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Cracking the Naturalist's Code: The Fight for the Great Bear

by Eric M. Keen 12 Feb 2011
Cracking the Naturalist's Code: The Fight for the Great Bear

Photo by James Pilkington: A large humpback whale feeding group returns annually to Caamano Sound. Atleast 8 adult humpbacks are in this photograph, taken from James' observation deck on land.

If you do not look, you will not see.

From a shack in the fjords of British Columbia, one young naturalist is waging war against a consortium of the world's largest oil companies. His arsenal: gum boots, binoculars, and data - lots of it.

''It's true. Lick the back of a banana slug and your tongue goes numb.'' After a month of hearing his voice over the VHF, this was the first thing I had heard James say that had nothing to do with whales. He added: ''Only don't lick the underside. It could give you parasites.''

Throughout my days at Whale Point, the headquarters of the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS), James's voice was a common presence. He was in a shack some 16 miles from ours, an outcamp of an outcamp, on an island called Rennison. Alone out there, his only connection to the rest of the world was us at Whale Point. Occasionally, he would ask us to bring out some more food.

Most of the time, however, it was all business: Whale sightings, vessel traffic reports, and comments on orca vocalizations we'd pick up over the hydrophones. All I knew about James was what I could glean from these reports. He was obviously focused and hard working, and he certainly knew his whales. He could identify families of orcas by their calls, and he could rattle off the catalogue code number of any humpback whale simply from one look at the underside of their flukes. From the way he ended most transmissions, with a boyish giggle and a drawn out ''Ooookeydokey,'' he also seemed to be a pretty nice guy. But that's about it.

So I offered to spend some time on Rennison, as his research assistant.

James Pilkington, age 27, hails from Georgetown, Ontario. He's been a sea kayak guide, instructor at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center, and student of Outdoor Education. The common denominator: he's an educator. He comes from a loving family and has a loving girlfriend. But for the last three summers he has lived away from all that, on a rock overlooking Caamano Sound. Being a day´s boat ride from the nearest store, James sleeps under a tarp, goes weeks without seeing another soul, powers his radio with a small solar panel, and protects his food from the coastal wolves and bears using barrels suspended from the trees by a system of ropes.

What would compel him to such extremes? Two reasons: Whales and oil. I'll explain.

Caamano Sound is a fjord-wreathed body of water in the rugged upper reaches of British Columbia, battered year-round by storms roaring in from Hecate Strait. It falls within the stewardship of the Gitga'at First Nation, a people deeply passionate about the conservation and celebration of their homeland and with whom James has developed a close friendship. His research would be impossible without the yearly support, both financial and supervisory, of the Gitga'at Nation and NCCS. In fact, this summer, two Gitga'at researchers were at Rennison Camp as well, operating an intensive boat-based survey that complemented James' work from land. All hands were on deck, doing all they could in what has become an nationwide fight for the region they treasure.

But first: what exactly does James do all day? For the most part, he simply looks.

To be more precise, he looks hard. Every half hour, James does a 15-minute dedicated scan of Caamano Sound, no distractions, with binoculars and a tripod-mounted high-power scope. That's 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, all day. (But in truth there is no ''off''. He's always looking, only sometimes less intensely.) 14 hours a day. That's 7 hours per diem peering through magnified lenses.

In addition to looking, he writes down what he does and does not see. His pile of logbooks says it best:

In one binder are his scan sheets. For each scan, he records the weather, sea state, tide, all vessel traffic (including the type of each vessel, its location by quadrant, its activity, and which direction it's headed), and finally, all marine mammals seen (if any, be they whale, dolphin, porpoise, seal, sea lion, or otter). To reduce paper use, he uses a different colored pen for every scan so that he is able to fit about 8 scans on a single page. To the untrained eye, it is chaos.

When I arrived at Rennison Camp in late July, he had completed 1,301 such scans, and he still had a month left in the field.

In a separate section of the binder, he keeps the Sighting Sheets. In addition to noting marine mammal encounters in the scans, each individual whale sighting gets its own meticulously detailed half-page of data space, specifically tailored to the particular species seen: humpback, orca, or fin whale.

