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Finding a home amongst the whales on Fin Island

By Janie Wray, Hermann Meuter, 4th June 2018

Two starry eyed Australians fulfill childhood dreams of searching for whales and camping out in the temperate rainforest of remote coastal BC.

Photo © Janie Wray

Fin Island Whale Research Station.

Picture this: it is a silvery grey windless day. The ocean is clear and still. You are gazing out from a thin wooden deck of a rough strewn cabin, upon a rocky outcrop overlooking Squally Channel, near Hartley Bay on the northwest coast of British Columbia (BC). Illuminous green kelp grasps the rocks at the ever-ebbing shoreline (you will later harvest this to eat with dinner) and green untouched pine forests frame the scene. No, you are not gazing into the latest ‘10minute daily meditation’ iPhone app. This is blissful Canadian wilderness. This is Fin Island.

You breathe in the smell of briny, tangy ocean. Damp smoothed pine rests under your palms as you lean on the railing to once more scan the horizon. Its 8 am and the sky and the ocean are like two lovers who have found a moment of reprieve. For one brief stretch of time, each are content in each others closeness. Peace permeates the soul as the salt fills each pore.

Photo © Janie Wray

Building the platform
Each day start like this. With coffee in one hand, preparations begin for your hourly 20minute scan of the ocean for whale sightings. You will be using ‘big eye’ binoculars which are half a meter in height, a foot in width and what seems to be a tonne in weight (please forgive this simple Aussie travellers attempts at navigating complicated systems of measurement!). In addition to smaller (but still fancy) binoculars, you will scan from left to right taking note of any whale or boat activity you come across. What a pleasure it is to have reason to stare at the sea like this. Seals, sea lions, otters, porpoises and eagles come in and out of view.

The Fin Island Whale Research Station is a 16 x20 wooden cabin positioned upon a rocky outcrop mere 20m from the shifting shoreline manned by Janie Wray. A humpback whale researcher with over 17 years of experience. It is her resourcefulness, enthusiasm and vision brings this place into being. Along with her snowy golden retriever ‘Cohen’, she provides the opportunity for few lucky interns to settle in this ocean cabin to learn and observe the life and ways of the gentle giants at her footsteps. Her kindness and gentle laugh will permeate memories of our time her for years to come.

We eagerly discuss plans for the month ahead. The kitchen/bunkbed cabin is accommodating but not accommodating enough to house the 3 of us and an additional 2 guests expected to arrive in 5 days time. So we are tasked with the childhood dream of building our own tent dwelling among the pines in the ‘bush out back Like all sunny dreams, this project was imagined to be easy, weightless. Bits of plywood and cedar would lift and happily join themselves together to form a robust platform that would easily fit our tent with space to spare. Our chosen spot was perfect, warm and up on high, we would have no problems carrying and resting this platform along the spine of an old cedar (which fittingly resembled the vertebrae of a great whale, complete with stick/branch ribs- so Pinterest worthy). The day was warm and we were filled with child-like optimism. Until we started

Photo © Janie Wray

The tent did not fit the plywood available, even if we joined three large bits (we had to construct the tent to confirm this). So we would make do with four main contact points. There wasn’t enough wood to make the legs for the base. So we would need to carry heavy cedar logs to our chosen spot. Once we hacked and cleared the area we discovered the ground was not at all level. Having a hodgepodge assortment of stumps was not enough infrastructure to support our weight 50cm off the ground. As all good couples do, we soon got into a heated debate about where and how the wood should be joined. The reality was setting in.

Disgruntled by the lack of progress we decided to call it quits early in the afternoon on the second day to avoid haemorrhaging from yet another bout of ‘who-was-more-right.’ Later that day Janie would introduce us to a promising new ‘flat spot. Hoping for the best we were delighted to find that this new clearing looked like it might just do. With access to the ‘Alice-in-wonderland-worm-hole-come-path-way to the cabin AND access to rocks overlooking the ocean only a short 5meters away, the space was looking good. In addition, it was relatively flat and no trees/large plants obscuring overhead. Great.

Photo © Janie Wray

We got to work early the next day. By midday, we were pleased with our clearing progress and we had had only ONE minor disagreement. After lunch, we discovered too much elation that we could enlist the forces of gravity and ROLL our newly joined platform from our previously higher positioned. We were radiant that this one task was performed without a hiccup. We beamed in the late afternoon sun as we returned to the cabin for our whale scanning shifts. Having overcome a few set-backs together left us with a shared sense of accomplishment and knowledge that our new tent home was clear in our sights.

Photo © Janie Wray

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