The Unlikely Detective
Sandra Bartlett: Chris Bennett runs Blackfish Lodge in the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia. This group of islands is 300 kilometres north of Vancouver, where Canada’s West Coast crumbles into the Pacific Ocean.
His lodge is so isolated, the final leg of the journey is on a float plane.
His guests are from all over the world. They come for the scenery — to see bears and sea lions — but more than anything, they come looking for some of the best fishing on the planet: halibut, rockfish, but especially salmon.
Chris built the floating lodge himself, and between tourists and commercial fishing, he’s made a good living for 35 years.
He loves his guests’ reaction to his remote paradise.
Chris Bennett: And this guest from Ireland… We went up the streams and everything was abundant. And he was just so enthralled with this amazing ecosystem that was still in this, you know, relatively pristine state.
Chris: And then we went by a fish farm and he just, you know, you could just see his face just fell and he was just like: Oh, my God, I can't believe you've got these fish farms here. He said, these things are an unmitigated disaster.
Sandra: A fish farm is exactly what it sounds like. Fish being bred and harvested in fenced enclosures. This one looked like an open rectangular box made of aluminum, peeking up from the surface of the water off the coast.
A few weeks later, Chris was out on his boat with another group of tourists, this time from Scotland. When he looked into the water alongside the boat, he noticed young salmon — called smolt — acting … strangely.
Chris: But this chinook smolt, it was swimming around in circles and obviously distressed.
Sandra: A smolt is very tiny — about 2 inches or less — no fisherman is interested in something so small. And they would be hard to catch anyway because they dart around really fast. But there was something about these smolts that got Chris’ attention.
Chris: I leaned down to take a closer look and there are little black specks on them. It's like, oh, my God, what is going on? And so incapacitated that I was able to take a little dip net and scoop it up. And it was just covered with sea lice from head to tail and I was horrified.
Sandra: Sea lice are about the size of a mosquito. They look like a cross between a bedbug and a jellyfish — or, to put it simply — they look gross. They have been called vampires because they attach to the fish, suck their blood and then lay eggs.
Adult salmon in the ocean regularly have some sea lice. But on a full-grown fish, the sea lice can’t do much harm. But it only takes one or two to kill a smolt — they are so tiny, the lice eat right through them — which means that little smolt is never going to grow up to be a big salmon, or spawn and produce a new generation.
Chris got in his boat and piloted down the coast to Echo Bay. Chris didn’t know it, but he was about to start something — something that would touch almost everyone on the B.C. coast. Something that would bring them face to face with the disappearing wild Pacific salmon … and ignite a race to save them.
It was the first clue. And he would bring it to the most unlikely of detectives.
Off the coast of B.C., wild salmon started dying by the millions 20 years ago. Scientists raced to find out why. They threw themselves into research and found evidence that could help explain the losses.
A story like this one should be a hero’s tale … but it didn’t quite play out that way.
Sandra: Welcome to The Salmon People podcast. I’m Sandra Bartlett. This podcast is a co-production with Canada's National Observer. This is Episode 1: The Unlikely Detective.
Theme music fade
Sandra: Let’s go back to that unlikely detective, the one Chris Bennett brought the smolt to. Alexandra Morton.
A sort of Jane Goodall-meets-Erin Brockovich who has devoted the past 30 years to saving Canada’s wild salmon. A woman who had a completely different plan for her life but was pulled into the fight for the salmon, and pulled others in with her ...
Alex’s story starts in the late ’70s more than 2,000 kilometres south of Broughton Archipelago … not with salmon at all ... but with dolphins.
Alexandra Morton: It was the arrival of the National Geographic magazine with Jane Goodall on the cover that just absolutely changed my outlook, that I could study animals.
Sandra: Alex studied biology at university and then moved to California. She got a job with an eccentric biologist up on the Malibu hillside. She was hired to organize his catalogue of dolphin sounds. The fragile audiotapes were stored in a very cold room to preserve them and she asked to listen to the tapes as she worked and was fascinated with what she heard.
