OMI Partner: Eric Keen


RV Bangarang's Purpose RV Bangarang Website

The Bangarang Project is a comprehensive oceanographic study of the spectacular Great Bear Fjord system in Northern British Columbia. Industrial development slated for 2018 will bring a new heavy oil tanker depot to the heart of the study area -- a major foraging area for whales. This means that the whales will encounter enormous ships in these narrow channels every day. That, coupled with the risk of an eventual oil spill or ship strike, poses huge concern. Whales have been observed using the rocky fjord walls as traps for prey, sounding boards for singing, and staging grounds for their long migrations.

Until now, there has been little scientific documentation of the relationship between whales, seabirds, invertebrate prey species, tidal patterns, and underwater terrain in this complex ecosystem. The tankers will add another layer to the story. The Bangarang Project aims to create baseline ecological data ahead of this development, revealing a magnificent and perhaps misunderstood network of deep marine estuaries. The Bangarang crew will create a fascinating and detailed ‘before’ image so that we can fully grasp what ‘after’ will change. This place is a microcosm of the Anthropocene.

About Eric Keen

Captain Eric M. Keen is a PhD candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. For years, Eric has worn a small magnifying glass around his neck. It means there’s always something to see more closely. There is always a question of scale. His obsessions are never idle- they always lead to action. As a Fulbright scholar, he observed indigenous whaling practices in the eastern isles of Indonesia.

Research in the natural sciences has led him through New Zealand, Chile, Italy, Australia, Montana, Tennessee, and now British Columbia. He is a sailor, a scientist, a technician, an illustrator, a philosopher, a musician and a relentless energetic force. Above all, his work is aimed at observation and analysis of planetary systems. The practice of numerically exact scientific research is the first critical ingredient. Beyond that, there is a truth about the world that is better felt than measured. Eric calls it Natural History.

Great Bear Fjords

The Great Bear. The largest temperate coastal rainforest in the world. The study area comprises a broad (1,220 km2) inshore-offshore transect of the inland waterways in northern British Columbia, Canada, where the northern Great Bear Fjordland meets Pacific waters within the marine territory of the Gitga’at First Nation. While the entirety of British Columbia’s 27,000 km shoreline is complex, this area comprises one of the coast’s few deep-cut fjordlands that open directly to the Pacific. As such, the study area is semi-enclosed by natural boundaries, rendering it an ideal system for focused study.

Both fin and humpack whales were once abundant here until commercial whaling (1908-1967) extirpated their inland populations. In the new millenium, humpback and fin whales began returning to the Great Bear’s productive waters en force. In turn, researchers began monitoring cetacean populations in the area using both visual and acoustic measures.

A Night on Gil Island

The sounds of whales and wolves mix into a beautiful, haunting harmony on Gil Island.

Working with the Gitga'at People

British Columbia's coastal First Nations have a close relationship with whales. Whale fins and spouts were once a common sight along the forested and rocky coasts where the Gitga'at made their home. These were the guardians who kept the knowledge of the spectacular white 'spirit bears' from early fur trappers. But commercial whaling ships couldn't be stopped. For more than four decades, the Great Bear Fjordland was completely emptied of whales. Now as hunting has slowed, whales are returning to this coast in historic numbers. Whale activity in the Great Bear Fjordland may now look much like it did two hundred years ago. It hasn't been possible to see whales behaving this way since before the 1800s. The Gitga'at have continued their role as stewards in their spectacular home. By teaming up with Captain Keen and the North Coast Cetacean Society to establish their own system of world-class oceanographic monitoring, they have made the Bangarang Project an extension of their long history in the fjords. The RV Bangarang is like a time machine - but with the threat of oil tankers on the way, her window may be brief.

More About the Gitga'at Nation

Science on the Bangarang

On a typical Bangarang day, the three-person team conducts visual surveys for whales and seabirds while their echosounder maps swarms of prey below using high-frequency acoustics. These transects are punctuated by visits to a grid of oceanographic stations, at which the crew casts its zooplankton net and a CTD (which measures properties like temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll and pH) down to the seafloor. When they see whales, the crew approaches them for photo-identification and behavioral focal follows.

Whale Feeding Call

North Coast Cetacean Society For Whales Website

For Whales has one purpose, to protect and research whales along the coast of BC. In 2001 For Whales established Cetacea Lab, a land based whale research station located at Whale Point on the southern end of Gil Island. Since that time they have contributed to the conclusion that this location needs to be established as Critical Habitat for Humpback Whales and as a candidate for Critical Habitat for Killer Whales.

Over the course of 3 field seasons, Eric and his small team have worked in collaboration with the North Coast Cetacean Society to conduct visual, acoustic, and oceanographic surveys in a study area that spans an area over 1200 square kilometers (of semi-enclosed fjordland).

Filming the 2015 Season

This August, filmmaker Luke Padgett will head out with Eric and his team on the final leg of their 3-year research expedition in the Great Bear Fjordlands. OMI is excited to be working with Luke and the Bangarang crew to produce a film that explores this place -- fierce in its magnificence, yet fragile in its very nature. In this pristine coastal realm, the ancient is not only alive – it is life-giving. And to touch it, you have to get your feet wet and taste the rain.

As we step aboard the Bangarang and sail the maze of inlets through this last great wilderness, we enter a world where porpoises arc through the water like curved light and wolves share their songs with the whales. And out there between the snow-bright summits and the jade-green fjords, we find a rich and vibrant ecosystem that has been shaped by the patient forces of time, defined by all those who inhabit it . . . and is now on the cusp of colossal change.

A Note From The Filmmaker

The University was small and landlocked. Eric showed up carrying a giant paddle with a face painted on it. I hated him. It wasn’t long before we were traveling together. We packed about a pound of grape nuts and went to Puerto Rico to eat nothing but that for about 52 hours while we circumnavigated the island in a tiny white rental car crammed full of nets and jars for our growing insect collection. We would jump out to chase unknown butterflies and weird beetles, we drank from whole coconuts and slept in the front seats. We shot a film about it that I hope nobody ever watches again. Best thanksgiving break ever.

By then, I realized that Eric was developing into a serious scientist, maybe just because he had more curious energy than anyone else and no understanding of the word ‘impossible.’ He was a Comparative Religion major, I was in Geology. We had a group called the Sewanee Natural History Society. The philosophy of real scientific narrative amounted to a religion all its own. To us, it seemed perfectly tuned to inspire infinite awe and give physical tasks to young impetuous curiosity. When you were out in the world, there was something to look for. Every tiny evolutionary story had a place in an enormous one, and every enormous story had infinite fractal detail. Pick a question and go. The meaning of life.

The University ran a field study program on an Atlantic barrier island. We would watch ‘The Life Aquatic’ over and over. He got into Scripps Oceanographic somehow. We both kept traveling. He was doing science, and I was making a living with cameras. When he told me about the Bangarang Project, I knew it was crazy. I also knew he’d be the only guy who might pull it off.

What he has come to learn about the Great Bear Fiordland touches that vast truth of the evolutionary world. The RV Bangarang is a husk on whale ceilings. It’s deep above and below, and the edges of the known world can be seen on the horizon. Sure, it’s a film about whales and birds and science - but more than that. Natural Histories are nothing without the Historian.