Whale Tales: A Canadian adventure

Humpbacks, orcas, minkes aplenty: Leonard Doyle and family join an Earthwatch expedition in coastal Canada to try to solve the mystery of the missing greys
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The Independent Travel

The water slapped gently against the side of our sea kayaks as we paddled out from Skull Cove in the early morning sunshine in search of grey whales. They make an annual commute which starts 3,000 miles away in Mexico's Baja California and ends somewhere inside the Arctic Circle.

From our encampment on the wild coast of British Columbia, we headed up the Schooner Channel in the direction of the Nakwakto Rapids, the world's fastest navigable tidal currents. "Did you see that bald eagle?" my 13-year-old son, Garrett, exclaimed from the bow of our double kayak. "It had a salmon in its talons!" Much too focused on nosing the kayak into the gentle swell rolling in from the Pacific, I had missed it as it passed overhead. With its six-foot wingspan, the eagle - once on the brink of extinction in the Americas - was making leisurely progress across the bay. The salmon struggled gamely, but unsuccessfully, to escape. I need not have worried about missing the eagle's flight overhead. There would be further dramas of the natural world as the week unfolded.

In the space of a couple of hours' kayaking we would be surrounded by playful harbour porpoises, observe a sea otter hunting for fish, see a sea lion stretch and lazily slide off a rock into the placid waters, and listen to the ancient sigh of the grey whale, a sound that has echoed through these waters across the millennia. At other times we would see minke whales gorge themselves as they charged through schools of migrating herring, and watch salmon jump as they headed upstream.

Almost empty of people, the coastline of British Columbia opposite Northern Vancouver Island is a beautiful, if eerie place. How could such a productive environment, teeming with wildlife and natural resources be almost completely devoid of permanent settlement? The answer, it emerged from some investigation, is quite sinister.

We had paddled past a tiny island which, 44 years ago, was a thriving summer fishing village of the Gwa'Sala people. The village, along with dozens like it, was the scene of one of the most disgraceful episodes of recent Canadian history. In the summer of 1964, ordered by the government, Mounties arrived and marched the natives out of villages up and down the coast at gunpoint. The Mounties returned to burn down the villages to prevent the Indians returning. But here, at Skull Cove, they could not completely erase the memory of the Gwa'Sala. No trees will grow on the site of their village. The kitchen midden - six to nine feet deep, indicating thousands of years of continuous habitation - has turned the soil too alkaline for the acid-loving mountain spruce and hemlock.

For 9,000 years the entire area was home to the Gwa'Sala and Nakwaxda'xw peoples from whom the rapids are named. These Indians were scattered over a wide area and they lived along the heavily wooded inlets and waterways. They fished, gathering berries, gooseneck barnacles, fist-sized mussels and seaweed from the surrounding land.

Both the Gwa'Sala and Nakwaxda'xw lived in permanent villages made up of traditional wooden longhouses. They also built exquisite totem poles, many of which were plundered by museum collectors. Their traditional world ended abruptly when the Canadian government dumped them in slum-like conditions in Port Hardy, four hours away by boat. Alcohol abuse, drugs and the forced separation of children from parents all but destroyed this vibrant community. To prise unwilling Indians off the land the Canadian government cut off funding for housing, schools and services, then it lied about providing improved housing, health and education facilities, and jobs. None materialised and the Indians were forced to live 30 to a house, without the benefit of toilets or running water. Unsurprisingly, the Gwa'Sala and Nakwaxda'xw communities imploded.

As we paddled along the silent coast, it was hard not to reflect on the cruelty that lay behind their tragic exile in faraway Port Hardy. Nakwakto is one of the relatively few native-American place-names to survive in common usage - three major fjords empty through the narrow passage, creating tidal currents as fast as 17 knots, twice a day in each direction. The surge of water where racing ebb tides meet deep Pacific currents helps to create some of the most biologically productive waters in the world. The up-welling of nutrients provides a conveyor-belt of food that sustains natural life from microscopic zooplankton to 20-30 foot whales.

