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For the love of whales

The lowdown on life as a whale research volunteer

She laughs out loud as she tells the tale of an explicitly inelegant, yet memorable moment in time — after observing a group of a dozen humpback whales bubble-net feeding, with their haunting calls reverberating through the aluminium boat just as they were about to surface, she left the scene covered in what can best be described as "whale snot."

"The blow of the whale is not a particularly lovely smelling thing," she adds.

This is Squamish resident Jenn Dickie, an avid photographer and adventure guide, who is re-living her five-week experience of volunteering at Cetacealab, a remote whale research station positioned in the heart of B.C.'s northwest coast in the Great Bear Rainforest and the land of the Gitga'at people. Perched on the southern edge of Gil Island, Cetacealab was established in 2001 by a determined duo — Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter. With the blessings of the Gitga'at people, these whale researchers worked tirelessly to etch out a small house and eventually a research lab at the site and for the last three years they have been welcoming volunteers to assist them in their ambitious whale research programs.

Dickie entered the scene at virtually the same time Wray and Meuter were setting up the station — which involved constructing a micro-hydro plant in a nearby creek to provide power for the lab equipment and employing driftwood to build their house. Freshly trained as an adventure guide, Dickie embraced a summer job at King Pacific Lodge, a floating hotel in a nearby bay, and found herself taking guests on kayaking trips to the newly set up lab to hear the researchers talk about the whales.

"For them, they had come up in search of the orcas, because most of their experience had been with orcas in Johnstone Strait and what they had discovered, and what I certainly was learning, was that there were more humpbacks in that area then they had initially thought," she said.

In her role as guide she had had some remarkable encounters with humpbacks and so, with her interest sufficiently piqued, Dickie maintained a connection with the researchers and returned to the Great Bear Rainforest whenever she could.

Meanwhile, they were embarking on an innovative humpback photo identification project — given that the underside of their tail fluke is a unique identifying feature, like a fingerprint, documenting humpback tail flukes allows for the identification of individual whales.

"I do a lot of photography so I was interested in coming up and working in particular on the humpback whale ID project," explained Dickie.

So, with a spate of determination so characteristic of passionate people, she saved up her holiday time over a number of years and finally was able to return last summer to fulfil her dream of volunteering at Cetacealab.

Cetacealab sits at the convergence of numerous waterways, making it an ideal habitat for a wide diversity of species. Approximately 252 humpbacks return each year to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of Caamano Sound after their long migration from Hawaii or Baja California, orcas pass through as they follow the salmon south and recently fin whales have returned to the area they had long ago abandoned.

As for the true essence of the research conducted at the station, it can be summed up in a word: acoustics.

For this reason, the researchers have developed a network of hydrophone stations in strategic locations, covering an underwater area of 25 square kilometres. Each hydrophone has been placed 18 to 24 metres underwater, connected via cable to a land-based transmitter. The radio transmitter broadcasts all whale vocalizations back to the lab, which are monitored continuously in the lab, all year round.

And, as for the proposal to allow super tankers to chug through these pristine waters?

The researchers say the answer could not be clearer.

"If this project goes through, we will lose a very important place for whales, there's no doubt," says Meuter.

Whales depend on sound — it's crucial for their survival — and if the tankers come to this coast, Meuter and Wray argue it will drive them away.

Super tankers produce 215 decibels of noise underwater — which is 10 times as loud as if you stand 10 metres away from a jet plane engine, he explains.

"We can't really fathom how loud this is but it's enormously loud. It's a huge noise source and because these channels around here are so narrow, what will happen in these shallow inlets, the noise will echo back off the rocks which will make it even more confusing for the whales if they are navigating."

A day in the life

Dickie describes a typical day as a volunteer at Cetacealab.

The majority of time is spent watching, and then watching some more. While on duty for the five or six hour shift, volunteers use the spotting scopes and their naked eye to monitor for whale activity outside the lab in Taylor Bight.

"So there were always one or two people on shift at the lab recording what was going on visually as well as listening to the hydrophones — there were up to five hydrophones set up ... playing at all times. With the humpbacks you were typically hearing feeding calls; resident orca would be making more social calls as they were travelling."

Recording the whale calls enables the researchers to track whale activity, to identify individuals as much as possible and also get an idea of their social structure, she said.

When not on whale watching duty, volunteers help out making dinner, chopping wood or exploring the beaches. In Dickie's case, that was always with her camera in tow.

"I just about always had my camera and for me, even in my personal time, it was all about spending some time focused on photography. It was relaxing as much as it was work."

But whales were always on the scene in one way or another.

When the volunteers and researchers converged to share a meal at the end of the day, Dickie noted that whale recordings would be playing in the background.

And even in the tents there was a microphone which would play the calls, so if you heard things in the middle of the night, you could hop up and record them, explained Dickie, adding that she has many fond memories of lying in her tent at night, listening to whale blows in the bay.

And if Cetacealab wasn't isolated enough, volunteers could spend time at Ulric Point, an out camp on Aristazabal Island. Dickie describes it as a rustic little shack where she stayed for a week with another volunteer, watching for whales, photographing and recording their behaviour.

As for challenges, as a hardy, experienced wilderness guide, Dickie says she didn't find it difficult to live in a tent for five weeks and even allowed herself the luxury of a pillow, but she did notice some of the other volunteers brought tents which were not suited to the super-saturated rainforest climate.

When asked what she took away from the experience, she admits her passion for the Great Bear Rainforest has only grown stronger as a result.

"For me, the time to be in and around the wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest is a rewarding thing," she said. "It's different, it's so much richer than most places I've worked and guided — whether it's the whales or the bears or the wolves or even just the inter-tidal life, there's so much life in that area that it's invigorating for me, it reminds you what wilderness really means or what it could look like.

"I live in Squamish and we go down to the river and there's 10 or 12 salmon visible in one little spot and people think that's great. That same section of river on a north coast river might have 10,000 salmon. It's night and day difference of the quantity and the richness of the wildlife.

"I certainly have a lot of love for that area," she continued, "and the threats with Enbridge and the pipeline and the tanker traffic being proposed to come through there is certainly concerning when you have a sense of all the wilderness and wildlife that exist in that area."

To learn more about Cetacealab whale research station, go to