Alexandra: I came away with a deep sense that this was how I wanted to spend my life. I also really wanted to see them because now I've been listening to them for two years with no visuals. And so I approached the nearby oceanarium, Marineland of the Pacific, and asked them if I could record their dolphins.
Sfx from Marineland show
Sandra: Marineland of the Pacific was a big deal. It opened in 1954 — one year before Disneyland — and in true American style, there was nothing like it in the world. Visitors could put on a swim mask and snorkel and swim with the fish and the sharks.
It was the home of two performing orcas, or killer whales, Orky and Corky.
Music Marineland — Orky is the world’s biggest entertainer. If
You haven’t been to Marineland lately, come down and share it with us.
Marineland’s the one. Share the ocean, share the fun.
Sandra: So it might have seemed a bit cheeky for Alex to ask to hang around with the dolphins, but she got lucky.
Music Marineland — Orky is the world’s biggest entertainer. If
You haven’t been to Marineland lately, come down and share it with us.
Marineland’s the one. Share the ocean, share the fun.
Alexandra: And Marineland was closing for a period of three months to renovate the park, and so they were worried that the dolphins were going to be bored… And so the curator said, “Sure, you can put your hydrophones in there. But would you mind swimming with the dolphins?” Well, this was a dream come true. I was thrilled to swim with the dolphins.
Sandra: So sometimes she got in the water with the dolphins after setting up her hydrophone in the tank. A hydrophone is an underwater microphone.
Alexandra: It was scary. They're big and they're pushy and they saw me as a toy. So, for example, they loved it if you grabbed their fin and they would drag you around. But what they would do is they would swim straight towards the wall. So, I couldn't see a thing. There's all this water in my face and the dolphins would duck at the last moment and I would just slam into the wall. And I'm sure they were just chuckling.
Sandra: Alex was pretty sure she was, if nothing else, preventing boredom in the dolphins.
One day, a staff member told her a pretty major event was happening. Corky was having a baby — the first one in captivity.
Alex was asked to record the orcas, record the historic moment. She didn’t know it, but she was about to record a tragedy.
Alexandra: I recorded the little wispy calls of this infant whale, which was seven feet long, and the mother — very, very attentive, just always at that whale’s side, trying to keep it away from the tank wall … the tank was circular and it wasn't very big, and for baby whales to nurse, they have to be swimming in a straight line and gliding, and the baby has to find the mammaries, which are down near the tail of the orca.
SFX Clip The Great Whales: Corky’s first calf: 1:54. But something
appears to be wrong. The baby does not nurse right away. No one
can say if this is normal or not.
Sandra: Alex recorded and recorded, not understanding what she was hearing but watching as the baby tried to find the mammary to nurse.
Alexandra: The baby never found the milk and the female would swim around with the milk streaming out of her while the baby was calling and calling and calling and starving to death, and eventually, it just died. And this took about two weeks.
Sandra: Then Alex watched as Corky grieved.
Alexandra: What she did was she would go down to the bottom of the tank and just lie there and make this one call over and over and over. And she’d come up and just grab a breath and go back down. The male, he was obviously concerned about her and he just kept circling, and every now and then, he would make a different call. And she wouldn’t answer him. I became so engrossed in watching this that I stayed awake for a period of three days. And on the third night, she answered him and she rose to the surface and the two whales started swimming around together, and the call that the male had done every now and then, the female was repeating and it goes like this — picow, picow, picow, picow. And they just did this back and forth 30 to 40 minutes and then the next morning, the female began eating again.
Sandra: This happened not just once. Corky was pregnant seven times. Each baby was born stillborn or died because it couldn’t nurse. Alex realized that Corky wasn’t able to help her babies because she had been captured very young. Orca whales stay with their mothers and their siblings throughout their lives. Without a mother to guide her at childbirth, Corky had no idea how to help her baby nurse.
Alex was in touch with a whale researcher in B.C., telling him what she was seeing at Marineland. He had been the first to identify individual whale pods, or families, and he told her Corky’s family was in B.C. He said maybe she should study the family in the wild. Alex thought that was a good idea, so in the summers of 1979 and 1980, she went up to B.C., to a small island just north of Alert Bay.
