Archive for November, 2013

Great Bear Sea Winter Dive Expedition: Part III

It’s not normally recommended to expose yourself so entirely; out here storms from the southeast can churn up the seas before you can say ‘purple ringed top snail’.  Bobbing over the remnant swells from the last blow, we look back at the mainland before it blurs into a darkened silhouette of peaks and valleys that make up the coast mountain range.  With anchor secured, we are visited by a gang of Steller sea lions, a family of river otters and the bulbous heads and watchful eyes of harbour seals in every quiet cove.

As the western sun dips below the horizon, leaving its imprint of amber and crimson light, we soak in the panorama atop a rock nearby our lonely anchorage.  We hear the squeals of a sea otter pup before it comes into view, riding on its mother’s furry stomach.   A curiously placed snowy owl lands on an islet nearby as we savor the experiences of another wonderfully rich and diverse day.

Extra preparation was required for today: extra paddles, air tanks, VHF radios and a sat phone, in addition to a pre-departure agreement on emergency hand signals.  Rising up the steep swells in our trusty dinghy, the three of us hunkered down as white foam whipped across us.  I was jealous of Ian and Tav’s dry suits.  After thirty dives this past week, the divers have fallen into a familiar rhythm, and as they drop to the bottom I could see the waves of mysids flowing over them.   Later they would tell me that these tiny shrimp were so thick that they blocked out the sun.

In mixed seas like this it was hopeless to keep track of their bubbles, so I relied on the strobe from Ian’s flash to monitor their positions.  So much shrimp biomass ensured the surface lens was covered in sea birds and plenty of fish below.

The third dive of the day was chosen up a quiet pass, protected from the ocean swell but with lots of tidal current pushing late season bull kelp forests.  I could see dozens of harbour seals swimming below in the crystal clear water weaving back and forth as they curiously watched on.

Tuning into the weather channel brings news of storm conditions descending on our rocky perch, so we make a late departure for the safety of the mainland; now instead of big swells and surfing pescavores the tannin waters of the mainland bring brilliant orange sea pens, fields of nudibranchs and a travelling group of transient orcas.  After breakfast, Ian admits he’s behind on some paperwork (some excuse about due dates for a book) and sits out the morning’s dive, so Tav had the pleasure of yours truly filling in as his dive partner – what a wonderful treat to see it first hand!

The days have gone too quickly and we have only explored a tiny fragment of the Great Bear Sea, but bearing witness to this rarely-observed world has been a gift.  It’s not just the magnificent combination of flora, fauna and geology that faces such an uncertain future, it’s also the human communities that rely on the health of these systems. The continuing fight against oil tankers is found in the unity of all nations, in the unprecedented alliance of the walkers and swimmers, of the slimy and spiny.  And perhaps if you experience a moment of despair for this coast, know that there are thousands and millions of creatures still blowing bubbles for the Great Bear Sea!

Thanks for reading!

Ian, Tavish and Ashley

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Great Bear Sea Winter Dive Expedition: Part II

Ashley Stocks is on a Pacific Wild diving expedition through the Great Bear Sea and will be uploading a three part blog series with new images and footage.

 

A twice daily flushing and filling of lagoons creates the dynamic environment that supports diversity, strengthening the fabric of the natural world here and the main ingredient that Ian and Tavish are searching for – strong tidal current!  We anchored up shortly before dark and Tavish was eager to get in the water.  Ian fielded media calls from the Habitat while I cooked up some dinner; back at Pacific Wild headquarters, international media are reporting on the amazing fishing wolf coverage their remote cameras are getting.  Tav emerged with stories of an overly curious octopus – apparently he’s a sucker for a good close up.

There’s a special time when ebb turns to flood and the only indication of current is the twisted up bull kelp laying battered on the surface.  This time of year you’re lucky if you have two slack tides in daylight, but we missed it.  Our first dive was about 0900, two hours before low slack, so Ian and Tav ducked into eddies out of the 12 knots of white water that was pouring out of the lagoon.  I tied the tender to an overhanging tree, finding solace in the low boughs like the belted kingfishers.  Peering over the side of the dinghy I got a taste of the beauty below, I could see green surf and plumose anemones and a few schooling striped sea perch, anticipating what Ian and Tav had captured in this challenging environment.

The following day, low slack was timed well; midday it was supposed to turn.  With enough time for a morning dive to get the kinks worked out, I drop the divers on the edge of the raging current.  It was a stunner of a morning: clear sky, great blue herons fishing the shore, cormorants and grebes pursuing the swift water, and a sea lion, investigative of the dual streams of bubbles rising up from below.

Back on Habitat, the crew busily set up for our window of stillness, lights were charged and air tanks were filled.  Ian and Tav donned their suits in giddy anticipation of such ideal conditions – slack tide, excellent visibility, no wind, a reliable tender to fetch them, and sunshine!

We arrived on scene with water still draining from the lagoon. With each diver set up in his chosen spot, I fastened the boat to a few stipes of kelp.  Above the water, everything went quiet and the stillness was enchanting.  It took only a minute for my kelp hitching post to go slack and slowly bow in the opposite direction, indicating the flood was on the way. Below the water, all types of fish came up from their bunkers and swam about freely, enjoying the brief relief from their windy existence.