But of the grey whales we had come to monitor, as part of an Earthwatch expedition, there was still not a sign. Two years ago, the bay outside our encampment had been visited by a hundred grey whales during the summer season. Each of them was carefully photographed and identified by the Earthwatch team. Then, abruptly, last year the whales disappeared from the Queen Charlotte Strait as did their main food supply, mysid shrimp and amphipods. The mystery of the missing grey whales was preoccupying the scientists from the environmental charity Earthwatch we were working with. An ominous e-mail we received before departing for Canada made clear that no grey whales were spotted in all of 2005 and there were no guarantees that any would be seen this year.

The omens were not great. Svenja, one of the Earthwatch crew, could find no evidence of the mysid shrimp that the grey whales came to feed on. Initial trips in the survey boat showed plenty of humpback whales and minkes, but no greys. Gloom settled over our expedition.

On day three the picture changed suddenly. Not 500 yards from our encampment, a grey whale broke through the water with a quiet splash. Then it blew its fishy-smelling mist over the surface before raising its flukes and diving out of sight. Electrified, my daughter Katherine, and Zoe from Earthwatch, gave chase. However frantically they paddled, no amount of effort could get them closer to the whale as it made its stately progress to the open ocean, diving for three or four minutes and then surfacing to blow a fine plume over the water. The appearance of the first grey of the season was a dramatic overture to a week of surprises and revelations. We were about as far from civilisation as it is possible to get in this globalised world and were learning something of the mystery of nature and its fragility in the face of human progress.

These waters teem with salmon returning to their natal streams; and there are millions of herring and their predators, from sea lions and porpoise to humpback whales. Then there are the killer-whale (orca) pods, which search these waters for coho salmon, which they track by echo-location. Then there are the "transient" orcas, known as the wolves of the ocean, which use stealth to ambush unwary animals.

There are some 216 resident orcas that patrol the waters from Seattle to Alaska (and another 250 or so transients). They are an endangered species whose numbers are gradually returning to health. Attacks by orcas on humans are virtually unknown, but Bath University's Dr William Megill, the chief scientist on our expedition, had already described witnessing a pod of five- to nine-ton orcas kill a seal weighing about half a ton. "They tossed the unfortunate animal from one to the other for a half an hour, before finally finishing it off," he had told me in the flickering light of our Skull Cove campfire.

Suddenly aware of the fragility of our kayak, I scoured the waters around us for the telltale dorsal fins of orcas. There were, of course, none in this sheltered channel, although a couple of days before we had witnessed a pod ebulliently breaching the water as they cruised up the Queen Charlotte Strait.

The Boston- and Oxford-based environmental charity Earthwatch is leading the way in funding research into unravelling the mysteries of grey whale migrations. It helps keep Dr Megill's own research institute, the Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation or CERF, afloat. On their way up from Mexico's Baja California, these gentle leviathans, which can grow to 40ft in length and live to more than 70 years, tightly hug the coast, foraging for shoals of tiny shrimp among the kelp beds. They lean to one side and stir up the bottom, sucking up mysids and amphipods as well as red crabs, baitfish and other food. They also pass through three major ecosystems, travelling within sight of some of the world's richest cities (and wealthiest individuals), and their continued health is an important bellwether of the sustainability of the environment. There are an estimated 15,000 grey whales left in the Eastern Pacific, and less than 100 in the west. The grey whale was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic in the 19th century.

Earthwatch encourages members of the general public to join its scientists as volunteers. The idea is that you make a contribution, typically some £800, and then watch your charitable donation at work and, hopefully, make a meaningful contribution to the core work of scientific research.

This explains how my wife Patricia and our two teenagers found ourselves on the beach of Skull Cove at 7.30am each morning waiting to be assigned tasks for the long day ahead. On any given morning two of us might take to the kayaks with the task of mapping kelp beds in the bay, using hand-held global positioning system devices. Another might depart on Stardust, the expedition's 38ft research vessel on a 12-hour search of greys. The most fun for our teenage children was going "frogging". This involved wading up a creek through the towering rainforest to capture as many northern red-legged frogs as they could find in a day. Every frog caught was carefully held down on a white board to be photographed for later identification, and then released. Like the whale, the red-legged frog can tell an important story about the health of ecosystems. Fortunately, there were plenty in Skull Cove, where logging and other commercial activities are banned while the land remains in a treaty dispute between the Canadian government and the First Nations.