SFX Orca sounds
Alexandra: I put the hydrophone down and I was used to hearing these calls from working with Corky in this confined cement structure. The whales I was hearing now, the calls just rolled on and on. It was like, oh, it was, oh, it was so beautiful.
Sandra: She found Corky’s family, a pod called the A clan orcas. After a few months, she was beginning to understand their language. She made a plan to make this her summer work — learning the language. Her time in California would be spent getting a PhD. And she could check in on Orky and Corky and do what she could to help them. It was a fine plan.
But this was the summer her life would change forever.
Alexandra: One day, I'm there in my boat and this Zodiac comes up to me… And this guy comes up to me, goes, “We’re making a film about whales. And we put an underwater camera down at this beach. We don't really know what the whales are doing there. And we want to have a researcher come and react to the whales on the camera. Would you come in and be that researcher in our film?” And I was like, OK, so I live in Hollywood at this point [and] I hate filmmakers because they're always, like, stopping traffic and they always think that they own the place. And it just was irritating. So, I said no. And he said, “I'll give you 15 gallons of gas if you do this.” I was like, OK, I'm in.
Sandra: At this point, Alex is supporting her research out of pocket, so she couldn’t resist the offer of gas for her boat.
Alexandra: So the next day, I go down there. It's a beautiful, calm day and it's a beach near Robertson, but with these smooth black pebbles. Nobody really knew what the whales were doing, but we all knew they went there and they did something because there were these great big upwellings that would happen, big bubbles and they were roiling around.
Alexandra: And I'm sitting there on the beach and I'm a little bit irritated with myself because it's a really calm day and there's lots of whales around. And I could be out there recording. And this guy walks out of the water, he was down there servicing the camera, and he takes off everything and he walks up the beach stark naked and he has a killer whale tattooed to his shoulder … just, like, oh, my God, who are you? … I was there with my boyfriend at the time, but poor guy, I just couldn’t see or hear him anymore. And that was Robin Morton.
Sandra: Robin had come out of the water after setting up his camera. Once he got dressed, he took her and her boyfriend into the woods where he had set up a small TV screen with a joystick that allowed him to move the camera.
Alexandra: He could watch what was going on with the whales underwater while they were there, and he realized they were rubbing. He called it a massage parlour. They were just, like, rubbing their bellies, their noses, their backs.
Sandra: The discovery of the whale-rubbing beach was a big deal. Everyone knew the whales came to rub on the beach, but they didn’t know why. Watching them underwater, it became clear it was a social gathering for the family.
Alexandra: I could see this big male. He was called a top notch or a five huge. Lovely. I just loved that whale. Anyway, he came in and he did a complete somersault and he actually rubbed the very top of his dorsal fin on this smooth, pebbly beach. Of course, how are you going to itch the top of your dorsal fin? I hadn't thought about that before. Anyway, that's how he did it. And so not only was I attracted to Robin physically, but he opened this whole world to me, a world that I wanted to live in and know more about what the whales are doing underwater.
Sandra: Alex had already decided to extend her stay in B.C., for a full year, but now she had another reason to stay. She didn’t know what would happen next, but she knew she wanted it.
Robin Morton was an independent photographer and videographer who did commercial films for submarine companies and institutional films for governments. But like Alex, his passion was whales.
It didn’t take much for Alex to fall in love with him.
Alexandra: Robin invited me down to his place to view his footage and to identify all the whales that he had photographed. By the time I came back from that trip, we were a couple.
Sandra: She imagined a life studying whales together — Robin photographing, she learning their language. Her plan to go back to California to get her PhD was put on hold. Within months, she and Robin were married.
Alexandra: We got married in April of 1981 and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already pregnant. I wasn’t really thinking, I was just so in love with him.
Sandra: Her son was born in December of 1981.
For his part, Robin found the most romantic home imaginable for his new family. He bought a big boat called the Blue Fjord and the two of them fixed it up.
Alexandra: You gotta watch these men, they fall in love with these old boats.
Sandra: At 60 feet, the boat was big enough that they could live on it and travel all over the B.C. coast following the whales. The boat was also their source of income. They were a charter company, taking tourists out to fish. And it was perfect for studying the orcas.
