As summer draws to a close along the British Columbia coast, Janie Wray sets off on probably her final humpback survey of the season. Wondering whether she’ll see any of the whales at all, she discovers that the best has been kept for last.
The days were getting shorter and colder and I knew that winter would soon be closing in. The next day could well be the last whale survey of the season and I would need to make every moment count. I spent the evening organising my camera equipment, the proper gear for the long boat ride, my notebooks and enough food and coffee to last the full day. The next morning I was up and ready to leave before the sun had risen over the mountains to the east. Today my research companion would be Cohen, the best whale-detecting dog ever! This was the first time in more than two weeks that my feet had left the island and the feeling of freedom was intense as I put the boat in gear and was on my way.
After three stops and a travel time of two hours, I hadn’t seen a single blow and was beginning to get worried. I turned from Whale Channel into McKay Reach, hoping my luck would change. Slowly I continued, maintaining the same technique of stopping, scanning and listening for whales. By the time I reached Bishop Bay my level of concern had risen dramatically. Where had all the whales gone? I travelled deep into the end of the bay and turned off the engine. Even with no whales, this place is the true inspiration for ‘sound of silence – my old friend’. Giant old-growth trees, reflected on the still, emerald sea and with moss dripping from their thick branches, took the breath from my body. When I heard the blow of a humpback, then another, I wondered if I had fallen asleep and was now dreaming. It was all just too perfect to absorb. I hesitated to start the engine, believing that the sound would break this moment. So I sat and waited.
My patience that day was rewarded: a mother, her calf and two adult humpbacks formed a line and glided towards the boat, so relaxed as they passed us it was as if we weren’t even there. Then to my delight the little calf turned back towards the boat and did a complete roll just a few feet away, stopping halfway and making serious eye contact. My heart and jaw hung over the side of the boat, as did Cohen’s, which is what may have aroused the calf’s curiosity. The water at this time of the year is so clear I could easily make out specific markings on this unusual creature’s face. Then just as quickly, and with a swift flick of its tail, it was back at its mother’s side.
The sound of a huge inhalation caught my attention. This signalled that at least one whale in this group was about to take a long dive, which increased my chances of getting an identification photo of the fluke. I really wanted to know who this mother was! One after the other, each whale arched its majestic back and then gracefully raised its tail high into the air, just long enough for me to take a photograph. Finally, it was the mother’s turn. Effortlessly she too arched her back and then the moment of truth was revealed, as her black fluke slid through the water and they were gone. Her tail was completely black, not a speck of white. Who could this be? I immediately checked our photo database and can honestly say that tears followed shortly afterwards when I realised that this was Velvet. The outline of her fluke has a small dimple and her tail is the colour of midnight black. We have been watching this whale for years, wondering whether it was male or female. Now, with a calf by her side, we knew for sure. I sat alone in the boat and sighed, feeling so proud for a whale that did not even know my name.
It was then that I noticed there was a fifth whale, fast sleep, floating on the calm surface. Had it not taken a breath, I would have never have been aware of its presence. I dared not motor over and disturb this sleeping wonder, so instead I followed the four whales as they playfully travelled back towards the entrance to Ursula Channel. They slowed down considerably and, much to the small calf’s dismay, went to sleep. The mother was completely relaxed, but her calf danced around at her side, obviously not at all ready for a nap. The other two whales were also next to one another, but a good 300 metres (1,000 feet) away from the mother. I decided to go back and see if by chance the lone sleepy whale had woken up. I didn’t have to travel far. To my surprise, not only was this whale awake, it had followed my boat and, more probably, the group of whales out of the bay. It suddenly fluked and I was grateful my camera was already in position. In less than a second I had a perfect photograph.