For the love of whales 

The lowdown on life as a whale research volunteer

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY JENN DICKIE - Dive time Humpbacks are frequent visitors to Caamano Sound and their strong family units and acoustic traditions are captivating to researchers and volunteers alike.
  • Photo by Jenn Dickie
  • Dive time Humpbacks are frequent visitors to Caamano Sound and their strong family units and acoustic traditions are captivating to researchers and volunteers alike.

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.

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