Welcome to my blog

Traveling alone. Uprooting, disconnecting and discovering.

Getting off of whatever plot of earth you claim to be home is a really good way to gather your wits and live in the moment. It won't be the moment you had yesterday which was pretty much the same as the moment the day before that but some fantastically new moment that your collection of molecules hasn't ever experienced.

Doing it with no one to influence your choices just enhances that feeling of renewal and rediscovery.

Even when I was married, even when I traveled in large groups, it was always important for me to break away and get out there myself…like a rogue wave.

Writing about the trips and sharing stories with fellow travelers, friends and family is a nice by-product and a way of re-living those more out-of-the ordinary moments.

Being a really lousy photographer, this isn't a "holiday-snaps" kind of travel blog but more of a stream-of-consciousness ramble about my impressions. If you discover yourself mentioned within these pages or have a photo that would complement the description, please send me a note.

It's not my intention to advertise, promote or badmouth any people, products or places but I do have opinions and enjoy expressing them.

You're invited to follow along in my under-tow.

Monday, 8 October 2018

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 15th 2018 Back Home

At 10 am on Saturday morning, I was already back home in my kitchen looking at all the cool MICS swag that I scored.

They gave me a beautiful card, a book called Wild Blue A Natural History of the World's Largest Animal by Dan Bortolotti and lots of other photos and informative booklets that I need to explore.

I would like to personally thank Valentine in the office, Florine and Bertrand in the field and MICS founder Richard Sears for giving me this fantastic opportunity.

Of course I'm sad for all of us that we didn't get to see any Blues but if I ever get the chance to go back, I'll be first in line.

Thank you also to anyone reading for coming along on this close to home and close to my heart adventure. If this type of trip is interesting to you, please contact MICS at https://www.rorqual.com/english/about/contact to learn more about sessions offered in the upcoming season. It would be my pleasure to hear from you too if you had any questions.

Now it's time to stow my travel stuff until my wanderlust takes over again.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 14th 2018

The last day of the trip, the team took a well-deserved rest. They had some Admin things to take care of and since they were in a nice hotel, they might as well enjoy it.

They did include me though and I got a valuable one on one training session with Richard Sears on how to match and identify Blue Whales using the unique speckle patterns on each individual. He demonstrated how he would classify the uncatalogued photos using their MICS pix software.

Each unique individual has a file with photos taken from different angles and at different dates and locations. I listened to Mr. Sears grumble and mumble under his breath as he repeated "I know this whale" as he scanned the files trying to determine where to plug the photograph sent to him by a colleague.

There are different ways to search using terminology that was still quite foreign to me but I observed quietly until there was a contented "Eureka!" moment and the correct file was found and the new photograph was input and memorialized.

I even got to help name a Blue Whale that had a marking that looked like a leafy sea dragon so the whale formerly known as B332 has been christened Dragonleaf.

I let the team continue with their work while I composed these blog entries and surfed the web learning more and more about the plight of the whales in my region. It's both a good time and a bad time. Many calves were ID'd in 2018, many more than in previous years but they are in no way abundant.

I packed my unused snorkel equipment and readied my suitcase for the train trip home.

The Via Rail line from Halifax to Montreal passes right through Rimouski at the slightly inconvenient hour of 2:04 am. The station was only a kilometre or so from the hotel but I opted for a 10 dollar taxi ride because of my heavy duffel bag. Thankfully, it was a warm and pleasant night as I waited patiently for the automatic lock on the station door to open 30 minutes before the train pulled in.

A baggage handler and a ticket taker descended to greet me and the other single passenger. My bag was tagged and taken away and I boarded the quiet and dark car and found a comfortable single seat. The QR code on my phone was scanned and soon the rhythmic movement of the train rocked me to sleep.

It was an easy and unremarkable 8 hour trip ending with a fantastic view of my home-town as we crossed the bridge onto Montreal Island and entered the tunnel into the Central Station right downtown.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-Money, Methods and Musculus

So what do these MICS Blue Whale researchers actually do?

Well, first they need to raise funds. It's a reality. It sucks. It's not their most fun way to spend their time but without some cash, they can't do their important work.

Aside from that, when they make it out into the field and their quarry is in sight, the first order of the day is documenting the location and identifying the individuals. If conditions are right, they will also attempt to collect samples of skin and blubber, whale snot and even poop!

The methods and tools are surprisingly simple and rudimentary.

