Opinion » Maxed Out

Bubble-net ballet — eating reimagined

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That reality can tend to be relative, subject to the impressions and prejudices of the observer, becomes evident when, on rare occasions, the everyday, the prosaic, the achingly normal becomes, well, weird.

Take skiing, for example. Generally, people experience skiing on a micro level. They drill in on the minutiae of skiing, the virtually autonomic act of continuously adjusting their balance in an ever-changing dynamic environment, the necessity to plan ahead — but not too far ahead lest their future plan be devoured by their instant reality — to the next turn, the next bump, the next pillow of bottomless powder.

Once, in the 1980s, the umbrella marketing group for Colorado ski resorts ran a fetching ad campaign aimed at stressed-out, well-heeled skiers. Under a bluebird sky on an uncrowded slope just below treeline, punctuated with sparse, small evergreens spaced at convenient intervals, a solitary skier floated through champagne powder with a look of utter, orgasmic pleasure on his face. The tagline was: It's been proven you can't do this and think about the office at the same time.

Such is the laserlike focus generally associated with skiing.

But there are moments, at least there are for me, moments most often experienced on a relatively gentle road back to a lift, moments that require little in the way of conscious thought or skill, moments when minds sharply focused can momentarily relax and freewheel, moments when the absurdity of what I'm doing strikes me with full force. In those moments, the reality of sliding briskly downhill across packed snow on long, skinny levers seems so incredibly bizarre as to be unreal, a glimpse into a parallel universe where physical laws so familiar in this one are upended. Man, that's so weird; riding the gravity engine across a snowy slope on upturned boards!

Then, poof, it's gone and everything seems normal again. The reality of skiing reverts to simply the reality of skiing, regressing to the mean.

Less frequently, but with more reality distorting impact, are the times when familiar, pedestrian words jump off a page — not infrequently the one I'm writing — and become foreign and unknown. I'll stare at the word and wonder why it looks wrong, misspelled, nonexistent. I'll sound it out repeatedly, hoping it fires the correct synapses and finds its rightful place in the English lexicon, knowing that doing so will likely only make it seem even more unreal. Sometimes I'll leave it, move on and hope or assume it's correct; other times, I'll just give up and find a different word to use in its place, trusting it eventually re-enters a familiar orbit and becomes useful again.

But those things pale in comparison to the times when the simple and necessary act of eating takes on grotesque, alien characteristics. Admittedly, such moments usually happen in restaurants and are triggered by watching others eat. People are, more often than not, unconscious of the moment-by-moment act of eating. And like skiing, everybody seems to have a style of their own, peckish, robust, dainty, ravenous, gluttonous, gargantuan, sloppy, prim, half-hearted. But the common denominator is this, if you watch long enough, the act itself takes on an unfamiliar life of its own.

Having said that, nothing I've ever seen in the human act of eating is as unreal as the gustatory ballet I saw the other day off Rennison Island. Several nautical miles north of the island, we spotted water spouts, the exhalations of humpback whales. First one, then another, then another, then, like an aquatic pipe organ, four all at once, several metres distant from the first. Weird. But the pattern repeated and repeated again. And as we drew closer, we realized this was a small pod of humpbacks, seven or eight, we couldn't be certain, bubble-net feeding.

Ironically, we didn't know what bubble-net feeding was 24 hours earlier. But a stop by For Whales' Cetacealab at Whale Point, on the southern tip of Gil Island, proved prophetic. Run by project leaders Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter, For Whales identifies and monitors an increasing population of humpbacks, orcas and fin whales in Caamano Sound.

Staffed largely by volunteers doing one- or two-month intern rotations, who both pay for the privilege of being there and get to sleep in tents in one of the most stunning spots on the B.C., coast, the lab establishes population information through visual scanning, monitoring an array of hydrophones that record whalesong, identifying individuals in the pods and recording surveys from other interested groups, both land based and marine.

William, a watchman from the Gitga'at First Nation of Hartley Bay, explained the mechanics of humpback bubble net feeding.

"When they do it in a group, they'll dive below a shoal of prey, about 50 metres. They rotate... they don't just swim in a circle, they swim up and they do this kind of helix twist. They release bubbles as they twist and rise in a circular motion. The bubbles tend to mass the herring. The whale at the bottom sings, does the song, and there are frequencies in the song that cause the herrings' swim bladder to vibrate. When that happens, they ball up, they condense into a ball of herring because they get scared. The whales release the bubbles and then they'll all come up together."

They come up, mouths wide open and all surface at once, bellies full of herring. After repeated surfacing, rolling, blowing and forcing the water they've taken in with the herring out through their baleen plates, they do it all again.

We watched this happen over and over again, for perhaps half an hour each explosion of humpbacks followed by multiple long blows and inhales as they prepared to dive again for the subsequent course of fish du jour.

In the world of eating, that's about as far from reality as anything I've seen, hotdog eating contests included.

But knowing what was happening made the whole scene poetic, thoughtful, planned, sentient. An aquatic ballet in five courses.

That's not why For Whales operates Cetacealab though. They monitor the population of whales through a tricky stretch of water. The north end of Gil Island was, you may recall, where the Queen of the North ran aground in 2006. Caamano Sound was part of the tanker route proposed to carry Northern Gateway bitumen to far-flung markets. The research at Cetacealab has given weight to the conclusion this area needs to be established as critical habitat for humpbacks and most likely orcas as well. With luck, the findings will help inform public policy and keep these waters filled with whales into the future.

If you think this is a good idea, you might want to consider the work they do when you're thinking of charitable contributions. You can learn more and donate at forwhales.org.

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