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Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rubbing Beach

I had heard about a place in British Columbia sacred to both killer whales and the people who watch them. A rubbing beach, where the shape and size of the rocks and slope of the beach are just right for orcas to come and glide against the bottom in shallow waters in a behavior part ritual, part massage, part mystery. There are many such beaches for this northern community of resident whales, the only ones known to engage in this behavior, but this one is more accessible than most. It is marked on a map, but not much information is out there. A few photos and videos from more than a decade ago, mostly. Is it still used? Are the whales still there? The only way to find out is to go and look. So that's what we decide to do.

Even to the inexperienced eye the beach is perfect. Smooth, round, evenly shaped stones pleasurable to the touch; I pick one up and run the palm of my hand over the cool surface again and again. At this point of land the beach is also mysteriously clear of debris - no driftwood and wrack as is found in the coves to either side. And the westerly winds of summer have created a sharp slope on an otherwise flat beach. Our first evening we sit and wait, but all is silent, not even a seal or bird make an appearance.

But the next morning we awaken to the familiar sound of blows. Before we can get out of our tent the sighting is confirmed by our neighbor waking up his wife with the whispered words, "Orcas. Orcas." The air is misty and the waters gray and glassy calm. It always feels like this is the weather killer whales are meant to be watched in. They are heading to the point and so do we.

The encounter here is very different than one back home, where the Southern Residents can also pass close to shore at Lime Kiln. there, there is usually much fanfare. Screaming, squealing, clapping, cheering, and a trailing fleet of boats. People run to the water's edge or motor or paddle closer. There is a prevailing attitude and expectation of more, better, closer, more active, breach, show off for me. Here the scene is taken in quietly, with even the children standing hushed with wide eyes. All the people stay at the top of the beach near the vegetation line, so if the whales want to use the beach they can do so on their own terms, without any disturbance from us. In this almost ceremonial behavior, research has shown the whales will cut short their beach rubbing activity if people get too close, either by water or on land.

Today the whales cruise past us, breaking off occasionally to chase a salmon but not to rub on the beach, though a mom and calf and another female and juvenile do pass excitingly close to shore. There are more than 40 whales present from A and G Clans, but they are spread out and on the move.  I later learn that they are doing a lot of this, just like the Southern Residents. I had hoped things were better up here for the Northerns, whose population has fared better in recovery. But the parallels are many, and sad. Both groups are spending much more time looking for food and less time resting or socializing. They're returning to their native summer fishing grounds later and later, and staying less long with each passing year. Superpods are rare, and here, beach rubbing less common.

But rubbing does still happen here. There is an independent researcher who monitors this beach and he shows us a video of some of these same whales beach rubbing just 5 days earlier. I'm glad to know this beach is still being regularly used, and that those patient and lucky enough to sit and wait can still witness this, as I hope to do.

It feels right that this place is not more highly publicized than it already is. The San Juan Islands and Salish Sea are so well known for whale-watching and whale research, but what has that done for the Southern Residents? So many people have seen them and learned about their plight and we have learned so much about them, but their population continues to decline and we do nothing. We enjoy their presence, profit off it even as a society, and then turn our backs and let them starve. Sitting on this remote island in this comparatively undeveloped and less populated landscape, the crimes of our species against theirs hit me harder than ever before. We have gained so much from them and given them nothing in return. This beach, at the very least, deserves to remain secluded and relatively unknown, it's location passed like a gift via word of mouth among those who see the killer whale as a kindred spirit.

There is still time for this tragedy to be reversed. The clock is ticking quickly for the Southern Residents, but the Northern Residents are more quietly experiencing many of the same things. How easily we forget that they, too, rely on Fraser River Chinook. I don't know what I can do to help reverse the trend. We have tried the route of interference - over-management, over-publicizing, over-studying, over-fishing. I get the sense now that we need to do the opposite. I watched A and G Clan whales swim through these tranquil waters with no buildings behind them or cities nearby, no tankers or commercial fishing vessels in sight, no Navy activity. Just a few sportfishermen here for the same reason as they are and a few whale lovers watching from a distance. We need to just let them do what they have always done.

I often hear, "If they aren't finding enough Chinook why don't they just eat something else?" My answer is, what right do we have to ask that of them, after all the concessions and adaptations they have already made on our behalf. They were here first, following the fish. Let us find a way to back off and let the old traditions continue. The salmon will return, the whales will thrive, and they will once again have time to rub on the rocks of this sacred beach.


James said...

I am happy you are at that beach. I have been there, as well, back in the 80's. I will not mention the name of this sacred beach, because it is their sanctuary.

You are loved and missed back home.

Thanks for all the lessons.


Vera said...

I am happy to hear about your profound experience and very much enjoyed reading your post. You are such an amazing writer and I am so proud of you.

Unknown said...

My heart truly breaks for the resident orcas. And I am so helpless to do anything about it on my own. I sign petitions for things such as breaching the Snake River dams. If only the decision makers would understand the urgency. Lack of money can't be the problem, people just need to put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise, even people who care, will be sitting on a mountain of money when the resident orcas meet their doom. Please people, help them !!!!!!

Unknown said...

You can watch the under water cam online. Saw them rubbing the other day!

-kersti muul

Cami said...

Beautiful post, Monica! I'm glad there are people like you trying to help the whales.

Crenke said...

Oh Monika... So eloquent... And that is why I truly feel like that place is a church for me. You feel how sacred and special it is. Isn't it so interesting too... The difference in the people seeing them up there? I do have to say, I much prefer the quiet reverence, and honor up there.