Monday, May 5, 2008

Quebec & Me

(It's long, but even if you don't read it, please scroll down to the photos at the end of the story!)

June 25, 1993

Saying good-bye to Mom at the airport in Portland, Oregon, she boards her plane to Vancouver. It's a small plane, one of the first of this size that she has experienced. She is 20 years old and it is just about two weeks after her sophomore year in college. As she sits on this little plane, she is feeling proud of her independence.

In Vancouver, she must connect to a flight to Toronto. Somehow she find out that she must pay an airport tax here. She exchanges some money and takes care of the fee. She finds her flight and congratulates herself - there is nothing she can't do!

Several hours and time zones later, she finds herself in Toronto with some time to kill before her flight to Quebec City. She browses in the airport shops and reads the books she started on the earlier flights.

She arrives in Quebec City after nightfall and checks into her hotel for the night. The hotel staff were nice despite her complete ignorance of the French language, helping her make a plan for getting to the bus depot early in the morning. Before falling asleep for the night, she calls Mom to report a safe journey thus far.

Hearing Mom's voice on the other end of the phone brings an unexpected wave of emotions. The pride and independence she was feeling is submerging, and her feelings of nervousness and apprehension are bubbling up to the surface. She tries to fight them off, but they betray her in a quivering voice that Mom, of course, detects. Mothers know the tones in their children's voices. Mom talks her through the rest of the trip's plan, as she fights off the tears that are now forcing themselves into her eyes. She ultimately loses the battle in an explosion of sobbing insecurity.

I know it will be okay, I'm just so scared. I am going to be camping for two weeks, and I have never been camping before. I hope I brought the right gear. I know the program made sure that enough people were bringing tents and stoves, but I hope finding a person who'll take me in goes smoothly. I hope I figure out the restroom and shower situation at the campground. I hope I am cut out for this research. Studying whales is what I want to do with my life! What if I hate it or am hopelessly incompetent? Then my dreams will be shattered and how will I deal with that? This is too much new stuff for me and I am too far away from everyone! I am so alone out here!

Mom comforts her daughter with caring words of encouragement. Daughter says goodnight and calls her boyfriend to repeat the sobbing conversation all over again.

Red-eyed and queasy-stomached, she awakens the next morning and calls a cab to take her to the bus depot. She must arrive in time to purchase her ticket (speaking no French) and board the bus to Grandes Bergeronnes before it departs at 9:20 am.

Arriving at the bus depot, she sees a small group of young women carrying sleeping bags, dressed in "outdoor"-style clothing. The college sponsoring this Field Studies course had sent out a roster, and strangely enough, only women had enrolled in this session. They all made eye contact and subsequently discovered that they were heading to the same place. On the bus together, and during the lunch stop, everyone enjoyed getting to know the fellow students who would be sharing in this adventure. Our heroine's stomach relaxed a bit, but not much; it helped a lot that Jennifer had already adopted her for a tent-mate, but she still worried about the campground and whether she was physical enough to handle the boat work.

They arrived in Grandes Bergeronnes and met their instructor: a real, honest-to-God whale researcher. He looked like a salty man of the sea: a few teeth missing, bright white hair pulled back into a pony tail, a raincoat and Wellington boots. He would eventually reveal himself to be one of the most caring instructors she would ever have, a teacher with a passion for not only his subject, but also for teaching itself.

He took the students to their campground, showed them around, helped them get set up, and took them to the closest market to buy provisions. He supplied a kitchen tent so the students would have a common area at the campsite. That night, after dinner, he walked them over to his home, and gave them an introductory lecture in his living room. They would be on the water, out with the whales, in the morning!

Our young heroine found that the campground was reasonably well equipped, and her tent-mate was a perfect fit. They made themselves a cozy little space and fell asleep with the sound of the wind in the trees above their heads.

They awoke the next morning to find a rainy, drippy day. The instructor came to fetch his students, with the bad news that the weather would keep them on the shore. He felt it was a perfect opportunity to do some of his lectures, since he usually taught the seminars every other night. This time, he could get them out of the way at the beginning of the course and the students could have free time at night. Since it rained part of the next day as well, that is exactly what happened. The students spent their usual lecture nights working on their research projects (also in the instructor's house) or heading over to the dance club in Tadoussac.

