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A Day in the Life: A Sea Captain

‘It’s hard to know what’s climate change, and what’s overfishing or poor forestry practices or any number of environmental issues.’

Michelle Cyca 5 Jan 2023TheTyee.ca

Michelle Cyca’s writing has appeared in Maclean’s, the Walrus, Chatelaine, SAD Mag and more. Find her on Twitter @michellecyca.

Like many people who spend their days toiling over a laptop, I have a fascination with careers that one might see in a Richard Scarry illustration of cheerful, industrious little animals bustling around Busytown. How delightful, for instance, to imagine being the captain of a sailboat, like Gaelen Krause.

If I’m guilty of romanticizing life beyond my screen, Krause doesn’t do much to dispel my notions. From spring to fall, he sails with Bluewater Adventures along the West Coast, from the Gulf Islands to southeast Alaska. “We’re following the seasons, and the wildlife,” he explains. “So we’re in the Great Bear Rainforest when the salmon start to return, which brings the bears down to the estuaries. We sail to Haida Gwaii when the birds and whales arrive.” I’ve caught him in the winter season, which is spent tidying and improving the boats for their next journeys.

I was very disappointed to find out that Krause does not wear a captain’s hat, an omission that would never fly in Busytown. In all other respects, our conversation was a delight.

What are the responsibilities of a captain?

The biggest one is keeping everyone safe. That includes making sure the boat is well-maintained and properly licensed, ensuring the crew members are trained, and holding drills. You also have to consider what the weather constraints are and what the wildlife are doing. We can predict generally when there will be whales in an area, but to know when you’ll actually encounter them is a crapshoot, so you have to constantly be adjusting your plans to suit the array of changing circumstances, ideally making it look easy and fun for the guests.

How many people are on board your boat?

Along with myself, there is a naturalist, a deckhand and a cook onboard. Usually we have about 12 guests. Everyone has a unique skill set and background, and a lot of the naturalists especially are experts in their fields. One of ours is the former public education co-ordinator for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, so she just knows everything about the coast.

When does the day start for you?

I usually get up around 6:30 to start the generator and get the boat set up for the day. We have breakfast at 7:30 or 8, and then head out looking for whatever is in the area. That may mean going off-shore to look for whales, or going to a beautiful beach or forest for a walk. Every day is different.

A big part of these trips is education. We really try to teach people what makes this part of the world special and delicate, and try to show them the interconnected nature of it all.

What kinds of species do you see?

Humpback whales have been making a big comeback on the coast in the last 10 to 15 years. They went from being locally extirpated, which means they were essentially wiped out here, to being the most common whale species we see. Especially up on the central coast, where they engage in all kinds of unique feeding behaviours that you don’t tend to see in other parts of the world. Like bubble net feeding, which is where a group of whales will dive down and chase a school of fish together. They often drive the fish against the shore, and then in a co-ordinated manner they’ll blow bubbles around the fish and sing this haunting call that drives the fish to the surface inside the ring of bubbles. I’ve seen up to 18 whales burst out of the water together with their mouths open. Fish everywhere. It’s amazing. Sometimes they just do it a couple of times, but I’ve seen it go on for hours and hours.

We also see killer whales — both the Bigg’s, which eat mammals, and the residents, which eat salmon. We occasionally see fin whales, the second-biggest whale species in the world, which are super speedy and super cool. Dolphins, porpoises, all manner of seabirds, from the very cute little murrelets to albatross, off the continental shelf in Haida Gwaii. We spend a lot of time looking for black bears and grizzly bears, and occasionally finding the elusive and rare Kermode bear on the central coast. And every once in awhile we get lucky and see wolves, which is always amazing.

Does the wildlife ever come right up to the boat?

Occasionally. We’re super careful not to approach wildlife, and of course there are laws for how far you have to stay away from them. But whales are unpredictable, and sometimes they do come right up to you. When they do, we shut off the engines and just sit, watch and listen. There aren’t many experiences in my life more powerful than looking eye to eye with a whale.

How does one train to be a captain?

