Wild Creatures – For my Dad

This post is dedicated to my Dad. He taught me to notice wild things, to go back to the same places to look for them again and to look for the same sort of things in similar environments. He’s still trying to get me to slow down so I don’t miss so much; Aurora must be his accomplice in this.

Here’s a picture of Dad in March 2007 when he went sailing with us out of Port Hadlock Aurora’s the boat at the farthest right, with the port side view of Indian Island. Maybe this will persuade him to join us for part of of next year’s cruise.

I don’t know if any experience of the natural world can be “the best” but the most unforgettable was finding ourselves among a huge group of Pacific white-sided dolphins. As soon as we rounded Minstrel Island to enter Knight Channel from Chatham Channel, there they were, splashing all around us in tremendous erratic waves. They would swim up to Aurora in pairs, doing a couple of tricks for us before joining the rambunctious chaos of their kin. Everywhere dolphins were arcing out of the water, every which way, like the waves of confused seas. We figured that we saw about fifty of them.

Later we learned from the Kelleys’ Best Anchorages of the Inside Passage that Pacific white-sided dolphins move in groups of 115 on average. During the mating season, these seven and eight foot creatures are particularly impressive acrobats. They really make waves.

We did only a short stretch of Knight Inlet at the end of a long day, but here is what the Kelleys say about it: The longest inlet on the British Columbia coast, Knight Inlet (named by Lieut. Broughton) cleaves its way for nearly 70 miles into the Coast Mountains. No wider than one-and-a- half miles, the inlet winds past snow clad summits and numerous waterfalls before reaching the glacier fed rivers at its head. There the massive peak of Mount Waddington rises more than 13,000 feet.

Several days later in Tribune Channel to the north, a smaller group dolphins made a big deal of racing alongside of us to cross our bow before swimming up the wild Bond Channel.
Then one warm afternoon, we were motoring very slowly down Wellbore Channel waiting for slack at Whirlpool Rapids. I was reading on deck and Jack was daydreaming in the cockpit when strange sounding blows and snorts got our attention. We stood up and looked down very near the boat at what I believe was a Dall’s Porpoise, After finally getting our attention, the lone animal performed for us, jumping clear out of the water four times on starboard, then crossing the bow and doing the same on port, then swimming around again to compete the sequence on starboard. Each dive left a perfect whirlpool about a meter in diameter. Jack quipped, “he clearly did that on porpoise.”

Here in the Gulf Islands we’re back to the ordinary harbor porpoises, which arc in an out of the water steadily, without antics. When a pair was crossing our path on the way here, we stopped for them and they did not resurface until they were at some distance.

So far our closest encounters with orcas – or “killer whales” – remain those in the wildlife rich southern reaches of Puget Sound. On this trip we saw a pod only when the light was just right, following a rainfall under the vast sky. We watched several females swimming north from Nogales Channel across Cordero and into Frederick Arm, surfacing predictably at 15 to 20 second intervals.

In the category of if-we-hadn’t-seen it-with-our-own-eyes-we-wouldn’t-believe-it, we can report on harbor seals. They are ubiquitous, swimming nearby and staring at us with their big eyes over whiskers before dipping modestly back into the sea. But there’s a habitat change between the northern waters and those of the Gulf Islands.

Great groups of Harbor Seals languish on the gently sloping rocky shores of the Gulf and San Juan Islands. You don’t always see them immediately but you predict where they should be, pick up the binoculars and there they are. They look like huge slugs. Or maybe maggots, if they are grey and wiggle on rocks black with the receding tide. They are so plentiful that you don’t bother to get close; there will always be more. Nor should you get close and babies are nurtured in these great haul outs. (Once when we failed to notice a haul-out and got too close with the boat and several of the biggest seals made a racket, dove in the water and chased us away!)

Farther north, however, steep mountains fall vertically into the sea. So while we saw seals everywhere we didn’t see any hauled out. Then one day when I was in the galley fixing lunch, Jack shouted to me to come up on deck. He hadn’t believed his eyes, until it was just on our beam, but there was a harbor seal riding calmly past on a large log in the company of three seagulls!
Since we’d never heard of such a thing, we chalked it up to a charming fluke. But two days later, a particularly nasty looking piece of drift turned out to be another seal riding on another log!
The weirdest marine creature we saw was an Elasmosar, 80 million years dead. The Countney Museum has the bones – found on the banks of the nearby Puntledge River – and also a superb reproduction of this 40-foot long creature with a short heavy body, four limbs and an elongated neck. The museum’s paleontological collection is amazing and hardly dusty: every day the museum offers tours of their active excavations. This is a must the next time we stop at Comox.

