LITERARY LOCATION: Echo Bay, on Gilford Island

The most prolific literary town in Canada on a per capita basis has got to be Echo Bay, B.C. With a year-round population of approximately ten, miniscule Echo Bay has been home to four authors--Alexandra Morton, Bill Proctor, Yvonne Maximchuk and Nikki Van Schyndel--over a 25-year-period. B.C.'s leading opponent of fish farming, Alexandra Morton, lived there from the mid-'80s until 2007, raising her son and daughter on a floathouse, conducting maritime research and working on lifetime local Bill Proctor's fishboat.


Brought up in Connecticut, Morton moved to California in 1976 in order to research marine mammals. "When I was 18," Morton has said, "I naively thought that if I looked hard enough, I could understand the communication between two whales in a tank in Los Angeles. I was wrong."

Morton arrived to study orcas in B.C. in 1979. Six years after her marriage to filmmaker and photographer Robin Morton in 1980, her husband died while filming whales, just one day before National Geographic was scheduled to record the couple's work. Morton remained at Echo Bay from 1986 onward.

To make ends meet, she took a job as a seasick, greenhorn deckhand on Billy Proctor's fishboat, while raising her son and daughter in Simoom Sound. [A complicated geographical clarification: The post office at Echo Bay is named Simoom Sound because the original post office for the area was in Simoom Sound, to the north of Echo Bay. When the post office was moved to accommodate the growing community at Echo Bay, the name was never changed.]

Alexandra Morton first rose to prominence as the author of Siwiti: A Whale's Story (1990), winner of the Sheila A. Egoff Prize for Children's Literature. Her charming personal account of one year in the life of a young whale turned out to be the launching pad for decades of public advocacy work for the protection of the Broughton Archipelago and for the elimination of fish farms. Siwiti was followed by a second, educational book about whales, In the Company of Whales (Orca, 1991).

Morton now collects research to prove the biological threat of industrial net-pen feedlots that are accorded use of the oceans. Morton maintains, "The science is clear these operations risk wild fish populations by intensifying disease, they deplete world fishery resources to make the feed. They privatize ocean spaces and threaten our sovereign rights to food security."

Morton is a co-author of the anti-fish farming compendium, A Stain Upon the Sea (2004), winner of a Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize, followed by Beyond the Whales: The Photographs and Passions of Alexandra Morton (2004). In the latter, she writes, "Some time ago I was given the opportunity to meet Jane Goodall. I was spellbound by my childhood idol. She radiated grace, and the wisdom of the Earth. When a lull in the conversation opened, I stepped forward and asked, 'Jane, do you think there is hope?' Her answer came back crystal clear, 'Yes.'"

In 2010, Morton organized the Get Out Migration protest walk through Vancouver Island communities, as a call to action to make the provincial government aware that wild salmon should be given a higher priority than farm salmon.

With Bill Proctor, a lifelong resident of the Broughton Archipelago, Alexandra Morton also co-wrote Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story (1999), described as a "warts 'n' all" memoir of Proctor's experiences and contacts on the coast where he was raised, without public schooling, by his parents. It was reprinted by Touchwood Editions in 2016.

Listening to Whales, What the Orcas Have Taught Us (Ballantine Books/Random House, 2002) is her autobiography describing her efforts to study communication in whales. Theories on whale intelligence are explored, the extraordinary underwater world of whale communication, a woman's life in the wilderness studying whales and raising children, and her attempts to negotiate for their continued survival.

Morton's life and work are the subject of a documentary film, Alexandra's Echo, released in 2003.

Morton has since moved from Echo Bay, aka Simoom Sound, to Sointula on Malcolm Island, then onto Donegal Head, Malcolm Island.

Other titles from Echo Bay are Full Moon Flood Tide - Bill Proctor's Raincoast (Harbour, 2003) by Bill Proctor and Yvonne Maximchuk, nominated for the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 2004. The pair subsequently collaborated for a second collection, Tide Rips and Back Eddies - Bill Proctor's Tales of Blackfish Sound (Harbour, 2015).

Similar to Morton, Maximchuk is a contemporary homesteader who worked as Bill Proctor's deckhand for eight seasons. Her solo memoir is Drawn to Sea - Paintbrush to Chainsaw, Carving out a Life on BC's Rugged Raincoast (Caitlin Press, 2013).

Having taken up residency on Bill Proctor's land in 2015, Nikki Van Schyndel previously published a survivalist's memoir, Becoming Wild (Caitlin, 2014), about her year-and-a-half living the primitive life in the Broughton Archipelago, foraging for food and making tools from cedar and bone the way the First Nations people did.

[For books pertaining to other female activists, see abcbookworld entries for Baxter, Sheila; Culhane, Clare; Day, Shelagh; Edwards, Anne; Finlay, K.A.; Guiled, Brenda; Holt, Simma; Howard, Irene; Jewett, Pauline; Kivi, K. Linda; Krawczyk, Betty; Lewis, S.P.; McAllister, Karen; McClung, Nellie Letitia; Mitchell, Margaret; Nickerson, Betty; Rempel, Sharon; Thobani, Sunera; Zimmerman, Lillian.]