Then there's the Opportunistic Effort Log, in which James records the period of time each day that he is awake and thereby ''on effort''. Most days, he begins between 6 and 6:10 am. Up without an alarm, he sits up, rubs his eyes, takes his pile of data, his binoculars, and his hydrophone speaker, and steps outside. For the next sixteen hours, he is on. He usually wraps up at dark, which for northern B.C. summers is around 10:30pm.

There's the Opportunistic Marine Mammal Sighting Log, for any sightings that occur outside of the formal scans. Then, there's the Vessel Traffic Log, which contains the name, direction, and activities of every large vessel that passes through the sound. And then there's the bird surveys. James takes two of his 15-minute ''off'' periods to write down the number and species of every bird within visual range. There's another log for opportunistic bird sightings, in case rare species pass by outside of a formal survey period.

Then there's the Hydrophone Log, in which James records all acoustic activity that is picked up by the underwater microphone anchored just off his rock, be it orca whistles, humpback feeding calls, or the distracting rumble of a timber barge. On the rare occasion that he takes a break and goes out on the water ''for a paddle,'' he brings his own hydrophone in tow to ensure he misses nothing.

He also keeps a kind of captain's log, in which he records all notable changes in weather, interesting reports heard over the VHF, like when a local sports fisherman catches a Chinook, and any other anomalous events, like when a wolf strolls through camp. And finally, there's his personal journal, which he updates each night.

So, in review: what does James do? He looks and he writes. Ad nauseum. Looking is not as easy as it might sound. It is a breeze simply to watch, to go passively through the motions of scanning the horizon. But looking is a different story, a very active thing. And James is very, very good at it. Over the years he has earned the respect of some of the most distinguished marine mammal scientists in the world. Graeme Ellis and John Ford, the highest authorities on North Pacific orcas, tell stories about him. And when they pass by James' camp in their annual orca survey, they never fail to invite James aboard for a meal and a real shower.

My first afternoon at Rennison Camp, James briefed me entirely too fast on this vast system of data collection. I whimpered. He moved on. In showing me the rest of the camp, he had a hard efficiency to his words and actions, an economy surely streamlined by his months of solitude and the demands of ''the project.'' This probably explains his lack of social patience as well, which was most obvious when data was on the line. He wanted things done right.

''I'm an educator,'' he explained. He would mention that a few more times during my stay. It shown through in his cooking: having learned to make meals within the 15-minute window between scans, his culinary skills were like everything else he did: efficient, excellent, and to the point. But he wouldn't make anything without teaching me how in the process.

He had bright, sharp, Granny Smith eyes. Good teeth and high, sun-scorched cheekbones. His perpetual outfit was knee-high gum boots and several layers of warm clothes. These hadn't been washed for months, but his musk was not as severe as one would expect. He had a scrappy beard and unwashed ginger hair perpetually contained in a frayed lime beanie. He seemed to have two faces: one was gaunt, intimidating, and cold, which he tended to wear during his scans and when he was tired. The other was warm and handsome, with cheerful wrinkles that appeared at the corners of his eyes. This face shined through mostly during sunsets and whenever he laughed.

He showed me the ropes: how to work the stove, how to store our food, where the first aid kit was, and how to clean dishes with ocean water down on the intertidal rocks. Not used to visitors, he kept the hydrophone speaker and VHF radio at blasting volumes, and I had to shout my questions to be heard. This, I soon found, would be the way dinner conversations would also go.

Here's how you poop at Rennison Camp: You take a roll of TP, a lighter, and hand sanitizer out to the beach, and you find a nice flat rock. Go on it. Wipe, set the paper atop your deposit, and light it on fire. Then, with pomp and ceremony, you march it out to the water and chuck it as far as you can. ''I call it ´Sh*t-put´,'' says James with a big grin. Don't forget the hand sanitizer.

An alternative: Go on a piece of driftwood, set it aflame, send it on its way, then try to capsize it by throwing stones. This is called '''Battle-Sh*t!'''

As the days passed, James divulged more and more about himself and his alone time. He told me about the mink last summer that lived under his tent fly. It created a nest of twigs, fishbones and moss, and would munch on fish heads right next to his pillow before each dawn. It sounded like he appreciated the company, and the wake-up call.

