Janie Wray stands by the wheel of a small aluminum boat that slaps lightly against the low chop of a narrow channel. To either side, densely-forested slopes rise from the sea and disappear into clouds. Mountainsides fade back in layers, from deep green to slate and pale grey-blue. In the distance, rays of sun light break through dark clouds to crown an island in gold.
It is a poster-ready scene, but Wray’s gaze is fixed is on a nondescript patch of water near the boat. One hand cradles a Canon camera with a long zoom lens. She waits.
A booming exhale erupts behind her and she laughs as she spins around. Close beside the boat a dark back the size of a minivan rises and dips forward into the sea. A second, smaller back shadows the first.
Wray sets the boat on a slow track behind and parallel to the humpback whales as they surface and blow again. On the third rise they blow deeply, arch their backs high, and roll forward in unison. The adult’s broad tail flukes lift upright in the final moments of the dive. “Hello, Cheetah,” Wray murmurs. Her camera clicks.
It’s fall of 2015, and Wray is conducting a day-long survey of whale abundance and behaviour in waterways around Caamano Sound, at the entrance to Douglas Channel on B.C.’s northern Pacific coast. From its head at Kitimat, the Douglas Channel winds over 80 kilometres through the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, and past the islands – Princess Royal, Gribbell – famed for their populations of rare, white Spirit Bears.
On the land use planning maps, the boundaries of the Great Bear Rainforest are clear: to the tide line, and no further. Along the shoreline beside Wray’s boat, the transition is almost as sharp. At high tide, the boughs of cedars and hemlocks rest on the water.
Beneath the surface, the dark greys and greens of the rainforest briefly give way to an explosion of colour: seaweeds in bronze, burgundy, and iridescent blue; sea stars in violet, pink, ochre and vermillion; ghostly nudibranchs competing for space with scarlet-and-yellow striped anemones; rock surfaces encrusted with white, pink, and orange sponges and dotted by the living pincushions of purple or green sea urchins. Then the steep rock faces drop away into darkness, reaching depths of dozens of metres just a few boat-lengths from shore.
Somewhere down there the whale forages with her calf.
While the landmark Great Bear Rainforest conservation agreements have unfolded around them in a series of internationally-celebrated milestones over the last 15 years, Wray and her research partner Hermann Meuter have kept their eyes and ears to the sea. In the process they have tracked a remarkable ecological recovery and found themselves in front row seats at the epicentre of a nationwide pitched battle.
In 2000, as First Nations, the B.C. Government, environmental groups and forest companies were settling on the initial protocols and framework agreement that launched the land use planning and negotiations to come—Wray and Meuter sailed their little wooden boat around the south end of Princess Royal Island and into Casanave Channel.
“I get a warm feeling from this place,” Meuter wrote in the ship’s log.
As they tell the story of how that warm feeling turned into an all-consuming passion, Wray and Meuter alternate between the easy banter of longstanding colleagues, and the bickering of intimate friends frayed by too much time in close quarters. Wray’s fading auburn hair frames a warm smile and ready laugh, while Meuter’s athletic build, aquiline features and steady gaze give an impression of severity that is undermined by deadpan humour.
They are alike in ruddy complexions and creases around the eyes, a testament to years on the water.
The pair, then in their thirties, first met as interns working at Orca Lab on northern Vancouver Island. They quickly discovered that they shared a passion for whales and for the non-invasive research methodology that Orca Lab pioneered, using hydrophones (underwater microphones) and visual surveys to track whales from a distance. The two married in 1998 and began planning their future.
“At that point,” recalls Meuter, “the question on all the researchers’ minds was, ‘where do the Northern Resident killer whales go in the winter?’ So, we decided to go to the north coast. We thought maybe we could find out.” They had no idea what they were getting into.
“All I knew about this area was that it was very remote: a lot of water and not many people,” says Wray. “That was it.” The two studied a chart of the BC coast, looking for a good location for a hydrophone network. They noted a maze of channels that converge near the mouth of Douglas Channel and decided to pursue the idea of setting up a research station.
