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Whale watching in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest

Sunset from Gil Island, BC (photo: Amy Huva)

I spent the first week of this month at a whale research station on Gil Island in the Great Bear Rainforest.

It was my first experience this far north up the coast of BC and it is a magical place. I was excited to go and see 1,000-year-old trees, salmon running, whales and maybe even a few bears.

Getting to Gil Island is logistically difficult. The ferry only runs twice a week, so our entire trip was organised around the ferry schedule and we were relying on Air Canada to make sure we got to Prince Rupert on time to meet the ferry to Hartley Bay.

After a four hour ferry ride to Hartley Bay, it’s another hour in a smaller boat to the research station. Or, as researcher Hermann Meuter said, it could be longer if we see a whale.

Before this trip, I’d never seen a humpback whale or a fin whale in real life. So when we hadn’t even reached Gil Island yet, and we'd slowed to see a fin whale and a humpback whale glide through the glassy waters of Whale Channel, I had a feeling it was going to be a special week.

A humpback whale  (photo: Amy Huva)

Our phones had lost reception just outside of Prince Rupert, so my phone was switched out of my pocket and replaced by my camera when we arrived at Whale Point. It took me a while to learn the correct terminology for whales. They don’t spurt when they breathe, they 'blow'. They don’t jump from the water, they ‘breach’. And they don’t flick their tails, they ‘fluke’.

Having learned the right words, we set out with Janie Wray, the other researcher who lives full time at Whale Point studying whales 24/7. And I’m not kidding about the 24/7 – they normally leave the hydrophones on overnight, just in case whales start calling in the middle of the night.

Hermann and Janie have an ongoing whale catalogue of all the different whales in the area – tracking which whales are new, which have returned, who they’re feeding with in groups – to try and get an idea of the whale population in the area. They’ve been monitoring whales there for 12 years now and have built up an impressive body of research.

Before getting into the boat, we were walking along the shore of Taylor Bight to go and see the salmon stream near the lab, and as we were wandering over we suddenly heard a  loud boom from the water as Hermann shouted: ‘Woah! Breach!’

Humpback whale breaching off shore from the Whale Point lab   (photo: Amy Huva)

As we stood on the shore, a mother and her calf came across the bay in what appeared to be a lesson in how to breach. The mother would jump up out of the water and her calf would copy her, both of them seemingly unconcerned at the very excited humans on the shore cheering them on.

Mother and calf breaching in Taylor Bight   (photo: Amy Huva)

It was phenomenal to watch such large animals act so effortlessly acrobatic – almost surreal. These are things you only see in documentaries by Sir David Attenborough, not things you witness up close from the shore.

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