Well, you need a license from Transport Canada, which can involve taking courses or self-study. A lot of the training is just time spent as a deckhand. I trained as a naval architect, but I decided that sitting at a desk was not a good match for my psyche. So I worked with different captains, on different boats, just learning, and eventually they let me take the wheel a bit.

I started with the company in 2017 as a deckhand, and got my captain’s license in 2019. I’ve been a captain for about a year and a half now.

What kind of skills do you need?

It’s a multifaceted role, with a big technical component. There’s no engineer on the boat, or I guess you could say I serve as the engineer — I need to know how all the machinery works, and all the systems on board. You need good situational awareness, so you can focus on the safe operation of the boat but also keep an eye out for wildlife, and watch over the crew and guest dynamics. And also, you need to do some catastrophizing — a term my wife taught me — which means always having a plan for the worst. What if a navigational chart is wrong and we hit a rock, or what if a big weather system comes up? Where can we go that’s safe?

Have you ever been in a Perfect Storm situation?

Happily, I have not.

A photo shows the interior of a boat from the perspective of the cockpit. Lots of instrumentation is visible. There are binoculars and camera lenses. The ocean is visible through the cockpit windows.
‘I trained as a naval architect, but I decided that sitting at a desk was not a good match for my psyche,’ says sea captain Gaelen Krause. Photo by Gaelen Krause.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

The lack of personal space. While we’re on a week-long trip, I don’t have any real time off or a place to be by myself. I get up at 6:30 and tend to work until 10:30 at night, and the whole time I have to be on — as a navigator, but also as a host and guide. We usually go out for two or three weeks at a time, two trips on, then two trips off. So when I come home, I really need quiet time.

Sounds like a tough career for introverts.

Yes, but at the same time, it’s really restorative to be in nature, in this absolutely amazing wilderness. And I’m on a beautiful yacht, getting served delicious food, learning all these incredible facts from our naturalist. Any one day is easy. But over a couple of weeks, it adds up.

Is any of that amazing food caught off the boat?

No, unfortunately. If any of our crew were to catch seafood and serve it to the guests, we’d technically be acting as a commercial fishing vessel, which is not allowed.

What’s the most rewarding part?

A lot of people save for years to come on these trips and often they’re realizing a lifelong dream: to see a whale up close, to sit in an estuary and watch a grizzly bear fishing for salmon. It’s really emotional, people will cry. That’s a special thing to be a part of.

Being out in nature for weeks at a time, do you see the impact of climate change?

Yeah, the impact is not great. It’s hard to know what’s climate change, and what’s overfishing or poor forestry practices or any number of environmental issues. But we do see the effects. As salmon runs decline, key species that we would expect to see just don’t show up. That’s a challenge, but at the same time, it allows us to show people what is happening, and encourage them to be part of the solution.

This year, with the big drought in the fall, we could see that the cedars on the central and north coasts, in the temperate rainforests that have existed for thousands of years, were experiencing major die-offs and browning events. I worry about what it will be like in 15 or 20 years. Let alone a hundred years.

Did the pandemic impact your work?

In 2020 when we couldn’t run trips, we pivoted from being a tourism company to an ocean cleanup company. We had a couple of big projects in association with other companies in the industry, cleaning up beach-strewn garbage on the central and northern coasts. These are remote beaches that very few people visit.

So the garbage just washes up from the ocean?

Exactly. The first year, we spent six weeks with ten boats, about a hundred people, and we picked up 110 tonnes of marine plastics, fishing gear, floats, styrofoam, bottles, all kinds of things. The next year, in the same amount of time, we collected over 200 tonnes.

It was some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done, and incredibly bleak to see these beaches that no one goes to littered with garbage. You go down to English Bay and you see a bottle, a cigarette butt. But there, we were pulling thousands of kilograms of waste off individual beaches.

Beaches that I would have imagined to be pristine, unspoiled wilderness.

Yeah. It felt incredibly wrong. Some of these were sacred sites — and we didn’t go to any of those without the consent of the First Nations. But seeing them made the fragility of these ecosystems, and the scale of what we’re dealing with, really obvious.  [Tyee]

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