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From Gil Island perch, couple study whales

A Humpback whale feeds off Gil Island, in Northern B.C. October 2, 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The bubbles are the giveaway.

Popping in a swimming-pool-sized ring in front of Gil Island off British Columbia's northwest coast, the bubbles are signs of humpback whales below, expelling columns of air through their blow holes to herd fish into a tightening circle. The team effort pays off when the whales burst through the middle of the ring, mouths agape, to feast on their prey.

From an aluminum boat about 100 metres away, Janie Wray logs the time of the "bubble-net" feeding and the number of whales. It's a routine she's performed hundreds of times since she and her husband, Hermann Meuter, began monitoring whales around Gil Island nearly a decade ago.

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Without official connections to major research institutions, the couple is outside the tent of academic cetacean research. But their perch on Gil Island, best known for punching a hole in the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry in March, 2006, has given the self-appointed guardians a ringside seat for one of the biggest industrial projects ever contemplated for British Columbia and Alberta.

The $5.5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway Project would run twinned pipelines from near Edmonton to a marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C., from which tankers would carry oil and condensate up and down Douglas Channel and past Gil Island. The project would add more than 200 tankers a year to the hundreds of cruise ships, fishing boats and barges that ply these waters. For Ms. Wray, the outcome would be predictable, and bleak.

"If those oil tankers go through, I am positive they will hit whales," Ms. Wray said. "I just don't see how they won't."

Whale strikes are relatively rare; when a cruise ship pulled in to Vancouver in July, 2009, with a dead fin whale impaled on its bow, the incident was front-page news. An Enbridge environmental assessment lists several potential effects of the project on marine mammals, including "behavioural disturbance" among whales resulting from trying to avoid the sounds of dredging and pile drilling, potential injuries from underwater blasting, and potential collisions. All are "currently being assessed."

Ms. Wray and Mr. Meuter didn't go looking for tankers. They met as colleagues at OrcaLab, which was set up in 1970 on Hanson Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, by pioneering whale researcher Paul Spong. Using hydrophones and video monitoring stations, OrcaLab honed the study of killer whales in the wild.

Inspired, Ms. Wray and Mr. Meuter headed up the coast to find their own whale-study niche. They chose the north coast for its potential to shed light on whales' winter habits, and hunkered down on Gil Island after getting permission from Gitga'at nation leaders in Hartley Bay.

In their first season, they lived in a tent.

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Since then, with help from friends and patrons – including a benefactor who contributed funds after dropping in from King Pacific Lodge, a high-end floating resort that operates in summer – Ms. Wray and Mr. Meuter have built a year-round base.

A micro-hydro plant on a creek generates electricity. Driftwood, chopped and stacked in piles the size of railway cargo containers fuels wood stoves. There's an outhouse and sinks with cold running water. Supplies come by boat or float plane. Garbage and recycling go out the same way.

The venture, dubbed Cetacealab and launched in 2001, is a registered charity. To date, the couple has focused on identifying and photographing whales in the area, co-operating with scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Ms. Wray is working on a submission to an academic journal about resurgent humpback populations in the area.

They have recently stepped up their efforts, hosting student volunteers for the first time over the summer and working to install another hydrophone to create a ring of five listening stations that will cover passes and channels most travelled by humpbacks and orcas and now being considered as tanker routes.

"The advantage of their study is that they are there year-round," says John Ford, head of DFO's Cetacean Research Program, adding that DFO has used information gathered by the Gil Island outpost in studies relating to critical whale habitat.

Humpback, fin and killer whales are listed as "threatened" species under Canada's Species at Risk Act.

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As the Enbridge proposal moves through the regulatory process, whales will be part of a much bigger picture – one involving two provinces, about 50 Indian communities, tunnels bored through mountains and two pipelines, each nearly 1,200 kilometres long. Enbridge has filed eight volumes of material with federal regulators touching on everything from double-hulled tanker design to geotechnical studies. Submissions include provisions for tankers to slow down if whales are in the area.

The company's plans focus on shipping lanes and boundaries that don't exist for whales, Mr. Meuter said.

"If you have a catastrophic spill here, it will affect the population down the coast," he said. "They do not stay in Caamano Sound or Whale Channel, they use this whole coast as their territory."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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