Uncle Fred and Little Fred - A Tale Of Two Orcas

Uncle Fred and Little Fred – A Tale Of Two Orcas

We All Need Food For Body And Soul

On my research voyage last summer (2012) to restore a vast ocean pasture to health we encountered a sea of troubles. The first of those troubles struck just days after leaving port and proved to be a major problem for our ships cook. Now many people think that the most important person on a ship is the captain, they are likely people who have never really been to sea, especially on a smaller ship. Those who go to sea to do research or fish or all manner of hard seaworthy jobs know in their gut that the most important person on the ship is the cook!

This isn't a photo of my ship but it's a similar boat and very much what the conditions we faced.

This isn’t a photo of my ship but it’s a similar boat and very much what the conditions we faced. We were a submarine half the time for a couple of days!

The Storm

On our voyage the ship owner and captain were tasked with hiring the cook. They choose a gentle woman who said she’d been to sea, and she was vouched for by another captain who oft times skippered our ship. But as it turned out after 2 or 3 days in the hurricane force winds that we weathered as we began our journey of recovery our poor cook was so seasick that she could not stand to be inside the boat. Indeed she could not stand at all. She was so pitifully seasick she could not hold anything down, barely even water or weak tea.

The only place on the ship she could even barely keep body and soul together was on the aft deck under the cover of the upper deck just barely out of the direct weather but in the wind and fresh air. The crew put down a foam pad and a sleeping bag with a tarp and lashings to keep her from being tossed about. We headed east to the islands of Haida Gwaii hundreds of kilometers away to get her ashore and safety.

As much as this was a costly and challenging thing for the mission and we would lose several vital research days it had to be done, she simply needed to be saved. So the days were spent heading in, cost and time lost was sucked up, and a sick cook was put ashore, sent to hospital, and a new cook was sought. We found one and he turned out to be the kind of cook that sailors dream of having good luck to have as a shipmate.

Our new cook, every sailors dream

Gene was his name and he was a Haida man of fifty something. He’d been to sea all his life and trained as a cook and chef. He was also a noted Haida carver and artist but this was a good cash job so he was more than happy to come aboard. He was also from the village of Old Massett, our village, so it was great to be able to give another villager a job since we were spending the villages money on this voyage of recovery to save the ocean.

Gene took right over and began to nourish us. He fed us nourishment for both our bodies and our souls as he had a never ending and wondrous supply of stories, jokes, and recipes.

An adult Orca whale with a very young one

An adult Orca whale with a very young one. Not the real Uncle Fred and Lil Fred but not so different.

Just after we picked Gene up and were setting back to sea he and I were standing on the back deck of the ship as the misty green islands of Haida Gwaii started to disappear behind us. He lit up a cigarette and looked around this misty seascape and said, “I wonder if Uncle Fred and Little Fred will show up”.


I asked who Uncle Fred and Lil Fred were and he told me this story.

Many years ago when he was a very young man he and other members of his family were out halibut fishing. They were in several boats. Uncle Fred and Little Fred, the young son of perhaps age 10 or 11, were not far away when Little Fred hooked a big halibut. Everyone could see little Fred was struggling with the great fish.

Small boys catch giant halibut, this time the fish lost

Small boys catch giant halibut, this time the fish lost

I could understand this well as years ago I was standing on a dock in the tiny coastal port of Namu not so far from the fishing spot. A young Indian boy also of about 10 or 11 was fishing on the dock and hooked into a big fish. He yelled and was holding on to the fishing line for dear life. His older family members came running and just before the boy was dragged off the dock by the fish. They just managed to get hold of the line in time.

Together three of them pulled and clung to and pulled on the line until a giant halibut came to the surface. Somehow they managed to get the fish onto the dock and kill it. When they hung it up it was taller than the boy and hundreds of pounds heavier. It would feed the whole village for a long time!

Little Fred Hooks A Big One

As Gene told me his tale that first day aboard together I learned of the tragedy that would become a true fairy tale. He and others could see that Uncle Fred and Little Fred had hooked onto a big one.  Little Fred with his huge fish on the line was barely staying in the boat.  They immediately started their motor and headed toward Uncle Fred’s boat but before they got to it Little Fred was pulled into the water by the levithan. Just as quickly Uncle Fred dove in after his son.  As Gene and the others arrived all they saw was Uncle Fred and Little Fred deep under water going down down down. They were seen again and never found.

Some days later as the family and village mourned the loss of Uncle Fred and Little Fred a large single male Orca swam slowly past the village. With the big rogue male Orca was a young male Orca. In Haida culture it has long been said that Haida often enter an after life where they become a sea creature. It would seem that Uncle Fred and Little Fred were there now, living in the heart of the Haida Ocean, the Tang Gwan.

That day many years late on my ship Gene went on to tell me that in all his years of going to sea, every time he did Uncle Fred and Little Fred would come to say hello. So we should all be on the lookout for them.

It was a few days later Gene was in the galley cooking and I was sitting at the galley table working on my laptop. One of the crew came running in saying “hey everybody there are Killer Whales alongside.” We all hurried to the back of the ship. Sure enough a big male Orca, Killer Whale surfaced. Then someone yelled “hey there’s a baby one.” Gene waved at the whales and called out it’s Uncle Fred and Little Fred. he looked over to me and said, “see I told you, they will be our spirit guides now.

Over the next months at sea we saw other Orcas but only on rare occasions. We initially saw very few whales perhaps one or two a week. But when our work was well underway and the ocean pasture of plankton was blooming the whales came, we counted the great whales, the Fins, the Seis, and others by the score and more in single sightings. In good patches of our lush plankton bloom the giants would behave in a very special way.

As our captain who had spent 50 years at sea would wryly say with the greatest delight and joy, look look there’s a couple now, look how they are sneaking up to the boat  They were sneaking indeed, giant fin whales known for their shyness, swimming slowly barely on the surface breathing slow and shallow so as to not make big spumes of breath.”  They knew that summer where ever their plankton feed was thickest we were mysteriously often nearby, were they simply curious, or perhaps they were just paying their respects. It was such a privilege to meet these shy gentle giants and know that we were helping them.

We only saw Uncle Fred and Little Fred one more time months after the first time they joined us as we were making our way back to port at the end of our voyage. Gene though was sure they had been with us always, watching out for us. I’m sure of that too.

Thanks Uncle Fred and Little Fred, I hope to see you again one day, and I just might as Orcas can live for much more than 100 years.

Here’s a couple of links to more about Orca’s, there is a miraculous Orca BabyBoom happening after a decade of no new babies!

Whale kids babble as they learn to talk.