One Species Ambassador Trip: Part II

Now that initial impressions and some gushing is over (Part I) – on to the real reason for our jaunt to Canada’s west coast.  After another night of little sleep, we dragged our bums out of bed, our packs onto our backs, and jumped on the 5am ferry from Vancouver Island to Saturna Island, home of Cetus headquarters.  It’s not often that a 3:30am wake-up call puts a smile on my face but on this day I couldn’t help it; we were spoilt with a stunning sunrise, glassy waters, and a smooth crossing.

Myself and Kailey Beckwith (fellow munchin and ambassador).
Myself and Kailey Beckwith (fellow munchkin and ambassador).

The entire trip was so hectic (as we mostly formulated plans as we went) that it was during times like this ferry crossing we were able to have a moment of quiet to write notes, brainstorm ideas, and basically just take everything in!  – Or, in Kailey’s case, grab a power nap 😉

Ambassadors walking through empty lanes of Saturna

On top of last minute planning, we were reliant upon our feet (or public transport where possible) to get us from A to B.  However, as we wandered along the quiet roads of Saturna Island in search of Cetus we were, thankfully, picked up by a lovely local who drove us the rest of the way!  Not only did he drop us off, he returned five minutes later to make sure we were in the right place and safely inside the cabin!  As I mentioned in my last post, the kindness of the local people never seemed to waver.

Another warm welcome

One thing I have noticed over the past few years working in and studying conservation science is the camaraderie that appears to be common place in this industry; be it joining an established research team, networking with a room of experienced conservationists, or simply engaging with fellow students, I have always found a warm welcome, great support, and enthusiasm such that it is contagious.  It’s easy as a student to feel completely inferior and intimidated amongst industry experts, but as far as I have experienced they are excited by youth and by the lessons that both they can offer us and we can offer them.  It’s really energising!

We received a similar welcome upon arriving at Cetus.  On site were three young ladies; Aoiffe, Cora, and Gloria.  All of whom live in a very cute shared cabin and work on the water almost every day.  Inside we found maps, monitoring equipment, notebooks, and all sorts of bits and bobs, including (of course) a soft and cuddly orca ;).  We were unable to meet Cetus’ director – Mark Dombowsky – but the girls were keen to take us through the Straitwatch programme and their monitoring tasks.

Two members of the Straitwatch team climb into a rib to carry out their monitoring efforts.


Cora, who is in charge of steering the boat, spread out a range of maps to give us an idea of the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ routes through the islands.  We were able to appreciate their range that spans the Salish sea and the waters off northern America – even as far south as northern California.  Whilst every day is monitoring day, not every day is whale spotting day.  It was clear only a few days into the trip that the SRKW were displaying different movement patterns to those usually exhibited; Cetus, the local whale watching companies, and the local residents all commented on their absence.  Even now, a few weeks on from the trip, the whales remain pretty elusive.  The primary reason is salmon – the whales’ main (and to be honest, only) source of food is in severe decline.  But for more of that, go check out my blog on the One Species website or PBS.

Typically, the team depart from Saturna early in the morning and travel out into Boundary Pass where they are able to communicate via their radio, sometimes meeting the whales on their commute.  They then head towards and round Turn Point on Stuart Island and continue south along Haro Strait.  The team don’t tend to venture too far across the border as their American counterpart – Soundwatch – monitor the American waters, carrying out the same work to ensure boaters conduct themselves appropriately around marine life.  It’s great to know that, in the event that fishermen, tourists, or boating enthusiasts feel they are allowed to skirt the law, these guys are on their tail right away!

A basic nautical map of the Salish sea (The Gulf Islands and the Vancouver coast)

Monitoring the whales is generally a team effort, Cetus remain in touch with other boaters and monitoring teams on both sides of the border, but there is no guarantee that the orcas will be found (a small part of you wants to celebrate in favour of them dodging the bothersome humans, but the reason for their absence is not a comical or a positive one).  Data is still data though, and even absences are recorded in order to facilitate future conservation work.

Next time!

Right!  I think I’ve rambled for long enough now (and we’re not even at the end of day three yet!).  Stay tuned for more hitchhiking, lost explorers, history lessons, kayaking, and Canada Day 🙂

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