A pencil, a piece of plastified cardboard called a slate, a number of cameras, the boat's GPS, a wristwatch and a net. If they need to get fancy, they have a special crossbow which shoots skin-sampling darts attached to floatie things that they can collect from the water and store in a thermos chilled by an ice-pak.

They then prepare the samples for analysis to get basic DNA genetic information as well as data concerning the animal's health, toxin levels and other sciency business.

I'm learning about the actual methodology in a very hands-on way. They begin by recording the condition of the sea using the Beaufort scale and the cloud coverage by percent. They begin the time count as of the first sighting and begin taking photos and recording the species of each animal observed using the pencil and slate. As soon as the whale dives, we position the boat into the whale's "footprint" and take a GPS reading.

The waypoint from the onboard GPS is noted and the timestamp is matched with the digital photograph sequences for later conciliation with the waypoint.

If conditions permit, an attempt to tag the animal or collect samples will be made but this is not always possible.

This process continues all the while noting any particular markings or behaviour and the result is a whole bunch of data which gets transcribed by hand into a log book and then later entered into an electronic database with the uploaded photos.

Then begins the tedious task of matching the photos with known whales or making the call that a brand new individual needs to be added to the catalogue.

It's a big job. A big important job. I'm glad to do whatever I can to help, but so far, until I'm handed the poop net, I guess I can help by donating.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 13th 2018

I think the MICS team felt really spoiled to finally have big queen sized beds with fresh linen and enjoy two meals in a row that they hadn't prepared. They really loved the hotel's breakfast buffet and kept going back for more fresh fruit and croissants.

It was a small luxury but they really appreciated it and everyone was excited to get out on the water and see the blue whales that our friend René had seen a few days earlier.

As mentioned earlier, René has a knack for photographing and recognizing known individuals. What was exciting was that he didn't recognize one of the Blue Whales.

He wanted Richard Sears to confirm that it was a new uncatalogued animal.

Now we just had to find it. Wind and weather conditions needed to improve just a bit. We had a fog problem. There was a lot of discussion about whether or not we should even leave the marina.

I let the experts confer while I quietly stood by sweating in my giant red exposure suit of whale watching. They warned me that it would be bumpy and much, much colder out on the St-Lawrence river.

They knew by my expression that I didn't care and hadn't complained so far about anything else. Mr. Sears gave the crew members a special pre-game briefing. He reminded them of all of his hand signals and that when he needed acceleration there could be no delay. Finally, I was admonished to stay in my designated seat at all times.

They couldn't risk missing a chance to tag an animal because I rocked the boat while moving around. He said "Even if the whale is doing something weird, even if you want to take a photo, even if a spaceship lowers four tap-dancing unicorns onto the surface of the water....DO NOT MOVE."

Sir, yes, Sir!

And thus began our quest in Rimouski.

As soon as the RHIB made it out of the protected harbour, we felt the wind. The good news was that it was redirecting the fog away from us but the bad news was that at speed, the waves made the boat pitch and heave a lot.

Thankfully, we were all experienced boaters and none of us suffered from seasickness. The thing that none of us wanted was to hurt our backs. We all knew to watch the oncoming crests and slightly stand to take the dip of the trough with our knees rather than slam our tailbones every time. We looked like football fans in a stadium doing the wave.

It was also helpful to have Captain Maniac colour comment his skippering. "Oh, it's a NASTY!" he would say to welcome a particularly treacherous undulation.

We had five pairs of eyes spotting in all directions and we crisscrossed between the north and south shores of the river for several hours to no avail. We saw nothin' but mutton. (In French, the word for whitecap is "mouton", literally sheep.)

When the wind let up, we stayed in neutral hoping to hear something and looked around using our binoculars but the whales were not showing themselves.

It was then that we observed some strange behaviour between a Parasitic Jaeger and a Kittiwake. The Kittiwake had a fish in its bill and the Jaeger chased it in an aerial dogfight.

When the Jaeger successfully stole the fish, it didn't even eat it. It just continued to fly around bugging the Kittiwake with the fish still hanging out of his beak and he eventually dropped it into the water.

According to everyone on board this was very unusual. See René Roy's photographic montage here.

We chatted while looking and we all shared fun stories about previous trips. I asked a lot questions and learned so much that the day was still a great experience for me. It was just so disappointing for the researchers after all of their efforts.

We made the best of it, enjoyed our giant French wheel of cheese, confirmed that there were NO BANANAS ON THE BOAT (very bad luck according to my fisherman father!), teased René Roy about his invisible whales, Captain Sears had a nap and then we saw the only truly remarkable thing in a whole 10 hours on the water.