He hinted at some of the theories he's been cooking up, ideas that he would be embarrassed to see broadcast when still so nascent. Theories about Dall's porpoise courtship, about the linguistic functions of whistles as a shared language among pods of orca, about where the fin whales go in winter, etc. Then there's the photo-identification catalogue he's been compiling of resident Dall's porpoises, one of the most common yet elusive species to study. This is something that few scientists on the coast have yet had the patience or wherewithal to tackle.

He told me how he had memorized the genealogies and individual markings of every orca in the region: by drawing out their matrilines over and over, until they stuck by sheer rote.''But when I saw a pod out on the water and successfully looked them up in the catalogue,'' he added, ''I could never forget them after that.''

There was the night last summer that he slept in the observation shack because the hydrophone speaker in his tent stopped working and he didn't want to miss a beat. A nor'wester hit, sending gale-force winds into the makeshift shack on the highest tide of the month. Ocean spray drenched him through his sleeping bag and the gusts rattled the plywood all night long. He awoke at sunrise, drenched and shivering, to a pod of orca lingering right in front of the station - an observation he would have missed if he had done the sensible thing and stuck to his tent. He sighed, ''I hate to think about all else I've missed in my sleep.''

Does he get lonely? Sure. Does he miss his girlfriend, his family? Of course. Does he get tired? Definitely, although he tries not to show it. One day, he surprised me by announcing he was going to take a 15 minute nap. I offered to cover a scan or two, but he insisted, ''I'll only be fifteen minutes.'' He didn't awake for two hours, and I was eager to let him rest. He jolted up, checked his watch, and scolded himself. He did calm a bit when he saw that I had kept up with the scans, but he was up all the earlier the next day.

So what is it that drives James Pilkington to such ascetic, empiricist extremes? Is his love for whales so perverse? Well, there's more to it than that. As I earlier hinted, it comes down to both whales and oil. Mostly, it's oil. Specifically, it's Enbridge.

''Enbridge,'' James sighs. ''It's pretty much my biggest motivation.''

Enbridge, Canada´s largest oil pipeline corporation, has submitted a federal proposal that could establish a twin oil line from the tar sands of Alberta to the port town of Kitimat, nestled deep in the Douglas Channel. From there, supertankers measuring three by one football fields in size will take the oil through the coast's winding channels and onward to clients overseas, mainly China.

The overland portion of this scheme is not without its problems, but it's when the oil hits the water that people like James Pilkington take great issue. The route Enbridge hopes to squeeze its tankers through is notorious both for its navigational difficulty and its remarkable densities of endangered whales - in the eyes of the conservation community, a disastrous combination.

By now the issue has grown far beyond that of a simple pipe. Enbridge's proposal is forcing Canada to a crossroads, obliging it to decide the trajectory of its domestic and foreign relations for decades to come. In an impressive political move, 61 of the potentially affected First Nations along the proposed route and adjacent watersheds have rejected the pipeline proposal, claiming jurisprudence from both historic and modern treaties with the Canadian government. In addition, all coastal First Nations (including the Gitga'at) have banded together with a similar public rejection. But who knows if this will be recognized by the federal Joint Review Panel responsible for a decision (composed, as it were, of only three people)? Failing to recognize their refusal would surely establish a grim precedent for indigenous relations in the decades following peak oil.

Environmentally speaking, the national implications seem obvious. Approving the project would be a major roadblock in the quest for oil independence (not that Canada's Conservative administration necessarily wants any such thing). For potential markets overseas, in the thralls of their own industrial adolescences, Enbridge's oil feed would send quite the regressive message, supplying these roaring industrial economies with that classic excuse: 'If Canada won´t say no to the Black Dollar, why should we?'

All this, in the wake of BP's Deep Horizon disaster and the still-fresh wounds of Exxon-Valdez, which happens to be just north of the proposed tanker route.

The imagery smacks of irony: Enbridge wants to take oil from Canada's most desolate and exploited region, the tar sands, and parade it through its most pristine, the Great Bear Rainforest. A bridge of oil from the nation's most shameful icon of land stewardship directly to its most revered. It's hard to imagine, but the tar sands were once as pristine and celebrated as the Great Bear is today. What does this fact foreshadow?

