Environmental organizations are just as worried, if not more, about the sea as the forest. The proposed twin pipeline, which its proponents consider crucial for connecting the Alberta oil sands to Asian markets, would snake a 1,170-kilometre route through the rain forest to a coastal port stationed due north in the small village of Kitimat. If built, approximately 250 supertankers – as long as the Empire State Building is tall – will squeeze through these tight, winding channels each year.
Barring the worst-case scenario of an oil spill (which would spread much further in water than on land and be more complicated to clean up), high-density tanker traffic could still wreak havoc on a fragile marine ecosystem. Which is why we, a motley crew of journalists flown in courtesy of the King Pacific Lodge and World Wildlife Fund, are going whale watching.
Listen. Those high-pitched mewls, bellowing growls, whistles and screeches played over crackling static is the sound of whale music recorded by a network of five underwater hydrophones covering 25 square kilometres in this heavily populated habitat.
“Whales like to talk,” says Janie Wray, one of two field scientists who operate Cetacea Lab, an independent research station perched on stilts and decorated in tie-dyed batik at the southern end of Gil Island. For 11 years, she, Hermann Meuter and a handful of volunteers have been conducting biweekly boat surveys and maintaining daily, 16-hour deckside vigils to count, identify and study these fascinating mammals. But mostly they listen.
They listen for northern resident orcas calling out in the recognizably distinct dialects of each matrilineal pod – loud, social, close-knit family groups in which sons never leave their mothers. How Italian.
They use special equipment to hear low-frequency fin whales. The accident-prone species (hit more frequently by ships than any other whale) have just begun returning to this area, in steadily increasing numbers, after being hunted close to extinction decades ago.
Come fall, they will eavesdrop on the ethereal humpback whale song, one of the animal kingdom’s greatest mysteries. Much like classical music, the song has a complex structure that can be broken down into a series of units, phrases and themes, repeated in sequential order during sessions that can last for several days.
Only male humpback whales sing the song, while hanging upside down underwater, as some sort of mating ritual to attract females or ward off other males. But every male humpback in a geographic region, from here to as far as Japan, sings the exact same song at the same time. What’s even more astonishing is that the song is constantly changing into completely new patterns that are sometimes unrecognizable from year to year.
Until recently, it was assumed that humpbacks only sang after migrating to Mexico. But now they’re singing here. “We have no idea how they all know to change the song, especially over such vast distances,” says Wray, who recorded her first northern song eight years ago. “And we don’t know how they’ll react to all the noise from the tankers. We think they’ll probably just go to another place to feed.”
Pleasantly sated from a gourmet picnic lunch that included a luscious roast-pork sandwich, quinoa salad, chocolate tarts and a crema-rich shot of hand-pumped espresso, I cast my crystal flash wooly bugger across the gurgling Gamble River and sigh contentedly. This is my first time fly fishing and I’ve already caught four cutthroat trout.
Twisting through the newly designated K’Mooda/Lowe-Gamble Conservancy, the eerily isolated river is part of a vast lake system that has been fished by the Gitga’at and Gitxaala First Nations for centuries upon centuries.
Yet it still feels untouched, as if we’re the first explorers to descend by helicopter onto the rocky, lichen-tufted tundra. If this serene sense of discovery is spoiled for future fishermen who happen to stumble upon a lost pair of Oakley sunglasses, I apologize in advance. (But please bring them back – they’re prescription.)