Alexandra: These were A clan whales … and they were engaging in their summer behaviour … where so many salmon gather in that area that the whales come there and socialize. And what you often see is that the males go off and play — and really play quite boisterously — and then females with young calves often collected together, and then their kids would play close to their mothers again, very excited and rolling over each other.
Sandra: But how do you figure out what they were saying to each other?
Alexandra: Well, I realized that when we're tucking our children into bed at night, there's a bunch of words we would always say. And when we were greeting family members or friends, there's things we would say. Hello, how are you doing? Good morning. When we were angry, there were swear words, and when we were calling each other, there would be words. And so I thought, OK, what I'm going to do is figure out what the whales are doing. Give that a classification. For example: play, sex, foraging, milling, births, turning around. And then I would take all the sounds that were produced in that moment, in that time frame, give them all a code and enter them in a computer and just look at the pattern.
Sandra: Alex and Robin followed the whales as the whales followed the salmon. They were also looking for a place to call home. Their son would soon need playmates and a school. But it had to be a place with whales close by.
Alexandra: Everywhere we went. It's like, OK, does this have the whales, children? We wanted some form of communication and we wanted protected waters. There's a lot of really rough water in British Columbia in the winter.
Sandra: Then one day, they followed a pod of whales into the Broughton Archipelago.
Alexandra: And it just seemed like this huge maze of islands and I wouldn't take my finger off the chart. I was so afraid we would get lost. Then we pulled into Echo Bay … and we pull up to the float house and there's a woman chopping wood. And there were two little girls running around. And my son comes out from the little canopied area … and one of the girls says, “Do you play cards?” And my son's like, yes. I don't think he even knew what cards were. But he really wanted to get out of that boat. And so off they went. It was the perfect place for us.
Sandra: In 1983, they tied the Blue Fjord to the government dock. It was at the crossroads of four major waterways where the whales gathered to rest or sleep as they moved out to the ocean. And with 200 people, Echo Bay was big enough to have a school.
Alexandra: Echo Bay itself was a bunch of everything, from hippies to artists, commercial fishermen, There were people who had been born there. It was a 100-year-old community.
Sandra: Their son had playmates and they were surrounded by whales. Sometimes, they went out to the whales together and Robin would go down under the water to photograph them while Alexandra recorded their language and made note of their activities. It was the perfect life. Working with the man she loved, and caring together for their young child.
Robin was taking photographs and video that no one else could get, in part, because he was filming in an isolated area where the whales were relaxed. But also, he was patient and ready to take a risk to get the footage he wanted.
Alexandra: He had this piece of equipment called a rebreather, which takes your exhalation and scrubs it and then adds a little bit of oxygen and you breathe it again.
Sandra: Rebreathers provide some freedom in the water … but they have a dark side.
There is a delicate balance between the carbon dioxide being released by the diver and the oxygen being added. If the carbon dioxide rises ahead of the oxygen, the diver’s body won’t notice until it is too late.
Alexandra: And the reason he had a rebreather is because it didn't make any bubbles.
Sandra: Bubbles can be seen as a threat by the whales, so Robin felt he could get closer to them if he wasn't producing them. But it also meant Alexandra couldn’t follow Robin’s trace from the surface. It made his expeditions stressful for her. Sometimes, they would see other researchers and film teams.
Jacques Cousteau voice
Sandra: One day, a boat belonging to Jacques Cousteau waved them over. Jacques Cousteau was famous as an ocean scientist and filmmaker.
Alexandra: And Jacques Cousteau had a crew of people there on this amazing boat. And I remember we were going by and they waved him over and I remember all the little French bikinis all drying on the railing, blowing in the wind — because that's all they wore — and they said, “Look, we've been here for three weeks and we haven't gotten any footage of whales underwater.”
Sandra: The crew told Robin that if he got some footage, they would buy it from him. It was the kind of challenge Robin loved. He had been filming for more than six years and had only been able to get three and a half minutes of whales.
Alexandra: And so he takes off from that encounter and he's just super stoked and he says to me: “Maybe we'll get another three and a half minutes today.”
