Here we go, I was finally heading to a new chapter in my life. After I finished my apprenticeship as an automotive painter in June 2015, my journey to Canada finally started in July, actually only a day after my birthday. The funny thing was that I had my birthday again when I arrived in Canada, since you basically fly back in time. Exhausted but happier than ever, I arrived in Victoria (Vancouver Island). I met up with two German friends and together we made our way up to Telegraph Cove (TC), a well known place in the north of Vancouver Island.
The following day I was supposed to see my first orcas, since we planned to go on a whale watching trip. Unfortunately on that day, there were no orcas in the region but I still wanted to go out and just enjoy the breathtaking nature. Right outside the harbour of TC we found one of the many Dall's porpoise families, including a tiny baby. Later in the trip we saw humpbacks lunge-feed surrounded by a bunch of rhinoceros auklets. What a great day! Even though we had no orcas, the humpback Slash and her baby surely stole our hearts in no time.
The following day I finally made my way to Alert Bay, a community located on the small Cormorant Island. There I spent the following six months, four of them I stayed in my tent in the backyard of a couple that I met through my German friends. I helped them in my first Alert Bay 360 kayak/canoe/rowboat race, a really joyful and friendly event that takes place every year. I loved that race so much and in the end we went to the 'Namgis big house', where we were served a huge potluck dinner with all traditional food followed by their dances and songs. I fell deeply in love with their culture and the Island over all, and that weekend was a really special one and definitely one that I will never forget.
Now to my first Orcas:
A wonderful journey that in my mind started when I was 16 sitting in front of my laptop in Switzerland, finally started six years later! Uncountable times I wandered off in my dreams whether at night or during the day, imagining the first time I will see a black fin or hear my first blow. Here I sat now, on the bow of my friends boat, looking through my binoculars, and there was my first orca!
Beautiful I77, a big Northern Resident male surrounded by the rest of the I15 pod members. I was so happy that I finally saw my black and white beauties. Little did I know that the most emotional encounter was yet to come! When I was in Switzerland I followed Orcalab and tuned into the Orcalive system whenever I could. Often falling asleep to the A-clan calls. Thanks to that system I started to recognise some of the matrilines (families) and the first one was the A30 matriline, a very well known family.
For those who might not be as geeky as me, here a quick explanation about the meaning of clan and pod and also how we are able to recognise them just by their calls. To simplify we could call a clan "language", a pod "dialect" and the matriline "slang". Since every Matriline will have it's own slang/calls we can tell who they are just by listening to them. Within the Northern residents are three separate clans/languages, A, G and R, all of them having their own pods/dialects and within them different matrilines/slangs. Some might wonder where the I15s belong to, if there are only A-, G- and R- Clans. Well basically photo ID came before language ID. So the different pods were given letters according to the alphabet and when they were first seen. But as we finally found, that they all speak dialects, some of the I-matrilines actually belong to A-Clan and some of the I- matrilines belong to G-Clan and so on. The I15s were my first orcas and actually belong to G-Clan. But you can check out the ID catalogue here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281864494_Photo-identification_catalogue_and_status_of_the_northern_resident_killer_whale_population_in_2014
Now when it comes to their social structures, resident orcas have a very strong bond to their mothers. Individuals normally never leave their mothers and will stay within a matriline for life. This is especially true for males, a resident male orca can have such a strong bond to his mother, that her death can lead to his own. Some males can't cope with their mothers being gone and will stop feeding and eventually die. Its fair to say, that they are true mamas-boys. The ones that live after the passing of their mothers, usually follow their sister's group or will follow another related matriline. Females tend to build their own matriline after their mothers death and are often still refered to the matriline of which their slang comes from.
Here is how the A30 matriline looks today and what happened after the death of the matriarch. The two older siters A50 (Clio) and A54 (Blinkhorn) are now matriarches of their own families.
An emotional encounter:
I followed the A30s for six years, via orcalab and social media. Cried over the death of A30 (Tsitika) who was the matriarch of the family and was so sad to hear about the passing of her son A39 (Pointer). After those huge losses for the family, I was worried how they would cope with it and I was not sure if A38 (Blackney) would still be around after losing his mum and only a year after his brother. Anyway, I sure had a lot of worries for my beloved A30s. After the I15s left, I heard on the radio that someone saw more orcas coming into Blackfish Sound. One look through my binoculars, instant tears and the biggest grin! "There is Blankney" I yelled! Wow, I can tell you that moment felt like a long wished for reunion with close friends!
