Schooling With Herring

by Michael Jakovac

The March wind was cool as it nipped at our ears and tugged at our jackets. I was cold but excited as I stood on the deck of the ferry going from Vancouver to Vancouver Island. My mom, little sister, little brother, and I were going to visit Denman Island with our fellow home-school traveling buddies, the Halls.

The blast of the ferry horn boomed in my ears and announced our arrival at Nanaimo. That was one noisy arrival I wouldn’t forget too quickly! Then, after a two-hour drive north and another ferry trip (short this time!), we arrived at our destination.

We stayed in an awesome cabin right on the ocean. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows allowed us to see the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Late that night as we looked out over the water, we were puzzled by the sight of hundreds of well-lit boats. They cluttered the ocean like a horrible traffic jam. Why were they there?

The sound of the loon woke us the next morning. Glancing out the window, we still saw all the boats cluttering the ocean. Because our stomachs were grumbling, we decided to explore the local bakery. While taking in the sweet aroma of fresh-baked bread, my mom met a marine biologist. He looked like an old retired sailor with a missing finger! Jokingly, he told us that a fish had bitten it off. Yeah, right!

We asked him if he knew why all the fishing boats were out on the ocean. He explained that the annual herring run was on and that it lasted for only about a day. The fishermen had to be ready at a moment’s notice to begin harvesting.

Our biologist friend then told us some amazing things about spawning herring. The females release 20,000 to 30,000 eggs called roe. The eggs are coated in a sticky kind of glue that makes them adhere to everything–rocks, algae, eel grass, your hands! Then the males swim into that section of water, and they start getting all agitated. They jump around releasing milt and turning the water into a milky colour. Fertilization is taking place.

We rushed from the bakery down to the ocean to check out this event for ourselves. The water was still clear and thick with herring. They were almost stacked one on top of the other. Then right before our eyes the water started to shake, and herring started to fling themselves up and onto the shore. In a mad effort to “save” the stranded herring, my friends and I started tossing the herring back into the ocean. Our useless rescue attempt officially ended when we stopped to help a lady carry a kayak. She was a kayak instructor who was hoping to get some great wildlife pictures of this amazing scene.

Melanie, the kayak instructor, told us that we were extremely fortunate to see an event that most of the locals hadn’t ever seen. She explained that all the eaglets (baby eagles) hatch at just the right time when all the herring is available so that the parents could feed them during their critical growing stage. She also said that the California and Steller sea lions make the trip every year at just the right time for a big herring feast. Talk about God’s perfect creative timing!

Then, much to our dismay, she bent down and picked up a piece of seaweed full of herring roe and began chewing on it. She told us you have to scrape your teeth along the seaweed to get off the sticky roe. We chose to pass on that delicacy and, being the geniuses that we were, resorted to scraping our hands against rocks to get off the fish eggs.

Melanie also told us that the boats weren’t after the herring. Instead, they were equipped with beater boards that beat the herring so that they released their eggs into the boats. The eggs were then sold for high prices in countries like Japan where caviar is prized.

Then, since our moms always want us to have “educational moments,” they, in their wisdom, decided that we needed to learn to kayak. The next thing we knew, we were getting dressed in geeky wetsuits, but we stopped complaining when we saw the instructor’s son wearing purple spandex pants.

It was pretty hard work carrying the kayaks across the rocky beach. To make it even worse, my mom kept taking pictures of us trying not to slip on all the sticky roe. Usually it wouldn’t have been a long distance to the water’s edge, but there was a huge two-tonne sea lion blocking the way. When he started barking at us, we decided to detour!

Once we had mastered using the pedals and paddles, we started kayaking between fishing boats and screeching, dive-bombing eagles. It was an incredible experience. The ocean was a bubbling, milky mass of bouncing fish. On the shore, between the boulders, we spotted a snow-white baby seal pup. The mother had probably left to find some herring. Above the rocky shoreline, bald eagles perched on tall pines and firs. The sky was amazingly blue; it was a perfect day.

When we turned around to head back, I was racing ahead of the others. All of a sudden my kayak rocked and almost tipped. I looked down into the water and saw a sea lion swim under my kayak! He suddenly surfaced between me and the shore–a mere six inches from my paddle! I could see every whisker on his face as he stared at me. Barking like a huge dog with a sore throat, he dove under the water again. I thought it was cool, but everyone else behind me thought it was really freaky.

Returning home, we were wet, but not cold. The wetsuits kept us amazingly warm.

I learned a lot that day: Moms sometimes have good ideas. Never stand below the ferry’s horn when it arrives at dock. Purple spandex should not be worn in public. Kayaking is great fun. But mostly, I learned about how organized and amazing God’s creation is.

(Photos courtesy of the author)

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Schooling With Herring

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