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How We (Rock'n) Roll
Studying humpbacks off Eden is not for fair weather sailors. The seas can be big, dangerous and unpredictable. A relatively calm, flat day on the ocean can quickly change to a roiling, windy mess. The seas can rise quickly, and the winds will howl from any direction on the compass. Imagine early spring off the coast of Washington, Oregon or Maine and that is what the seas are like off Eden right now. Tough sledding.
Annie, Amanda and I have spent hundreds of hours together on the high seas, and surveyed thousands of nautical miles. When you work from a small vessel (our research vessel is 6.3 meters long) you get used to it’s size and how it handles the seas. We never think of our research boat as small, it’s ‘just right’ and does the job perfectly. More often than not, however, we get some interesting looks and head shakes as we depart port on rough weather days, seeming to say: “you are going out in this weather in that?”
Today was one of those marginal days. The seas were up and the swell was running 2.5 – 3.5 meters. But there was no wind when we launched, so we gave it a go. Wind is our major obstacle, because when the wind blows it causes waves to crest and spray flies everywhere, making Annie’s job as photographer wet, miserable and darn near impossible. Notice I said ‘darn near’. It’s that slight chance of getting some research done that makes us challenge the seas on foul weather days.
As we departed Two Fold Bay, we were immediately joined by dozens of common dolphins that spent then next two hours with us. They seemed to love the combination of the wake from our slow moving boat (hindered by big swell) and the chance to surf some cross-swell breaking across our beam. In a matter of minutes we spot three humpback pods. Then lose them. The swell is so large we are unable to track them as they rise and fall behind walls of water.
Thirty minutes later the whalewatch vessel ‘Cat Balou’ joins our search. They are 15.5 meters long and two decks high giving them a better view. Captain Gordon isn’t having much better luck that we have spotting whales in these marginal conditions. Suddenly the wind is up, blowing over 20 knots and sea spray begins to douse Annie. The swells heave and break; it’s time to roll towards port.
As we enter the mouth of Two Fold Bay, a mother and calf surface a half-mile west of us, heading directly into the Bay. They are swimming towards Snug Harbour and going down swell – what luck! Without warning the mother and new baby breach simultaneously. Unfortunately a curtain of seawater masks the pair’s brilliant display.
I call Captain Gordon and let him know of our find, knowing he will be grateful to be watching whales ‘downhill’. We are only a half-mile from the Cat Balou and they are having a hard time locating us in the churning seas. “Where are you? I can’t see you anywhere,” radios Capt. Gordon.
“At your one-o’clock, about a half mile northwest of you,” I radio, “Wait a second until we rise to the top of the swell.”
For the next few minutes we bob like a cork in the sea, watching the mom and calf. Without warning the mother slowly turns south and waves her fluke into the air. Annie, poised like a gymnast on gyrating balance beam, calming raises her camera and captures the mom’s ID (fluke print). A broad smile breaks across Annie’s face and she pumps her fist. “How cool was that!” she says, “Made coming out today worth it.”
Later that night Captain Gordon calls and says, “Check your email, Ros took some photos of you out there today.” I flick on my computer and show the images to Annie and Amanda. “Don’t show my Mom!” they both sang out in near-chorus.
“Funny, it did seem THAT big out there,” said Annie.
Then again, maybe when you are in small boat in a big ocean, everything is THAT big out there.