ECHACHISHT — Joe Martin and Jim Darling sit on a grassy mound rising from a stretch of shoreline where ancient Nuu-chah-nulth whalers once brought their immense prey to be butchered.
Martin, a canoe carver from Tla-oqui-aht village, and Darling, a whale biologist, are unified in their desire to know what this mound contains and how it might provide insight to ancient cultures and changes in marine ecosystems.
“Some of the elders in our village used to talk ... that some or all of it is made of whale bones,” says Martin, observing that the surrounding forest has curiously refused to colonize the mound. “It will be interesting to see what’s under here.”
Darling has earned an international reputation studying live whales on the B.C. coast and Hawaii and now finds himself fascinated with what the bones of the dead might reveal.
“A million questions, so much to be learned,” he says, noting the answers are buried like hidden treasure. “There is probably enough in this mound to keep 20 biologists going for 20 years.”
Located a 15-minute boat ride from Tofino, on the undulating lip of the Pacific Ocean, Echachist — joined by a sandbar to Wickaninnish Island — is a former aboriginal whaling site that is already yielding some tantalizing discoveries.
Over the past two years, researchers have collected a total of 52 bone samples, mostly scattered around the site, including leaning on logs or a cabin porch, beneath the shade of beefy Sitka spruce trees, or poking up through the moss-draped soil.
DNA tests have found evidence not just of the usual suspects — humpback and grey whales, the subject of a modern whale-watching industry — but also species such as fin and right whales, neither of which are still found in these waters.
(As fate would have it, federal whale researchers on June 9 spotted the first endangered northern right whale in B.C. waters in more than 60 years, off Haida Gwaii. Threatened fin whales are more numerous, making a come back on B.C.’s north coast.)
Limited carbon dating of the Echachist whale bones shows them to be about 900 to 1,000 years old, with the potential for bones underneath the mound to be much older.
The next phase of the project — entering its third season this summer on a bare-bones budget of about $5000 per year funded by Clayoquot Biosphere Trust — is to analyze the stable isotopes in the bones to determine how diets and the marine environment has changed over the centuries.
The process of formally asking the hereditary chiefs for permission to excavate the mound — measuring less than 50 metres in length and around five metres high — is also expected to get underway. “All the preliminary digs indicate a pile of bones is likely, we just do not know the extent of it,” Darling says.
It’s all heady stuff for the Pacific WildLife Foundation researcher who can see Echachist from the window of his Tofino home but never appreciated its significance until he started doing genetic work with coastal grey whales.
“Pretty exciting,” the soft-spoken Darling confirms. “All of a sudden we’re looking at DNA of whales here 1,000 years ago.”
There are about 20,000 grey whales in the eastern north Pacific.
What Darling recently discovered is that rather than migrate to Arctic waters with the rest, about 200 whales, or one per cent of the population, remain along the coast from Northern California to southeastern Alaska.
In effect, B.C.’s grey whales have a culture that is distinct from the larger population and should be managed separately.
To find out more about the B.C. population, Darling teamed up with Martin, who built a cabin on Echachist about 20 years ago, to see what the site’s bones might have to say about the history of this distinct population.
DNA tests are unlikely to make a direct link between an individual grey whale living today and the bones of an ancestor, but can tell whether they came from the same lineage, explains Tim Frasier, a whale genetics researcher at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Comparative DNA research will also show how the genetic diversity of coastal whales has changed from before and after the era of commercial whaling.
“We can make inferences on the impact of whaling on the (whale) populations,” Frasier said.
Commercial whaling occurred in local waters in two waves, from the late 1860s to early 1870s and again in 1907. Along the outer coast, five whaling stations killed at least 24,250 whales from 1907 to 1967, when whaling ended.
The stable isotope work falls to Anne Salomon, a “kelp-forest biologist” and assistant professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.
She first met Darling by chance during a surfing holiday with her husband on the Hesquiat Peninsula in August 2011.
“I was looking for surf and Jim had just been out darting humpback whales,” she said. “We figured out pretty quickly we were both marine biologists.” Almost immediately they also began to collaborate on the Echachist study.