A few hundred metres away, a very large group of Beluga whales swam together. If we saw twenty, you could bet that there were twenty more. The species is highly endangered, it is estimated that there are only 300 or so of these mammals left in the St-Lawrence. (photo credit to Florine Martineau)

As the sun began to lower in the sky we were finally blessed with dead calm and we cut the motor completely. We just let the boat drift. There were still a few Belugas porpoising but according to house rules, I wasn't allowed to point them out.

Pointing is for Blue Whales only!

Ah, such is life. There was nothing to point at so we just went back to the marina and pulled the boat out, hitched it to the trailer and let René take it home.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 12th 2018

At around 11 am the gigantic pickup truck pulled up in front of the motel loaded to the hilt with gear. Gear in the backseat, gear in the consoles, gear on the dashboard, gear UNDER the seat, gear piled high and lashed down in the cargo area. A huge pole was among the many weird and wonderful contents.

I paid my respect to the pole. This pole is the kindest and most important pole in the history of the world. This is the pole that gets attached to a knife. This is the pole sometimes attached to a knife which is used to free whales entangled in fishing equipment. Much respect to the pole.

So with all of this stuff, I was curious where my duffel bag would go but Bertrand managed to zip-tie it to the grill protecting the rear window. Voilà! All we needed was a grandma sitting in a rocking chair up top and we'd be off to Beverly....Hills that is. Well, we were off to Rimouski in a convoy.

We had a tailgate picnic on the property where the boat was parked. That's when I saw the GIANT WHEEL OF CHEESE. Well of course these 2.5 Frenchmen would have one, it's part of their body composition. I mean humans are like 97% water, right? If you're French, there is only 94% water and the remaining 3% is clearly cheese. This cheese was reallllllly good on nice bread with little tomatoes and arugula and some ham and proper strong mustard. It was extra good eaten outside overlooking Pointe-à-la-Renommée.

Richard Sears met up with us in his car which was equally loaded with his guitars and his bike and some molasses cake, his only sustenance because we had prematurely stowed the cheese...oops.

Once the boat was hitched up to the truck we set out on what would normally be a 5 hour drive to Rimouski. Of course it wasn't. We stopped to spot at all rest points overlooking the sea. If there were any whales sighted we would have pulled into the closest marina and launched the boat. At one point Bertrand just stopped and waited for Richard as we had agreed but we didn't see Richard. We doubled back and looked at some other places thinking that there was a miscommunication but nope. That took almost an hour out of our trip because oh dear...no cellphone in the other vehicle. WHAT? I think that problem will be remedied next year if I have to donate one MYSELF!

Anyway, we lost another 15 minutes in an area under construction where traffic was controlled on a single lane one direction at a time. Our only true "rest" stop was to fill up with gas, get a coffee and have a pee. The trip is actually quite beautiful and I would have been hard pressed to find a private chauffeur-driven tour any other way. We even spotted some dolphins at sunset and a few blows from Minkes in an area called Cap-Chat.

Bertrand valiantly scooted us down river to Rimouski where we met up with a beloved collaborator named René Roy. What a sweet guy! He is a true whale lover just like me and has worked with MICS for many years by spotting, photographing, IDing and even helping to develop software to catalogue the whales. He is a traveler too and we got to exchange lots of stories on the next day. I'm looking forward to reuniting with René and his wife on some future trip. After letting us unload some extra gear into his shed, he helped us launch the boat at the local marina which was conveniently located across the street from our hotel.

By the time we got to Hôtels Gouverneur Rimouski, it was pretty late but we still needed to unload all the perishables from the truck. We even had delicate samples that needed to be kept in the freezer so we had to sort that out!

It had been a tiring day but everyone was famished so we went to Restaurant Pacini for some pizza and pasta and enjoyed the bread bar! Florine and Bertrand and Richard are made of pure energy and passion. I was so tired and I had just sat in a truck all day. They are amazing people.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 11th 2018

For days we had known that Tuesday, September 11th would be appropriately rainy, overcast and grim.

The researchers said "have a little sleep-in and a late breakfast then meet up with us around 10 am."

I enjoyed a lovely country-style breakfast while looking out over the bay. Although it was cloudy, it hadn't started to rain yet so it was possible to see right to the horizon. If any whales were passing by, they would be easy to see but they didn't choose that moment to appear.

Bertrand greeted me and we drove a short distance to a place called Penouille.

This is a part of the Forillon National park where you can visit the salt marshes using well-maintained boardwalks with informative panels describing the flora and fauna of the area.