It's difficult to overstate the value of the Great Bear, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. In addition to the whales that rely on its pristine and protected waters, it is a critical habitat for several salmon species, coastal wolves, bears, and a vast interdependent ecosystem - not to mention the coastal First Nations and combined multi-billion dollar commercial fishing and ecotourism sectors. Anyone who visits the area today will be amazed, as I was, by just how full of life - how teeming - the place truly is. The bald eagles are as common as crows, the whales are so thick it is difficult to avoid them if you tried, and the salmon taste absolutely divine.

Of course, all these charismatic residents will be chased out by industrial runoff and vessel traffic if Enbridge has its way. To be clear, this is not in the event of an oil spill, which certainly would be apocalyptic, and, as a side note, would probably happen (such things tend to be matters of time). This is just if all goes according to plan. With tankers that size, and the barrenness that surfs in on their bow waves, the desertion of the Great Bear's fiord-lands is not a risk - it's a promise.

''And people need to know what is at stake,'' James explains. ''Caamano Sound has an ecological and cultural richness worth protecting and embracing. I would like everyone to know the scale of the treasure we are gambling with.'' This is why he looks so hard. This is why he takes such long hours and detests all shortcuts. This is why he wouldn't have time to use a shower even if he had a spicket.

It is also the reason he takes so many pictures. Over the course of the three seasons alone on his rock, he's compiled a stunning visual anthology of the coast that stresses the immaculate value of the Great Bear's Caamano Sound. It was not until my last day at Rennison Camp that he finally allowed me to see his photos. Living alone for so long, one's privacy must grow that much more precious. His images were gripping, supple, detailed and diverse. So this is what he does during his 15 minutes ''off''.

They portrayed the true grandeur, at every scale, of the coast he has come to love: from anemones to whales, from crepuscular panoramas to intimate shots of tidal pools, their vast colors blossoming in the gloaming of dawn. I could understand his privacy; these visions fully betrayed the passion behind his ascetic devotion to ''the project.'' Enbridge may be the reason he goes to such extremes, but his summers of exile from those he loves are doubtlessly a labor of love in their own way. They also demonstrated the true bandwidth of his ability as an educator and naturalist. After all, photography is another way of looking, seeing, and showing. How refreshing it is to see the fluid, artistic side of a mind so obviously adroit at scientific rigidity. It is a true teacher who understands the interdependence of data and inspiration.

The working title for his book: A Place Worth More Than Oil.

James is not the only one fighting, of course, and there are plenty of reasons to hope. The Gitga'at have been gathering data on the region for decades, and the NCCS for years, and both remain earnest voices in the Fight for the Great Bear. Across the nation, thousands of concerned citizens are uniting to stop the pipeline. Surveys indicate that approximately 80% of British Columbians oppose coastal tanker traffic. Legislation for a permanent moratorium on tanker traffic along the northern B.C. coast will be debated and voted upon sometime in 2011. ''If passed,'' James says, ''this would stop Enbridge and any other northern crude-oil transportation projects in their tracks.''

''The likelihood of it passing is a different story,'' he warns. ''There are major politics and pro-oil lobbying to overcome in order for this to become law. Many politicians also want to hear the results of the Environmental Assessment currently being conducted before making any decision on tanker traffic.'' In theory, it is research like James' that will inform sections of this report.

It is likely to be another 2 years before the Joint Review Panel rules on Enbridge's proposal, but for James this is no reason to sit back and wait. ''If we don't collect this data, who will?'' James asks, gesturing towards Caamano Sound. ''Who will monitor the impacts along this tanker route? Who will supervise these tankers, making sure they are not cutting corners?'' One thing that every conservation scientist wishes they had more of is ''baseline data'' - that is, data for their study site before any impacts had begun. And this is precisely what James, NCCS and the Gitga'at Nation will be able to give them.

To complicate matters, other businesses are developing their own supertanker proposals in the race to secure business with Asian markets. James rattles off a few: ''Kinder Morgan with a pipeline to Vancouver, and CN Rail for transporting oil sands bitumen by rail to the coast at either Prince Rupert, Vancouver, or Kitimat.'' Let's hope each of these projects has their own James Pilkington.