Their first step was to meet with the Gitga’at Chief Johnny Clifton to ask permission to work in Gitga’at First Nation territory. “It took a long time to get a meeting with him,” says Meuter. “We heard that he was spending the winter in Prince Rupert, so we moved there too. And finally we met with him and his wife Helen. We described to them who we are, what we wanted to do, what our goals were. They listened, and then the Chief said ‘I like it.’”
Chief Clifton invited Wray and Meuter to look for a building site on Gil Island. They suspect that this was a first test. It is a forbidding shore, made up mostly of dense forest broken by granite outcrops. But at one spot along the south coast of Gil, where Whale Channel and Squally Channel meet among a cluster of islands between Caamano and Estevan Sounds, an indent known as Taylor Bight creates a windbreak around a small headland edged by rocky beaches.
As soon as they landed their boat, Wray and Meuter knew they had found what they were looking for. A natural clearing in the trees framed a level building site. A nearby creek offered fresh water and a source of hydroelectric power. A wolf trail led from the beach to a high rocky bluff with an expansive view over the sea.
“We just walked around, stunned,” Wray remembers. “This place had everything we needed. But more than that, there was just this feeling of coming home. As if the land was saying, ‘you’re finally here.’ We went back and told Chief Clifton all about it, and he just smiled and said ‘Oh, so you found it.’ He knew exactly where it was. He just wanted to see if these crazy kids could even find the spot.”
Together with the Gitga’at First Nation, Wray and Meuter founded Cetacea Lab.
They wrote grant proposals and gathered equipment. They recruited Meuter’s friends from Germany to build a house. They donned scuba gear to install hydrophones, and climbed trees to mount the solar panels that powered them. All the building materials, equipment, and supplies were loaded on and off their boat by hand, and carried up the rocks from the beach. As soon as they had a roof over their heads, Wray and Meuter began gathering data. They had no clear research agenda, recalls Wray. “We just started recording everything we heard and everything we saw. All the marine mammals. Which, at first, wasn’t very much.”
Through the late 1800s and into the mid-1900s, worldwide commercial whaling drove most of the planet’s large whale species to the verge of extinction. Of a population of 50,000 humpback whales that once travelled the western coast of North America, a scant 1500 remained by the time the whale hunt ended in 1966. A unique non-migratory humpback population in Georgia Strait had disappeared entirely, and sightings along the BC coast were rare. Fin whales – the second largest animal on Earth, next to the blue whale – were even scarcer. In 2003 and 2004, Cetacea Lab identified about 40 individual humpback whales around Caamano Sound and spotted just a handful of fin whales. Then the numbers suddenly started to climb.
In 2006—the year that First Nations, conservation groups, the forest industry, and the government of BC celebrated the first landmark Great Bear Rainforest Agreement—Wray and Meuter identified more than 60 humpback whales, many of which were returnees from the previous year. By 2010, the humpback count was over 100. Cetacea Lab was also tracking the steady use of the area by two distinct orca populations: the salmon-eating Northern Resident population, and the marine-mammal-hunting Transient, or Bigg’s, orcas. Fin whale sightings became regular events, with a striking twist: “they come right into Taylor Bight, right into these channels,” notes Meuter. “This is the only place on the coast of North America where you can observe fin whales from shore.”
Cetacea Lab was becoming well-established, recognized by the community of whale researchers for its wealth of data in an area that had unexpectedly become one of the most important cetacean habitats on the BC coast. Wray and Meuter’s dream was coming true—but at a much higher cost than either had anticipated. The years of isolation had taken an irreparable toll on their relationship, and the two separated. Except they discovered they couldn’t. While their marriage was over, neither could abandon a commitment to whale research and to Cetacea Lab.
“We have the same passion,” says Meuter. “That made it easier to just suck it up and find a solution to the end of the relationship.” With a fortuitously-timed grant, the two built an observation lab that includes separate accommodations. “Once we weren’t living together, then we could work together again,” says Wray. “Actually, we work together better now than we ever did while we were married.”
