Counting Killer Whales

Orca whale under the mistThe Pacific Northwest, especially near Alaska and along the Queen Charlotte Islands is wet, more wet, and then it rains.

From early May until September in the early 1960s, I counted both trees and killer whales among the coastal islands and inlets. Of 150 summer days only 11 were dry.

I was paid to survey forests, to audit old growth trees and count new seedlings, but I was more than eager to cruise the channels to visit and count the Orca.

Orca 'Killer Whales' in the Queen Charlotte StraitTo live in these wilderness forty years ago, there were no eco-tours, kayak trips or government funded biology jobs. And I was too young.

I was 16 but I’d told the loggers in Sandspit I was 18 and raised with a chainsaw wearing nail bottom boots, joking that if hired I was ready to start in the dark. After a few months of logging, labor and learning, I took over the timber survey, a job that required boating among the islands.

During each day navigating not far from from shore but often many miles from camp, pods of orca whale would pass through the ocean straights and often very near my small inboard boat. I’d stop to drift quietly as they slowly passed. My breath would stop; a sensation of awe fused in the terrific experience of being among creatures so fitted in this great earth.

Intensive field research of the orca whale began in the late 1970s, finding three distinct type of orca that circulate the coastal waters. The ‘resident’ whales, with a shorter fin, can generally be seen during the summer from Alaska down in to Puget Sound. The more aloof ‘transient’ whales hug close to the entire western coast of North America. There’s a smaller number of ‘open ocean’ killer whales, often nicked and scarred because it’s believed part of their diet is shark.

Mountains meet the seaThe northern coast of the Pacific is rugged. I was amazed as the mountains met the sea as if an entire continent had been squeezed. Our beaches, grasslands and forests to the line of rock and snow were in one view, from ocean to mountain top, as if compressed into a shorter box.

I found it easy to climb these peaks yet I nearly fell into a crevasse while crossing a flow of ice. Trembling but holding strong to an edge, I was shunning the nightmare I would be found years later as my bones melted through the bottom.

Rainforest of the Queen Charlotte IslandsThe endless precipitation has lifted robust and endless forests, now among the most critical and endangered rainforests on earth.

These dense forests are western red cedar and spruce on pre-glacial land almost 14,000 years old that stretch from Oregon to Alaska. Among 100s of islands south of Alaska, many so close together I could squeeze my boat between them only at high tide, the Haida have survived at least 9,000 years.

Haida art, Raven Releasing the SunIn this bountiful damp, from southeast Alaska to the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, the Haida developed a unique and strong culture in equal clans of the Raven and the Eagle, legendary for their art such as ‘Raven Releasing the Sun’ or “Raven Stealing the Moon“,

Raven Stealing the Moon by Douglas Reynolds

Haida believe Humans are a direct result of the supernatural and natural. A first contact explorer noted that the “Haida were so intertwined with the super-natural world before contact that we used to have to sing and dance hard to prove we were human.”

Today it’s the totem pole and the bighouse of the potlatch that top the unique character of these varied tribes, and they too are great creatures also fitted to the earth.

Haida natives of the Northwest

First Nation potlatch bighouse