together to protect the orca. No wild captures have taken place for decades. Although sadly some aquariums still take wild caught cetaceans, these orca in the wild are protected from that horrific separation at least.

On the earlier tour we listened to the acoustics of the orca. There are three pods in the Southern Resident Population, J, K and L, and each of them have distinct calls or dialects. “We call the K’s the kittens,” says Cindy, and you can hear why; high pitched mewling, one of the other women on the tour can’t help but “Ah” at the sounds of it. We listen to J and L too, and to the transient orca who pass through but do not live in these waters, whose calls are much deeper. We also listen to what a super-pod sounds like, when J, K and L all come together. Cindy asks us to listen out for what sounds like laughing. We hear it, a kind of cackle, deeper than the usual calls.

“That’s the one universal call,” she says, “it’s done by most orca we know of, here, in the Arctic, in Russia, populations that have never met.” It’s the innate call of the orca species, something they must have genetically, the same way some bird calls are made up of genetic and learned parts. It means, of course, that language is part of the orca genome.

We also learn about what Cindy proudly calls the “culture” of the orca, one of the aspects of their lives that earned them the status as a distinct species, which was necessary for NOAA to give them protected status. This is something only the southern resident orca do. When two pods meet after a while separated, say J and K, what they do is this: they talk and talk and talk under water for a long time, until they come and line up, face to face to each other, and then go completely silent. They face each other in the water in these lines for a few minutes, before they swim together and intermingle, and their calling begins again. They do this each time. What is this if it is not a ritual, memorised and repeated, something essential to their “cultural” life, something that benefits their social experience. Something they value?

As the students disappear I am left with Stinky Pete, who usually resides in his pieces in bins behind educational banners, but who will be left out because there’s another school group coming in, this time third graders, who will be put through the same exercise in a few days. I think about Pete since his death. How he washed up on shore, how his body was saved for educational purposes, how his skeleton was put in a cage in the water to let other ocean creatures pick his flesh bare, how the more fragile bones were transported to the Burke Museum in Seattle to let the beetles in their cases do the final cleansing work, how in this way his dead flesh benefits other creatures in the ecosystem. How his bones are then coated in a solution of Elmer’s glue and water every five years to stop them from falling apart. How his mother may have lamented. How the heart rate of perhaps one young student may have increased on hearing his story. How the beeping of that heart cannot be stopped.