At this time of year, at the end of the season there were not many people using the trails and there were definitely no mosquitoes so Bertrand and I had a nice long walk quietly enjoying the surroundings. We saw many kinds of birds including Great Blue Heron, Canada geese, ducks and woodland birds too. Red squirrels chased each other across our path.

I remarked to Bertrand that it must be tough to be away from his family for the whole season. He said yes, but he loves the work very much. These guys literally work every waking minute. If they aren't in the field, they are preparing meals, doing bookkeeping, making reservation enquiries, loading, unloading, repairing, reminding, planning, pulling, pushing, uploading, downloading, forecasting and if there's time they might take a pee break.

This doesn't include the actual prime directive of record keeping and analysis of the data collected. Oof. I couldn't do it with the calm and panache that Bertrand manages. He never seems to break a sweat or get nervous. He just handles everything and keeps the team organized.

Anyway, I loved the time we spent in Penouille walking along the beach, looking at mushrooms and lichen and enjoying nature with a true nature-lover.

After taking the tourist out for a walk, the MICS team had to get down to serious business. They needed to get to where the whales were and they weren't in Gaspé.

Since I lived close by, I was open to changing my plans. It wasn't like it would be risking missing a flight home to Europe. If everything went tits up, I could just rent a car and drive home if need be. I cancelled my flight home and left the rest up to the fates just like an honest to goodness field researcher!

While the princess napped, the hard-working researchers prepared their mobile unit to bug-out. They packed up their gadgets and doodads and thingamabobs and Florine's much maligned Couscous à la mouche (it's really just raisins but Mr. Sears says they look like dead flies!)

As soon as the tide was high enough, we drove to our boat at the Marina at l'Anse-au-Griffon. Bertrand drove ahead with the trailer attached to the pickup while Mr. Sears skippered Florine and I as far as weather and daylight permitted up the coast aboard the RHIB.

We stayed close to land because it was a bit bouncy out. I got baptized by the ocean spray just in front of a church known as Sainte-Marie-de-la-Baleine by our researchers because it's usually a good place to spot whales.

We had a nice little private sunset cruise and radioed Bertrand to meet us at l'Anse-à-Valleau Marina.

It was perfect timing. The rain pelted us mercilessly just as we approached the harbour but kindly stopped when the team piloted the boat up the launch onto the trailer. I looked at the sea from the nice little picnic area furnished with wooden swinging benches hung up on chains and read the info panels about how U-Boats came here during World War II and how this was an important area for Marconi's work on Maritime Radio Communications.


A kind "friend of the whales" let us park the boat on his property overnight and the four of us squeezed into the pickup truck for a rainy drive back to Cap-aux-Os or in English: Cape of Bones named for the great numbers of bones left on the beach from the whaling industry.

The mood was really fun. We laughed and joked as Richard Sears picked our brains trying to find a good name for his new boat. "Florine wouldn't be bad..." was the first suggestion from someone who will remain anonymous.

He wanted the name to include "blues" because he's a music fan as well as a whale maniac. One of my suggestions was "Blue Gene Blues" which I thought was clever but there were some other less good ones so there was lots of teasing. It was a nice way to bond.

They dropped me off at the restaurant for dinner and let me know they would pass by in the morning to get me after they finished settling their tabs and packing up the truck.

MICS-Blue Whale study trip-September 10th 2018

The second day of my Blues trip began at 6 am with my alarm clock chiming that happy tune. It seems that I only ever set my alarm for travel so the sound gives me a Pavlovian response of anticipation.

I made myself a coffee with ground beans from home and my portable Aeropress (a godlike device that comes with me on all my trips) then trudged up the hill to the base-station where I had a quick breakfast and observed the team gather the equipment and load it into the truck.

There was a tense oopsie moment where a case containing the camera's mega zoom lenses lost its contents because the latch had been left open. Our dear leader was NOT impressed and let his displeasure be known. I clung to the edge of the room as quiet as the loudly patterned wallpaper.

Thankfully, as soon as the equipment was tested and found to be unharmed the sombre mood lifted and we made our way back to the park to spot whales from shore. Not long after, a black she-bear and her two furry toddlers ambled across the road a few hundred metres ahead of us. We approached slowly in the pickup truck hoping to get some pictures.

