“It was like Disneyland and Christmas, combined!” That’s how Robyn Thomas remembers feeling when she signed on to become an assistant guide at Orca Camp in the summer of 2012. A recent graduate of documentary film school, Thomas’s classmate, fellow documentarian, and adventure guide, Ken Matheson, suggested that she come along for a summer adventure – he had no way of knowing he was helping her fulfill a lifelong dream.
“Ken had posted something on our class Facebook page about volunteering as an assistant guide. He didn’t mention anything about Orcas at first, and he had no way of knowing I’ve been fascinated by these animals since I was a child,” recalls Thomas. When Matheson explained the contract was for Orca Camp, Thomas signed right up.
“(It was) an amazing opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream of working with whales.”
In most childhood fantasies, the reality seldom matches the dream, except in the case of Orca Camp and Thomas’s experiences her first summer. With robust sightings throughout the season, she took every opportunity she could to film the wildlife they encountered on the Johnstone Strait, including some impressive Orca sightings.
“It was the last day of the season and Ken told me to leave my video camera behind. It was quiet – there were no signs of whales on the radio, (but when) we got out on the water, we were literally surrounded by a pod of whales for hours. Normally they swim right by, but this time they were just chilling out and playing, breaching around us. There was even a little baby that poked his head out and just stared at me. Of course it was ironic that on the day we have the absolute best sighting I’m without the camera!”
While she may never make that mistake again, Thomas does admit that unplugging from all of life’s gadgets is something she and her Orca Camp guests look forward to each year.
“There is something to be said for just putting down the camera and taking it all in – that’s the point about getting away from technology!”
When asked what draws her back to camp each summer, Thomas is quick to acknowledge that while Orca sightings top the list, the experience is so much greater than simply whale-watching.
“I think there’s a part of us looking for community. When I’m at Orca Camp I feel t a sense of community that I don’t get in the city. There is also the opportunity to reconnect with nature, and with a group of people. Even though you’re only (at camp) a few days, you quickly form bonds with people. The masks people usually present (to each other) just disappear.”
Building community begins almost instantly at Orca Camp when guests quickly pitch in to off-load luggage and supplies from the water taxi, help each other carry kayaks to the water’s edge, or help with dish-duty after dinner. Suddenly, when there’s work to be done, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do back home, the Warden Beach base camp is a great equalizer.
“You really do rely on each other when you’re out there,” notes Thomas. “You share the same beach, the same source of food and water – you have to get along, work things out, and work together. There’s something to be said about sitting around a campfire that brings people together in a very authentic way.”
Warden Beach base camp is also one of the best spots to watch the show taking place on the Johnstone Strait where dolphins and porpoises play, sea lions romp, salmon jump, and eagles fish from the treetops. A prime locale for traditional purse seine fishing during the pink salmon run, Warden Beach is smack between the Orca’s rubbing beaches and their feeding grounds at the Robson Bight (Michael Biggs) Ecological Preserve.
“The rubbing beaches are one of the only places in the world the Orcas will actually rub on the pebbles of the beach. Our camp is right next door, so we often get whales coming by camp in the morning and the middle of the day.”
Thomas has spent her last two summers filming camp life and the wildlife, combining her love for Orcas with her passion for filmmaking and storytelling.
“There’s something very humbling and awe-inspiring about seeing Orcas in their natural habitat that I want to share with others,” says a smiling Thomas.
Robyn Thomas is a documentary filmmaker and assistant camp guide. When she’s not paddling and filming Orcas with Ecosummer you can find her behind the lens with her producing partner, or at her editing station.