Another, more discreet, experiment in Skull Cove that week involved finding out how our family unit would cope far from the comfort zone of the big city, in the challenging conditions of a temperate rainforest. The answer was: remarkably well, in large measure because of the enthusiasm and commitment of the Earthwatch scientists.

The weather, on what is sometimes called the Rain Coast, was also kind to us and we were billeted in newly built wooden huts dotted around the encampment. Showering was difficult and some of the facilities brought to mind the challenges of summer festivals. But the kitchen and dining areas were triumphs of backwoods design: wide open to the elements, but set on a spectacular headland that provided stunning views of passing whales and other wildlife.

For Earthwatch, a non-campaigning* *environmental charity, it would also be a first - a trial run of including families, including under-16s, on a research project. There were two other small family groups with us, both from the East Coast of the US. Children from 10 upwards can join a family team with a parent or guardian. For the coming year Earthwatch is allowing family teams to volunteer for its Mammoth Graveyard expedition in Utah, a Coastal Ecology Investigation in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico's Rainforest and the Grey Whale Migration of British Columbia, which we had joined.

On board Stardust, Megill was nosing us towards the treacherous waters of the fabled Cape Caution, five hours sailing from our camp. Although the seas were calm today, the convergence of water from three directions and the shallow water around the cape can create waves as tall as 30ft, almost without warning. Suddenly a cry went up from one of the crew: "there's a blow!" followed by "it's a grey!"

A mood of excitement coursed through the crew of the Stardust as we followed the grey down the channel. "It's our old friend Boomerang," said Megill, as though speaking of a personal acquaintance, "I've been running into him since 1994, look how healthy he seems."

Soon afterwards we were chasing another grey, who the crew identified by markings on his back from their photo-archive as "Mugsy". He was proving elusive, a characteristic the crew were all too familiar with from encounters with him in Mexico's Baja California. "Mugsy's back to his old tricks of snorkelling as soon as we approach," said Megill, making a note in his great black book of whale sightings.

By the time the Stardust had pulled back into Skull Cove, after a 13-hour survey of the coastline, the whale-watchers had logged another four greys as well as humpbacks. The happy sound of "thar she blows!" kept ringing out, followed by the whirr of cameras and the careful detailing of where the sighting occurred and the condition of the whale.

By this stage we had learned to spot the telltale blows on the horizon almost as quickly as the professionals. More difficult was distinguishing between the heart-shaped blow of the grey whale and the taller, more columnar shape of the humpback.

Around the campfire that night there were toasted marshmallows as Megill broke out his guitar to celebrate the first proper sightings of the season. As we sang our way through the night it felt as if human life had returned to the land of the Nakwaxda'xw, and that their 9,000 years of history in these parts might not be completely forgotten.

We departed the next day, for the lengthy journey across the Queen Charlotte Strait to Port Hardy, where the exiled native Americans are now concentrated, the grey whales an indelible memory in a week that had pushed our boundaries in ways I did not think possible.

But there was to be a sad postscript to our expedition, for the whales did not return in anything like the numbers of previous years. There is no ready explanation for their absence. Could it be that global warming is already affecting sea temperatures and the sources of food eaten by the whales? Perhaps it is pollution. William Megill's Earthwatch team remains unconvinced. The best explanation it can come up with at this stage is that the whales gorged themselves so much on swarms of mycid shrimp that they drastically depleted their own food supply.

"Whatever the reason, the whales are largely absent once again," Megill told me by telephone this week. "It makes for exciting biology, but it also underscores the fragility of these ecosystems. We tamper with them at our peril."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to Vancouver with Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com), which flies from Gatwick, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast.

Vancouver is also served by Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow and Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an offset from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climate care.org). For a return flight to Vancouver, in economy, this is £16.10. The money funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

VOLUNTEERING

The Earthwatch Institute's (01865 318831; www.earthwatch.org) next six-day Grey Whale Migration of British Columbia expeditionstake place between late July and mid September 2007. The cost is £675, which includes shared cabin accommodation and meals, transfers from Vancouver, but not international flights.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism British Columbia: 0906 871 5000; www.hellobc.co.uk

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