[BCBW 2015] "Whales"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
A Stain upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming


Siwiti: A Whale's Story (Orca, 1990)
In the Company of Whales (Orca, 1991)
Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story (1999). Co-authored with Bill Proctor.
Listening to Whales, What the Orcas Have Taught Us (Ballantine Books/Random House, 2002)
A Stain Upon the Sea (2004). Co-authored
Beyond the Whales: The Photographs and Passions of Alexandra Morton (2004)
Not on My Watch: How a renegade whale biologist took on governments and industry to save wild salmon (Random House Canada, 2021) $35 9780735279667

[BCBW 2021]


Not on My Watch: How a Renegade Whale Biologist
Took on Governments and Industry to Save Wild Salmon
by Alexandra Morton (Random House $35)

Review by by Portia Priegert

Not so long ago, salmon spawning rivers in British Columbia would see bank-to-bank fish, the water a churning mass of sinuous colour and movement. Thousands of people come out to witness this autumn ritual, awed by the salmon’s magnificent feats on their final journey home from the ocean.

But a catastrophic collapse of wild salmon populations over the last few decades has changed that ritual. Now, watching a salmon run can be a tragic affair, the numbers so diminished and sickly fish so weak they often die before they can spawn.

This tragic turn of events ignited activist Alexandra Morton’s righteous anger and drove her to write Not on My Watch, which explains, in shocking detail, how this environmental debacle came to pass. And as salmon are a critical part of a precious web of cyclical relationships, the dire consequences extend through West Coast ecosystems. Morton cites images seen by millions of people around the world —emaciated grizzlies on the northwest coast and the orca who tended her dead calf for 17 days—as amongst the devastating impacts of the salmon die-off.

Morton, an American-born biologist who moved to B.C. to study orcas in 1980, builds a strong case against the foreign-owned commercial fish farms that have proliferated along the West Coast. Their crowded open-water pens spew a deadly cocktail of parasites and viruses into once-pristine coastal waters. Her descriptions of the foul effluent from these farms, often along migratory routes used by wild salmon, are graphic and horrifying.

So too are her accounts of the damage wreaked on the fish, both the wild salmon and the larger Atlantic variety favoured by fish farms. In 2016, dipping her camera underwater at one of the farms for the first time, Morton saw emaciated fish sculling erratically. “Many of their eyeballs were white, which indicated the fish were blind. I turned the camera towards their tumours and open sores … The water was laced with stringy, mustard-coloured strands, fish diarrhea, I realized when one fish let loose a stream of it in front of the camera.”

The farms, she explains, disrupt the natural order that keeps disease in check. “Salmon farms are a type of feedlot: They raise as many animals as possible, as fast as possible, in as small a space as possible, on an unnatural diet. Feedlots break all the rules that keep animals healthy, largely because they breed out genetic diversity, they crowd creatures together and they prevent predators from removing the sick and dying. As a result, sick animals linger in feedlots, dying slowly and shedding disease particles as they go, infecting those around them.”

Morton not only holds the industry to account, but also the government bureaucrats and politicians who allowed this travesty while doing little to monitor impacts and protect wild salmon swimming past the farms. Fearlessly, she names names, critiques flawed research and reveals the contents of emails obtained through access to information requests.

Morton’s single-minded determination to save the wild salmon, especially around her home in the remote Broughton Archipelago, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the communities of Port McNeil and Alert Bay, is one remarkable aspect of this book. Clearly, she is driven by her love of the natural world, as well as a strong ethical sense.

Early on, she put her scientific training to work, publishing research papers about the impact of the foreign-owned farms. She also began lobbying, eventually broadening her activism to community coalitions, which included Indigenous leaders and organizations like Greenpeace. Harassed and spied on, she refused to back down, trying one strategy after another as doggedly as a spawning salmon.

Despite the difficult subject matter, Not on My Watch is a pleasure to read, with a good mix of memoir and natural history. Morton’s prose is engaging, and the book has an easy-to-follow chronological structure. I would like to have seen photographs of the places and events she discusses, as well as information on the potential impact of various viruses and parasites on human health. It’s easy to feel queasy about eating salmon after reading this book.

Morton ends on an upbeat note after the province’s 2018 decision to remove most fish farms from her beloved Broughton Archipelago. Still, only time will tell if sufficient numbers remain to allow wild populations to rebuild, particularly with unprecedented climate challenges.

Hopefully, this book will inspire new environmental activists to protect threatened wildlife. As Morton says: “I am part of the resistance movement against extinction. The movement spans the globe. We are a force of nature. Like a river, we well up, slip around, bore through and dive under obstacles. We don’t stop.” 9780735279667

Victoria-based Portia Priegert is the editor for Galleries West and a former reporter for the Ottawa bureau of the Canadian Press.