Cowboy Sears opened the door and hopped right on out! What? Eep! This girl ain't becoming a Rosh Hashana appetizer for no dang bears! Bertrand and Florine sagely stayed with me because they didn't want to be an hors d'oeuvre either! However, it was obvious that Mr. Sears wasn't concerned for his safety. He has years of experience and knew the limits of what the animals would perceive as a "safe" distance so he respected that comfort zone.

We left the bears to hunt their berries and spent a sadly fruitless quarter of an hour trying to see some whales. Nothing doing in the bay. We spoke to some other binocular-laden hunters and they hadn't found any either. We packed up the tripod and the long lenses and left the park but not without another visit with mama bear and her cubs. This time, they were really out in the open with lots of room to spread out and escape into the forest, up a tree or across the road. I have to admit they were in good looking health and the cubs were just too cute. (All photo credits to Florine Martineau.) So, in these circumstances, I got out of the car too and I made it to tell the tale!

We decided to get out on the water anyway because the weather conditions were ideal, little wind, 15% cloud cover and reports of some finback whales in a very picturesque area near the gannet colony at Île Bonaventure and the famous Rocher Percé. Worst case scenario, we'd have some touristy post-card snaps.

It was a little hairy getting our rigid hulled inflatable boat out of the harbour at low tide but our beloved Captain Sears made it look effortless. Florine who is approximately the size of a spaghetti noodle kept checking me and asking if I had dressed warmly enough, were all my zippers and velcros done up, was my hood in place, did I need an extra scarf, were my mittens near?

Geez Louise, once you've been to Arctic Norway in November a little late-summer Gaspé wind ain't no thing!

It was fine and soon we had our reward for our hunch and I watched the team spring into action as we spotted some locals.

First we found some Minke whales which are the smallest of the baleen whales in this area. They are still pretty big and they don't make a big show of themselves like those "MOMMY, WATCH MEEEEE!!!!" humpbacks so I like them.

There was a gang of around six Atlantic white sided dolphins doing their antics with porpoising and tail flapping and giant synchronized leaps. They looked almost golden in the sunshine.

I heard commotion behind me and the engine slowed. They had seen a properly big spout. GO TIME!

Out came the cameras, out came the famous pencil and white cardboard slate, the time was noted and then for me it stopped and so did my heart.

I finally saw what they had seen. A chimney of water vapour emanating from the blow hole of a Fin Whale. And again, from its companion.

Now, Fin Whales (rorqual commun in French) or sometimes called Finbacks are smaller than Blue whales and bigger than Humpbacks. The column of waterspout was easily three times the height of any Humpback spout that I had ever observed and we were still a kilometre away from the animals.

We heard the exhalations clearly though and my guides knew what was about to happen...DIVE. With that the captain piloted the boat over to the now smooth patch of water recently occupied by the finbacks. This patch is known as the footprint of the whales. The GPS waypoint was noted, the digital camera photo series was noted and the time was recorded.

We had around 7 minutes until the whales would surface again and like clockwork, they did.

We repositioned to ensure the best angles for photo id captures and the crew took as many photos as possible until that deep breath signaled the next dive and we repeated the process.

When the whales would surface, we never really saw much more than their arched back and dorsal fins. This is typical for fin whales. They rarely fluke (show their tail) like humpbacks.

They were not engaging in any particular behaviour, they were just moving around. We continued in this way watching four to six Fin Whales and one lousy humpback that they had already ID'ed for about an hour.

Then as suddenly as they had appeared, they went poof.

We continued out to Île Bonaventure and saw a great colony of Gannet sea birds which have taken over the neighbourhood. They share the island with a bunch of seals of many varieties, all of whom are called "Ralph" according to Mr. Sears.

They were very curious and would pop their heads up out of the water like periscopes and peer at us until they got spooked and splashed back under to safety.

They gathered together like gossipy old biddies doing aquafitness at the YMCA as the noisy and stinky Gannets flocked above in the bleachers. (All photo credits to Florine Martineau)

Their underfloofie feathers showered us like a downy blizzard in the wind and yes, we did get pooped on rather a lot.

As a parrot owner, I'm used to that kind of thing and felt quite at home but Captain Sears grumbled at the "shithawks" hovering over our boat's canopy.

The team conferred and made the call that we had Blue Balls, a disappointing condition wherein no Balaenoptera musculus are to be found.

That concluded our first day of observation and all that was left to do was make our way home.

Easier said than done because of course, the wind had picked up and there was only so much daylight left as the sky clouded in the distance.

We bounced and dipped and splashed our way to safe harbour but I enjoyed every moment. Under the special care of Bertrand, Florine and Richard Sears, I couldn't have been in better hands.