Sandra: They moved away from the Cousteau boat. Robin piloted the Blue Fjord to a quiet area where they’d recently seen a familiar whale. Alex stayed with the boat, Robin went into the water with his camera. Surrounded by whales, it sounds like a no-brainer to film them for three minutes. But Alex knew this was going to be tough. Whales don’t stay still, they move around constantly — even in an area where they’re feeding.
Alexandra: So he goes down and this whale E9 or Eve is ahead … and she heads into exactly where he went down. And I'm thinking: “O oh, fabulous. He's just going to get this amazing shot.” But seconds later, that whale is just peeling out of there, full bore.
Sandra: Alex’s job was to keep an eye on the whales so if Robin popped up, she could point to where they were and he could move quickly towards them. But something was different this time.
Alexandra: And he just didn't come up and he didn't come up and didn't come up. And there's no whales around. And so he would normally give up at that point and pop up and say, “Where are the whales?” But he didn't. And Robin, he was a wonderful husband and he was a wonderful partner. But he was fierce when it came to filmmaking. And he was constantly saying, “Don't ruin the shot, don't ruin the shot.”
Sandra: “Don’t ruin the shot” meant don’t bring the boat too close during filming. The whales would leave.
Alexandra: With his, you know, “Don't ruin the shot” going through my head. But I realize I'm not ruining the shot, there's no whales around.
Sandra: Suddenly, she felt fear.
Alexandra: And I can see him down there on the bottom. And because he has air in his gloves, his hands are straight up in the air, so he's lying on his back on the bottom of the ocean. The mouthpiece is out and his hands are up.
Sandra: She needs to get into the water and help him.
Alexandra: I've got a baby, you know, little kid in the boat, and I’m like: the husband, the baby, the husband, the baby. I end up tying myself to the boat and I jumped in and, I mean, that water is cold. And I grabbed him with my feet and got him to the surface.
Alexandra: I popped his weight belt off and so he floated. And then he was floating alongside the boat. And so I tried, you know, mouth-to-mouth respiration on him.
Sandra: She tries to keep her son from seeing his dad floating in the water. She sends an SOS to the coast guard and waited with Robin’s body. Everyone on the water hears an SOS call and Donna and Bill Mackay heard it on their whale watching boat near Port McNeill.
Bill Mackay: I heard the mayday come in and I recognized Alex’s voice. And they were taking them to Port McNeill, but we didn’t live in Port McNeill at the time, we lived in Telegraph Cove and so I came on immediately to the coast guard vessel … “No, no, no. You drop Alex and her son and the dog at our house and then you can proceed to Port McNeill to go see the coroner or whatever you gotta do” and so that’s what they did.
Donna Mackay: She needed help now and we were in a position to give it to her. She was completely shell shocked, but giving her a safe haven was a godsend for her.
Alexandra: And they pick up my boy and, you know, next thing I know, he's in the kitchen swinging, eating cookies and drinking milk. They also had a son my son's age, and they took us in and became lifelong friends at that point.
Sandra: Alex says she just stayed one night. The Mackays say she stayed a week. She was in shock, and with her son cared for, she could grieve. After Robin died, Alex disappeared into her grief. She knew she had to sell the Blue Fjord; she couldn’t run fishing charters without Robin. Beyond selling the boat, she wasn’t sure what to do. She considered
Alexandra: And then my dad got a hold of us and said, “I'm coming to take you home.”
And the extraordinary thing about my life with Robin is I would never have gotten to Echo Bay without him. He took me there and together we made it into a home where I could raise our child. You know, we had done something that was difficult and extraordinary and to go, yeah, no, I was home. And so after about six months, a very strange thing happened. A lone killer whale, a male, a transient … showed up in front of the cabin that I was living in and he was there all day going back and forth. I began to watch him. And the next morning, he was still there. He's a known whale, he's known for being alone. But in any case, after watching him … the second morning, I went out and got in my boat and idled out to him and he moved off. He began to forage and I followed him. It completed some stage of the grief and the process of healing, But yeah, it was a familiar action. Following the whales and recording them and just going through that process got me restarted.