He taught them about the whales that come into the St. Lawrence River during the summer to find plankton and fish to eat. They would be seeing many minke and finback whales, although they were too early in the summer to see the blue whales. They would also see the only non-artic population of the small white beluga whales. He taught them about the behaviors they would be observing from the boats and how to identify what the whales were doing from what was visible above the water's surface. The frequency of breathing and the curve of the arch or kick of the tail as they dove back under would tell them if they were resting, traveling, or hunting for a food source. Feeding behaviors could be quite dramatic if the whales had located a school of fish. They would be traveling at higher speeds, often breaking through the surface with a great, open mouth and extended throat.

He taught them about the physiology of the whales with respect to oxygen intake. Because they breathe air but live in the water, they must consciously regulate their oxygen supply. During their visits to the surface, they must allow time for all of their cells to get rid of carbon dioxide and take in oxygen, which must travel through the bloodstream to/from the lungs and blowhole. His research has shown that to accomplish this, most whales take four breaths per dive cycle. The students listened, looked at the slides, and took notes, all the while longing to be out there seeing it for themselves.

Soon enough, the morning came when Prof. Salty invited the students to come down to the dock. He gave them all full-body flotation-insulation suits to protect them if they fell into the water, explaining that the suit would give them a few minutes before they became hypothermic, while the students chuckled nervously. They boarded the two zodiacs, received further instruction on boat safety and equipment, and headed out! The zodiacs sped across the water. The students' arms started to hurt as they held tight to the ropes and handles, bouncing up and down with the wind whipping against them. Our young heroine felt much better seeing her nervous exhilaration mirrored in all the faces of her fellow students. This was hard, but she was just like everyone else!

All of the gritted facial expressions changed the first time they saw a whale. They learned how to record the data: how many whales were in the group, time between breaths (for the lead whale in particular), type of dive or swim, sonar readings, location, air temperature, wind speed, bearing of the whales, and distance from the boat. They listened and they learned, but they could barely contain their emotions because they were sitting on the side of an inflatable boat with a whale about 50 meters away! A breath-taking, awe-inspiring animal that spends most of its life inaccessible to people. Its life below the surface is one we can try to deduce from the few clues of its surface behaviors, but remains a fascinating mystery.

At the end of their first day, the students' bodies were cold and exhausted. It took a lot of strength to stay in that boat! Their minds and hearts, however, were energized. This experience was exactly what they had hoped. The scenery was beautiful, the animals fascinating. The next morning, Prof. Salty asked them, "who wants to go out again today, and who wants a shore break? I always let my students take days off." The students all wanted to go back out there.

For two weeks, they spent every decent-weather-day (all but one of the remaining days) on the water. By their last day, they were old pros. Their bodies no longer tired from the exertion of hanging on to the boat. They were quick to spot the surfacing whales from long distances. They were skilled at taking the data and using the equipment. They had developed their own proposals for research projects. Our heroine's final report proposed a study of how the tides affect the resting behaviors of finback whales. She predicted that during rising tides the whales would take advantage of the flowing water pushing the food up and concentrating it, and therefore a smaller proportion of their time would be spent in resting behaviors.

On their last day in Grandes Bergeronnes, the students packed up camp as quickly as they could and convinced the research assistants to take them on the water for just a few hours. (Prof. Salty had to prepare for the new batch of students arriving that afternoon.) They breathed in every last bit of the St. Lawrence River that they could, and then boarded the bus to head back to Quebec City. This time, our heroine was not alone. She was with a group of young women who had shared an experience that few people could fully understand. They were headed home to their summer jobs, and then back to their respective colleges, but they had one last night together in Quebec City. They explored the city together, and our heroine's jaw dropped in awe at the stunning architechture in the nearly four-centuries-old city. It was a bustling summer night; people were out enjoying themselves while walking among the shops along the old cobblestone streets or climbing on the fortress-like city walls.

This time, as she fell asleep in her Quebec City hotel bed in preparation for her early flight home, our young heroine knew that she would always hold this place in a special hollow of her heart. It was there that she had been lucky enough to meet these young women, and share some days with them in admiration of the magnificent animals that brought her spirit to life.

Minke and finback whales of the St. Lawrence
(Photos taken on my disposable camera. yes, disposable!)

The other zodiac is having a near-whale experience. Both boats had many of these, and I'm glad I captured what it looked like from afar.

That's me in the middle. In this shot, you can see the flotation-insulation suits we wore, as well as how we were perched on the pontoons of the inflatable boat. My parents were a little freaked out when I got home and showed them my photos!
That's my tent-mate Jennifer on the right.


smalltownmom said...

What a wonderful adventure!

Snooty Primadona said...

It sounds wonderful and I'd love to see whales.

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