The lab, a compact wooden building perched over the rocky point to take advantage of the commanding view, now serves as Cetacea Lab’s centre of operations. At one end a small wood stove crackles quietly; at the other, a large coffeepot burbles on a two-burner camp stove. The space between the two is given over to a large telescope, a tall fir cabinet stacked with acoustic equipment, and plank shelves scattered with notebooks, reference texts, and camera accessories. In one corner, behind a folding wooden screen, is the entirety of Wray’s personal space: a bed, a small closet, and a chest of drawers. Speakers mounted on the wall provide a non-stop broadcast of signals from the hydrophone network, and conversations in the lab are regularly interrupted by whale calls or the grunts of groundfish.
Between 2006 and 2010, while Cetacea Lab was tracking the region’s resurging whale populations, First Nations in the region were working with Canada and BC on an innovative tripartite framework for a marine planning process for BC’s central and northern coasts. The First Nations envisioned an extension of the Great Bear Rainforest model to create an integrated land-to-sea ecosystem management regime, with strong goals for both marine conservation and economic development.
“We were reminded by our Chiefs and Elders that we could not separate land and marine issues,” said Art Sterritt, then the Executive Director of the Coastal First Nations, in his address to an event in 2009 to launch the planning process. “We are uniquely positioned to work with government and other groups to ensure that, at the end of this marine planning process, we have a healthy marine ecosystem and a thriving coastal economy.”
Everyone involved acknowledged that marine planning would be a bigger challenge than the land use planning process, given the sea’s ecological, economic, and jurisdictional complexities. But the federal government was clear. “We will be persistent,” affirmed Paul Sprout, the Regional Director General of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, at the 2009 launch event. “At the end of the day, it’s too important.” Progress over the next few years was slow, however, hampered by opposition from some of the major marine industry players; the energy and commercial shipping sectors, in particular, had other priorities in mind.
In 2010, Enbridge Inc. filed its proposal to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would bring hundreds of crude oil supertankers through Douglas Channel each year. Cetacea Lab gained standing as an intervenor and submitted a report to the project’s Joint Review Panel arguing against the proposal. “I remember giving oral testimony in Hartley Bay, says Meuter. “I remember sitting in front of the panel, talking to them. The whole village was sitting behind me… That was huge, having that reassurance that what we do down here means something.”
Cetacea Lab’s report highlighted the growing significance of the region for cetacean rearing, foraging, and social activity. It also noted the high risk of ship strikes and pollution as well as the impacts of underwater noise.
For animals such as whales that rely on listening to feed, navigate, and find mates, the underwater soundscape is a crucial habitat feature. Recent research and acoustic modelling indicates that Caamano Sound sits at the centre of one of the quietest stretches of water on Canada’s Pacific coast. With continued expansion at ports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and the additional traffic this brings along the coast, quiet areas are becoming increasingly rare.
In the fall of 2011, the federal government’s persistence in multi-use marine planning came to an abrupt end. Canada abandoned the tripartite agreement, a move that many saw as consistent with the Harper administration’s exercise in slashing policies and regulations that could be seen as barriers to resource development. Rather than relinquish their commitment to collaborative planning in their marine territories, however, First Nations worked with BC to restructure the marine planning process, creating the bilateral Marine Planning Partnership, or MaPP.
Between 2012 and 2015, MaPP grappled with the task of developing Canada’s first large-scale “marine spatial plans,” using ocean zoning as a tool to organize and manage the region’s many marine activities. During the same period, polarized rhetoric escalated over the Northern Gateway proposal and other oil pipeline projects. The Harper government blasted pipeline critics as “radical groups…with a radical ideological agenda,” while conservation organizations mounted national campaigns to rally supporters against the weakening of environmental laws and policies. Undeterred by the turmoil, Cetacea Lab kept its attention on the sea, and continued to expand its hydrophone network and research agenda.
Today, one set of hydrophones provides a nonstop broadcast to Whale Point, where Wray, Meuter, and their seasonal interns listen day and night to record the abundance, movements, and vocal behaviour of cetaceans in nearby waterways. In locations beyond transmission range, a second set of hydrophones stores data on memory cards that the researchers periodically collect for analysis.