Sandra: But she still needed to earn some money. She opened a small store selling souvenirs to the summer tourists. Whatever it took to keep herself and her son in the Broughton Archipelago. Six years after Robin’s death, her small souvenir store was providing enough income. A big seller were her T-shirts with prints of salmon. She learned to love the salmon almost as much as she loved the whales. But she never anticipated that one day they would change her life — and that she would need to help them.
Sandra: Except for the whoosh of the orca blowholes, Echo Bay is pretty quiet and you can hear a boat coming from a long way. That’s why that summer in 2001, Alex heard Chris coming before she saw him.
Alexandra: Chris Bennett came to me and he had two tiny fish in a bucket that he had found floundering around the edge of his float. And he just pushed the bucket towards me and he was really upset.
Chris Bennett: I think the first fish I brought to Alex was chinook smolt. You don't really hear about the effects of sea lice on chinook, it's mostly the pink, they are much more vulnerable. But this chinook smolt, I mean, it was swimming around in circles and obviously distressed
Sandra: Alex glanced in the bucket, then she looked at Chris, trying to figure out what the problem was.
Alexandra: The cords on his neck were standing out and he just was like, “What are these sea legs on these fish? Because I have guests fishing with me from Scotland who have come to British Columbia to go salmon fishing because they say that sea lice from salmon farms have wiped out the wild salmon and sea trout of Scotland. These better not be sea lice.”
Sandra: Alex had never studied salmon. But she knew these were sea lice. And the potential enormity of the problem struck her instantly. Sea lice — this many on a smolt — could spell disaster for future generations of the salmon population. The first thing she needed to figure out was it just a problem near Chris’ lodge?
Alexandra: I took some crinoline from one of my daughter's dresses and I made a little net and I went out to try to look around like, where else is this occurring? But once I started to look … it's like, oh, they're everywhere. These fish are just floundering around on the surface.
So then I wanted to find out what are the boundaries of this outbreak, and so I began to move in a bigger and bigger circle, catching fish, counting the lice on them, taking pictures. And I realized that it was throughout the archipelago. I called up DFO…
Sandra: That’s Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Alexandra: And they said, “Could you get a sample of these so we could see it?” And I thought, oh, great, this is progress. If I go collect them some samples, jump in my speedboat, race across to Port McNeill, put them in a cooler with ice, put them on a bus and send it down to Nanaimo at the south end of Vancouver Island. Three days later, a fisheries officer shows up at my house with pistols in her holster and she's going to arrest me for poaching because I did not have a licence to catch those fish. I didn't even consider that I needed a licence because I had a fishing licence. But you do need a special licence to catch juvenile salmon. But as I said to the officer, I was asked to get these samples [and] she's like, “Yes, yes, I know.” In the end, she gave me a warning but she took the information and she left that day and I didn’t know if I was going to get arrested or not.
Sandra: Alex didn’t know what the sea lice meant Sandra: or where they were coming from. Or why Fisheries and Oceans had cracked down on her so bizarrely. But now she was determined to find out. It would start her on a journey that would upend an international industry, and put a target on her back.
Next time on The Salmon People — Alex goes fishing for answers.
Alexandra: Oh, I was totally in fight mode but I was going to fight with information.
The Salmon People podcast is researched, written and produced by me, Sandra Bartlett. It is a co-production with Canada’s National Observer.
Story editing by My Frozen Headphones productions. Sound engineering by Damian Kearns and Ben Ramos-Salsberg.
Special thanks to all the people who told me their salmon stories, especially Alexandra Morton.
And it would be great if you could give us a five-star rating and maybe even leave a comment. That helps others find us.
Chris Bennett runs Blackfish Lodge, 300 kilometres north of Vancouver where Canada’s West Coast crumbles into the Pacific Ocean. His guests are from all over the world. They come to see B.C.’s wildlife, but especially the salmon. Chris was out with a group of tourists when he looked into the water alongside his boat and noticed young salmon — called smolts — acting strangely. He drove down the coast with a few smolts in a bucket to show to Alexandra Morton, a neighbour who studied orcas. It was the first clue in a mystery of disappearing salmon, and Alex, an unlikely detective, stepped up.