“It’s a remarkable story,” says Salomon, noting humans have altered the area’s marine ecology over the ages.
For example, the removal of sea otters during the fur trade beginning in the mid-1700s allowed kelp-eating urchins to flourish.
With the expansion of otters in the decades following their reintroduction from 1969 to 1972, the otters have knocked back the tasty urchins and allowed the kelp to expand once more.
Large kelp is assuming dominance over bull kelp and is providing habitat for a slew of marine life including rockfish, salmon, herring, abalone, and other fin fish.
Humpbacks have also been observed feeding on tiny shrimp-like mysids that thrive in the kelp forests.
Stable isotope research measures carbon and nitrogen in the bones to determine how the whales’ foraging habitat has changed over the centuries, be it coastal kelp forests or open ocean based on small fish.
“They’re like a flight recorder,” Salomon said of stable isotopes “The bones record a signature of what they were eating, and if you go back through time you can see how their diet has changed.”
For aboriginals, the research is a way to provide historic insight into their culture.
Martin reckons his people killed their last whale on Echachist in the early 1900s; a faded archival photo in his cabin depicts one such hunt from this same beach.
He appreciates that natives’ relationship with whales have change; he worked 15 years as a whale-watch tour guide in Tofino and the traditional whaling canoes he carves have found their way into the ecotourism trade.
The diets of native people have also undergone a sea change, the old whaling skills are no longer there, and there is no groundswell to revive the old whaling days.
Still, Martin did manage to taste blubber when he ventured to Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula in 1999 following the controversial killing of a grey whale by the Makah tribe. “I was surprised,” he said. “It was very good, much like eating shrimp.”
Traditional whaling was an elaborate undertaking steeped in ritual, according to The Whaling People of the West Coast of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery by Eugene Arima and Alan Hoover, published by the Royal BC Museum in 2011.
“To pursue whales successfully it was first necessary to be ritually trained, purified through arduous cold-water bathing and other mystical practises so that the whales would not flee the hunters but rather be attracted and let themselves be taken. The whalers needed skilful technique as well, of course. Everything had to be carefully prepared for capturing a whale.
“A team of seven or nine men, including the steersman, crewed the long canoe or whaling canoe. Carved from a big Western Redcedar and usually 9 to 11 metres long, 1.5 metres wide and half a metre deep at the middle, the canoe was capacious for many metres of twisted cedar-branch line, sealskin floats, spare harpoon shaft, killing spear, etc.”
Martin points to a 10-metre gap in the shoreline where the rocks were removed generations ago to allow a place for the whales to be floated onto the site at high tide. As the tide receded, the carcass would be washed to remove the sand then butchered amid the singing of songs and the giving of thanks to the Creator.
“They did it in a very respectful way so they would have continued success at whale hunting,” he said.
Martin noted that families would move onto Echachist seasonally for the whaling, from around March to August, part of a rich bounty of marine food that sustained the Nuu-chah-nulth people on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“They had all the resources,” he agreed, adding it allowed time for other cultural aspects such as carving, singing and dancing. “One of the richest peoples in the world.”
Martin guides The Vancouver Sun along a path through the forested centre of Echachist. We hear the squeaky-door call of a bald eagle and pass a black-tailed deer and a young bull that he transported to the island last year. The bull’s name is Chale, which he says loosely means “whatever” in Spanish. A second bull transported at the same time has mysteriously gone missing.
The hike ends at an exposed beach where the waves crash onto black rocks and sea spray drifts like the whoosh of air from a whale’s blow-hole. Some of the rocks form bath tubs where the whalers used to immerse themselves before the hunt.
“People used to bathe in those pools. They’d know what it was like to be in the water.”
Then it is time to head back to Tuff City — as Martin calls Tofino — walking across a vast bed of mussel shells back to his 6.5-metre fiberglass vessel powered by a 90-horsepower motor. The boat is named Shot On One Side. “My late brother, Bill, accidentally shot a hole through the boat while seal hunting,” he says with a smile.
No one really wants to leave Echachist. The natural beauty and sense of mystery are just too alluring. But this is one place that has held it secrets for centuries. Unlocking them will just have to wait a little longer.