Flying through the air, higher than any agility dog clearing an obstacle, were two male orcas. They were killing a Dall’s porpoise! Bludgeoning it with their body weight so it would be defenceless when they moved in for the final attack.
When I’d signed up for a visit to Farewell Harbour Lodge in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, I’d never imagined safari-style drama, but with COVID-19 upending travel plans and climate change affecting everything from summer weather to fish populations, one needs to be able to adapt.
At Farewell Harbour Lodge (FHL) on Berry Island in the heart of the Broughton Archipelago Marine Park, the McGrady and Brockway families are working hard to roll with the one-two punches of a pandemic and climate change.
When one of the youngest McGrady’s asked his parents what they were doing to combat climate change, the older generation thought deeply about how they could become carbon neutral at their 12-room waterfront lodge. Now, they are working with Climate Smart, a company that helps businesses reduce carbon emissions and have made several changes.
They installed a battery/inverter system to reduce reliance on diesel fuel and installed high-efficiency LED lighting. They switched from floatplanes to water taxis to ferry guests into the lodge, cutting emissions dramatically. Guests are offered reusable guest containers and cutlery for picnic lunches and refillable water bottles (if they don’t have their own.)
Sometimes solutions to climate issues are surprising. For example, it may seem necessary to transport garbage back to urban areas for treatment, but that’s not always the case. “We have an old incinerator. As part of Climate Smart, we learned emissions from burning were minimal,” said, co-owner Kelli McGrady.
Kelli commented on their strategies to mitigate emissions from boats used for whale and bear watching, “we are hoping to buy carbon offsets but it’s a complicated issue. We were just slammed by COVID and now we’re trying to get the season up and running.” After zero revenue in 2019, it’s delayed their climate action plan but they hope to be carbon neutral by 2022.
One of the summer’s luckiest visitors, I was bobbing in Johnstone Strait near whale researchers as they sent a drone up to record the orca hunt and catalogue the menu item. These orcas were transients or Biggs and feed exclusively on marine mammals. They are seen more often in the waters off north Vancouver Island, perhaps because of an abundance of seals and other marine mammals, while their salmon-eating cousins are struggling from several factors including climate change and warming waters that diminish fish populations.
Back at the lodge, our group vibrated back onto the dock, retelling our story of leaping whales with great gusto, while Tim McGrady, a pioneer in west-coast bear watching, and co-owner of the lodge, tied up the boat. “In thirty years of guiding, I’ve never seen Biggs make a kill,” he remarked on our viewing success.
We may have just been lucky but our young guide, Darien Walker, had seen kills by two Biggs orca clans in two weeks, perhaps hinting at changes in the environment. Tim confirmed he sees changes in the environment and it’s changing their approach to business.
“We’re a bear watching company and with salmon decreasing, we’re having a harder time finding bears,” Tim explained. The pandemic has made the situation worse, reducing the flow of international visitors. “U.K. residents and Germans were our main market. Canadians won’t pay (as much) for bear viewing,” he added.
FHL is adapting to the changes, offering discounted rates for Canadians and any-day arrivals. There’s less emphasis on bears and more on whale watching, kayaking, forest bathing and stand-up paddleboards. There are plans to add more wellness activities in 2022. Guests are offered plenty of flexibility in mixing and matching activity options and can be as busy or as lazy as they like.
As I nibbled on fresh crab caught by two of my fellow travellers (fishing is also popular at the resort), I settled in to watch the sunset over the dark waters, the spout from a humpback blow hanging in the still air beyond the harbour’s mouth. A great blue heron stalked along the water’s edge, striking a motionless pose while it eyed up its dinner choices.
My pandemic-weary spirit felt renewed by the fact the sun continued to set (and rise) beautifully regardless of news reports. I also took comfort from the people at FHL who were making meaningful changes to tackle climate issues while letting me share their corner of wilderness, guilt-free.