A third cluster of hydrophones is designed to deliver both audio files and live spectrograms. The spectrograms are particularly helpful because human ears are not able to detect the low-frequency fin whale calls. This network is designed to pinpoint the location of a vocal whale in relation to any approaching vessels, and to record the whale’s response to the disturbance: whether it moves from the area, ceases calling, or changes the pitch or volume of its calls. “It all has to do with understanding the impact of increased shipping on whales and their habitat,” says Meuter.
With recent shifts in the economic, political, and legal landscape, it appears increasingly likely that the Northern Gateway Pipeline will never be built. However, Wray and Meuter remain concerned about other potential development in the region, including proposals for a liquified natural gas plant and an oil refinery in Kitimat. Either of these projects would see hundreds of fuel carriers passing through Douglas Channel each year. While their cargo may be less environmentally destructive than diluted bitumen, the risk of ship strikes and the certainty of noise pollution remain. Cetacea Lab’s research has convinced Wray and Meuter of the need for additional protection, including acoustic refuges, in the waterways around Caamano Sound.
Across Canada, marine protection lags far behind its terrestrial counterpart. Nowhere is this more true than in the Great Bear region. On land, about 85 percent of the landscape is now protected from industrial development; at sea, scarcely one percent. A relatively low level of human activity, combined with highly productive ecosystems that sustain rare and endangered wildlife, make Caamano Sound the marine equivalent of an old-growth rainforest watershed—but without the charismatic visuals. Images of coastal wolves, spirit bears, and grizzlies grace conservation campaign posters around the world, while underwater ecosystems remain largely beneath notice. One of the great challenges of marine conservation is invisibility.
In 2015, Cetacea Lab sighted over a thousand humpback whales, identifying more than 250 individuals and recording another surge in new arrivals. As in previous years, many of the regularly returning whales, or ‘residents,’ were mothers with calves. In other parts of the world, female humpbacks have been shown to have strong site fidelity; that is, they return to the same locations year after year. One of Wray’s current research projects is to examine whether the same is true of this population. She would not be surprised to find that Caamano Sound is a favoured spot: “A mother humpback has just one season with her calf. Less than a year to teach it everything it needs to know to survive. This place is very rich in food, it is safe, and it is very quiet. It is the perfect place to rear a calf.”
In the spring of 2015, First Nations Chiefs and the BC Government celebrated the completion of the MaPP plans. A significant portion of the area around Caamano Sound and the adjoining Whale Channel are proposed as ‘protection management zones,’ where ecological integrity and habitat values should be given priority.
These proposed zones will be the subject of a new round of discussions between the MaPP partners and the federal government, which alone has the power to establish marine protected areas and to regulate shipping. In stark contrast to its predecessor, the newly-elected federal Liberal government has made strong commitments to marine protection, ocean co-management, and formalizing an oil tanker moratorium on BC’s north coast.
For Meuter and Wray, the opportunity to contribute to this renewed conversation about the future of the Great Bear Sea is the culmination of a lifetime of effort. “It’s an amazing thing,” says Meuter, “to be able to tap into [the whales’] acoustic world and to witness changes in their acoustic traditions, to be able to listen to the beauty of their songs—and at the same time to use that information to show just how silent this place is compared to other parts of the coast, and to support the idea that we need to preserve this as quiet ocean. That is why I am here.”
By the end of her day-long survey on the boat, Wray has recorded encounters with 34 humpbacks, along with over a dozen Bigg’s orcas and several pods of Dall’s porpoises. She shuts off the motor and lets the boat bob quietly in a long green corridor. To one side, a mother humpback sleeps with her calf at the water’s surface. To the other, a group of three juveniles jostle and posture like self-conscious teenagers. In the sheltered channel the late afternoon is so still that their blows hang in pillars of mist against the dark shore.
At some invisible agreement, the boisterous young whales turn and, three abreast, head purposefully toward the boat, veering slightly to make a procession across the bow. Barely an arm’s-length away each whale in turn arches, rolls into a dive, and flukes. Wray smiles and spreads her arms wide as though to embrace the whales, the channel, the day, everything. “Even after all these years, there are moments when I just can’t believe I’m here,” she says. “My life came true.”