There’s no Internet here so I can’t give links but I do have on board a favorite book The North West Coast: A Natural History. In this copiously documented work (published by the Timber Press in my own Portland neighborhood) author Stewart Schultz begins his chapter on marine mammals and seabirds like this: As we walk the beaches and bluffs, it is difficult to envision how, some 3 billion years ago, the cold grey oceans provided the first great arena of life. But it was here, in the deluged, volcanic childhood of the earth, where searing energy from volcanic heat and lightening by chance struck the proper combination of methane, ammonia, and water vapor in the primeval atmosphere, producing the first organic molecules. Seventeen of the 19 phyla of animals on earth evolved, and still thrive, in the sea. Over the last 0.5 billion years, some of these abandoned the ocean and colonized land, where new selective forces catapulted them into new, advanced evolutionary trajectories, leaving their primitive ancestors in the sea. Later a few of these land creatures re-entered the ocean, whose stable temperatures, buoyancy, and high productivity nurtured and gently reshaped their form and function over the ages.

The return of mammals to the sea took place on at least five distinct occasions. The ancestors of our Orca, Dall’s porpoise, and Pacific white sided dolphin returned to the sea about 65 million years ago. Those of the seals headed back 35 million later while the forebears of the sea otters we’ve never seen and the mischievous romps of river otters on the docks of Aurora’s homeport did not return to the water until 5 million years ago.

As for the birds, they readapted to the water about the same time as the ancestors of the whales. But we’re lousy at birds, hoping that Stewart or another of our bird-watching friends will come and help us out. We have lots of time to make sense of the diving ducks and the dabbling ducks who winter around Port Townsend. We’ve given up on the gulls; they’re are so many kinds plus the hybrids. And identifying birds is far less fun than just wondering about them.

For the record, we looked for Rhinoceros Auklets and found them exactly where they should have been – in the agitated rapids of Juan de Fuca as we entered Cattle Pass on our way north to Friday Harbor. We saw them nowhere else, as their habitat is so particular.

As for loons, the national bird of Canada, they joined us frequently between the 48th and 50th parallel but seemed to disappear more to the north, perhaps because of the high peaks separating their fresh water lakes from our ocean channels.

Here in BC swallows seem act like shore birds, probably because they like people and the natural habitat of British Columbians is the shore. At Shoal Bay the barn swallows were tame, letting the boat-dwelling homesteaders take care of their young on the docks until they were able to fly. At Lagoon Cove, there were no barn swallows at all but great numbers of cliff swallows darting about. They must hate the fog, because when it rolled in, a bunch of them hung out quietly on Aurora’s life lines.
There doesn’t seem to be a great variety of birds, nor small land mammals. The bald eagle who merrily merry-go-rounded down the Yaculta Rapids on the drifting log until he caught sight of the ring necked plover may be the problem. Suddenly there are way too many of these powerful hunters.

Among the interesting ordinary creatures we see everywhere is the ochre sea star, misnamed because it also comes in fuschia, purple and orange. After helping a crab fisherman empty his trap, I marveled at the underside of a many-armed sunflower starfish. And every morning on shore and on the boat we have our tenacious, talented spiders. But we notice them especially when the dew drops show off their handiwork.
My greatest disappointment was not seeing bears, though we didn’t really go looking for them. Both black bear and grizzlies live in the Broughtons. There is no more common sight in cruising waters than dog-owners taking their pets to shore in dingies. So everywhere you go in the north you are reminded that dogs are bear bait, usually with a story to back up the contention.

The folks at Shoal Bay say there are no bears on West Thurlow Island, but they’ve seen a lot of wolf tracks this year and a corresponding decline in the number of deer.

Cougars live along the northern inlets as well. Desolation Sound: A History has stories of entire herds of sheep and goats being slaughtered and old photos of rifle-totting settlers after they’ve taken revenge on nine-foot cats.

Finally, a brilliantly striped garter snake at Shoal Bay. A small creature, either disappearing or simply over looked, but one this seafaring apartment dweller has not seen since leaving her Dad’s garden.


1 Response to “Wild Creatures – For my Dad”

  1. 1 Charles Maclean June 22, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Carol & Jack,

    What a gift from your father to notice wild things!

    What a gift for you to be with him before he passed.

    I see you as in the poetry bit by Edna St. Vincent Millet –

    The world stands out on either side
    No wider than the heart is wide;
    Above the world is stretched the sky, —
    No higher than the soul is high.

    This reflection has been helpful to me in times of loss.

    Miss Me But Let Me Go

    When I come to the end of the road
    And the sun has set for me
    I want no rites and a gloom filled room
    Why cry for a soul set free.

    Miss me a little
    But not too long
    And not with your head bowed low
    Remember the love that we once shared
    Miss me but let me go.

    For this is a journey we all must take
    And each must go alone
    It’s all a part of the masters’ plan
    A step on the road to home.

    When you are lonely and sick of heart
    And go to the friends we know
    Bury your sorrows in doing good deeds
    And miss me but let me go.

    – Author Unknown

    Charles Maclean

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