The NCCS directors had sent me to Rennison Camp in order to relieve James of some of his work load, but he simply wouldn't have it. Instead, he used the opportunity to do 2-person scans. He'd rather double the chances of seeing something than give his eyes a rest.

''But can't you use statistics to adjust for effort in your results?'' I asked. ''As long as we do the right math, we can take turns on shifts and still get robust outcomes, right?'' James looked at me with his serious face and responded: ''Observation speaks louder than extrapolation. Ready to start the scan?''

He had a point: A seen whale has much more oomf than a predicted one. Nowhere else had I seen the Naturalist's Code, this essay's epigraph, seem more ominous: Look away from the water for only a moment, or simply blink, and who knows what you might miss. And for James, not seeing was simply not an option.

If you do not look, you will not see. The Code. It may seem obvious, but its implications are grave. The more data, the better, and if it can be done better, it hasn't been done well enough. The question ''When is enough enough?'' is moot. It is inappropriate. It is all wrong, when the region he loves is on the line.

The result, of course, is that James is burying himself under a paralyzing amount of data. What does he plan to do with all his notebooks? Well, he knows he is looking for seasonal patterns in habitat use, whale abundance, and frequency of occurrence. This would tell decision makers just how critical this area is for the species most vulnerable to tanker traffic. But how exactly will he manage to show that? And in the end, will it be enough to matter?

Each time our conversation turns to the task of data analysis, James lets out a soft whimper and a nervous giggle, and becomes quiet. He glances at his piles of notebooks and I can sense his dread. He is still not sure where exactly to begin. It may take months simply to enter the data into a computer.

As for his photography book, he only has funds to make five copies and place them strategically in coffee shops around Vancouver. That's it. "Because the area in question is so remote, very few people have seen what is at stake.'' Maybe someone who can do more will flip through his book and act.

For most people, having that much to show for three summers of lonely work would compel them to flag down the next ferry back to civilization. Not James. And in a way, his meager plan makes his endurance for the demands of ''the project'' all the more admirable. The research season will not wait, and ready or not you've got to record the data as it swims by you.

Despite these uncertainties, James was resilient. He would repeat that ''this is the way I can make my difference,'' and pick up his binoculars. I liked this. Everyone has a bit of change they can contribute, and they've got to take ownership of it. No one else will. For James´ part, he has found what he was good at and he does it the best he can, regardless of how big his difference may end up being. He puts all of himself towards ''the project.''

Who knows if James' bird counts and whale sightings will make the splash he hopes they will. Perhaps Enbridge will step right over his pile of data. But that, I think, is where his story can help. Perhaps, in the end, the tale of James and his project can be just as effective in inspiring resistance. The dedication and duty with which he has given up not one but three precious summers of his youth leave the rest of us without any excuses. If this man can challenge the tankers simply by looking, surely each of us can find our own way to ''make our difference''.

After only a week, it was time to switch out with another researcher. I was sad to leave. I never got around to licking a banana slug. At sunset, the Gitga'at Spirit pulled up and my replacement hopped onto the rocks. Before I had a chance to hop off, James was already briefing the fresh recruit on the Rules of Rennison. He explained his system of data notebooks, and the new guy's eyes glazed over. James welcomed him to his plastic bin of textbooks. He pointed out the first aid kit. He explained the kitchen and how to poop on a rock. I made sure he mentioned 'Battle-Sh*t'.

As I was shouldering my bag, James held up the canister of bear spray. The recruit's eyebrows shot up. ''Do you really need to use that here?''

''Oh, I always carry this with me, every time I leave my post. I wouldn't want anything to happen to the project.''

As the Gitga'at Spirit pulled back from the camp, we waved our final goodbyes. Suddenly James' posture stiffened and he pointed to a spot behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw them. The flukes of a mother humpback and her calf were slipping into the water, just 20 meters behind our hull, silhouetted by a blazing Caamano sunset. I soaked in the moment and turned back to give James a final wave, but he didn't see me. He already had his zoom lens around his neck and a sighting sheet in hand, scribbling away.

Another sighting of hope in the Sound, another victory for the Great Bear.

North Coast Cetacean Society website

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