I couldn't believe it! There he was, Blackney together with the rest of the A30s. They were still far away and I asked if we had a hydrophone on board and sure enough we did. The minute I heard those familiar calls I couldn't stop crying. I was finally in Canada, with a huge fin (Blackney) coming my way, but I actually knew them all, I saw A72 (Bend) with her first baby A108(Jamieson) accompanied by A99 (Alder), her brother A84 (Klao/Klaoitsis)and her mum A50 (Clio). A bit farther in the distance was the rest of the family. What a day!
What followed is a fairy tale: I spent the summer together with my friends where I also had my tent and helped them with kayak trips and projects around the house. I thoroughly enjoyed all our adventures and trips to collect firewood, hikes and over all just spending time with them!
The friend that took me out on his boat to see my first orcas, gave me the number of a researcher who lives in Alert Bay. He said that I should at least try to get in touch with him, since he might have some projects I could help with. I didn't know that this number would change my life! I contacted him one evening and tried to formulate in some way, why I would love to meet him and how interested I was about orcas. Looking back now, I totally over thought that text message and a simple "Hi, would be great to chat with you about orcas and maybe I can help with some projects..." would probably have been enough. Anyway, a couple of days later I got a text that there were some orcas swimming past the island. They turned out to be Bigg's (transient) orcas, the first ones I'd ever seen and they had an almost newborn baby with them...
Now, Bigg's (transient) orcas are the mammal eaters and hunt seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoise, whales and so on. The name Bigg's was given to them because it was Dr. Michael Bigg, who realised that every orca can be identified by taking a picture of the grey patch (saddle-patch) behind the dorsal fin. He found that there are three main ecotypes in BC, mammal-feeding Bigg's (transient) orcas, salmon-feeding residents and shark-feeding offshore orcas. Originally the Bigg's were called transients because they appeared to have no preferred region like residents and to transit through different coastal territories. Bigg's orcas had to transit more between locations along the coast, because they relied on scarce seals and other mammals which were hard to find in those days. Today as the seal populations are thriving so are the Bigg's (transient) and they turn out to be quite bound to their regions too, as long as they have enough food. The Bigg's (transient) orcas are a perfect example of the fact that predator populations don't explode and overtake prey populations. Predator populations actually stagnate and fall if there is a lack of prey. With the Bigg's (transient) population thriving, they will now regulate the seal and sea lion populations along the coast and maintain a natural balance. I hope we as a race will one day understand the value of natural predators and that with a bit more respect and understanding, there is room for us all.
We met at last:
Shortly after I saw my first Bigg's orcas, I finally met the researcher from Alert Bay! About a month later, I was allowed to help with some minke whale IDs. A new chapter started, one that was filled with field trips, collecting prey samples like seal blubber or fish scales, taking photo ID pictures and countless hours spent with orcas, humpbacks and so on. The winter I spent with him in the office and out on the water was more than I ever wished for! Volunteering for him, not only brought me closer to the whales and their lives and research work, it gave me a wonderful friendship that is quite honestly more precious than anything else!
In 2016 I went back to Alert Bay, helped again at the Alert Bay 360 and was volunteering for Seasmoke whale watching. I spent a fantastic summer with them and was so happy to spend the whole summer on the water taking pictures and talking about my whales and dolphins and all the other creatures. This was followed by another research winter and the decision to extend my visa and stay a whole year.
After I spent another year in these beautiful surroundings, including some time at Orcalab, I had to leave the country in the fall of 2017 and go back "home". Shortly before I left, I got my first official job as a guide in Norway, and with that opportunity I had something to look forward to.
But one can only imagine how hard it was to leave my beloved friends and the amazing Alert Bay community!
I'd like to take this opportunity to send out a HUGE thank you to all my friends in Alert Bay and the surrounding area! I love you all so much and you can't imagine how grateful I am to have you all in my life!
Off to new shores...
I hope you enjoyed this part and soon I'll tell you about my time in Norway and how I finally ended up here in the Outer Hebrides.