Our time was spent well in the protection of these tidal lagoons and the divers’ spectacular images and footage will surely become part of the conservation agenda in the coming months, but for now it’s time to move on. The tender is hauled out and lashed in its cradle, air tanks are tied down, and the galley’s contents are stowed securely away as we work our way to the wave-beaten outer coast.

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Great Bear Sea Winter Dive Expedition: Part I

Ashley Stocks is on a Pacific Wild diving expedition through the Great Bear Sea and will be uploading a three part blog series with new images and footage.

A quick remedy of tape around the neck cuff of Ian’s loaned oversized drysuit made the seal watertight against the numbing North Pacific. Equipped with lead weights, air tank, and gauges dragging along the bottom of our dinghy, I eagerly tied the bow line to the bough of a fallen cedar. In my bold reach and instability, I fell right out of the boat onto the rocks. My mask could not find a seal against my face and my feet had slipped out of the suit feet, leaving my flippers limply clinging to empty rubber. But eventually I descended, all sounds fell away into silence and I entered another world… through my blurry mask were thousands of hooded nudibranchs clinging to giant kelp, waiting for zooplankton to enter their fleshy nets.  Only moments ago, a group of mammal-eating orcas, celebrating a recent meal, glided under the twin hulls of our sailing vessel, slapping tail flukes and showing their white bellies as they vanished into the misty distance.

* * * *

It’s always exciting when seasons change on the coast, deciduous trees drop their leaves, the air cools and adopts the comforting scent of fir fire smoke, and humpback whales start their southbound migration. But perhaps most noticeably, salmon carcasses remain in rivers as essential nutrients, while fertilized eggs are left to over-winter in their frigid watery baths – the promise of a future for all species. Most of the larger predators have moved out of the valley bottoms and onto winter living, fat with salmon omegas, onto a life of minimal daylight and ruthless coastal storms. But today the coast is cold and quiet as we get ready to cast off on this underwater exploration.

There are always a few things to work through on the days leading up to a trip and this time our sailing vessel Habitat required minimal attention before charging into heavy seas and gleaming bays. More dire pre-departure agendas, at least for the Denny Island kids, were the Sunday soccer game and helping neighbours move engine blocks up a flight of stairs.

Through these dive surveys, Tavish and Ian hope to document in video and still imagery, the delicate workings of the seascape that are so rarely seen and reported. The aim is to collect unique observations, accounts, and behaviours of submarine creatures during a season that is largely unvisited along this highly threatened coastline.

I am closing in on my fifth year crewing on boats on the coast of B.C. now, and on this expedition, I’ve been tasked with keeping track of things on the surface: looking after the tender, crew nutrition, and watching the diver’s exhalations – boils and bubbles indicating their positions below.

* * * *

Launching our first dive at King Island, we get into the routine and testing of equipment. From my vantage point, I spot a belted kingfisher perched low over the water darting about and following Ian’s bubbles while Tavish brings up his first footage from depth, a psychedelic box crab, cruising the ocean bottom.

We continue south to Namu; a once thriving and bustling cannery (B.C. Packers) is now abandoned and vacant of a responsible land-owner. Perhaps a fault of the economy, or bad parenting, there is lacking desire to clean up the mess after boom and bust, and now Namu crumbles iconically leaching harmful waste into the mouth of a salmon bearing stream. The concern here is not the retroaction of the parties responsible, it is the adequacy in coping with modern messes, say, a V.L.C.C. gushing out barrels of bitumen into critical fin whale habitat and river estuaries.

A few miles down Fitz Hugh Sound, we set the hook at the mouth of the Koeye River. The clarity of the water here shows the divers’ bubbles climbing emerald green through the water column. I find comfort knowing they’re snapping away while I bravely keep guard, paddling around in the tender left to my thoughts –

An adventure but surely with a purpose – an expose of sub-tidal Great Bear Sea! Perhaps we do this for our children who will strive to make a life on this coast, or for the folks in Washington, D.C. who listen to the live feed of the audio from Pacific Wild’s remote cameras so they too can enjoy howling wolves from their office chairs. Or it’s because salmon swim every inch of the coastline feeding all nations – the towering spruce of valley bottoms and scarlet anemones.

* * * *

Casting my gaze towards Hakai Pass, a few remaining humpback whale spouts are spotted against the darkened shore, and a quick snorkel trip up the river reveals two juvenile grizzlies, searching for the last of the pinks in a late pulse up their natal stream.

Out here, the most influential agent of landscape change is fluids. Water carving and dissolving, wind throwing up great stands of forest and soil, and ice sculpting peaks and fjords, defining the geography of this coastline. The great mass of ice, 10,000 years ago, causing areas to bulge up, while others only miles away, were pushed deep into the ocean resulting in a staggering variability of sea level. You could imagine then, there might be a place where the land wasn’t depressed nor bulged (like that of the fulcrum of a teeter-totter), a unique attribute of the coast where sea level has been relatively constant.

Knowing this might change the way you look at the landscape. Ecological communities could be much older than once perceived and perhaps a more refined use of the coastal zone, would be common among all species that have resided here since the last glacial maximum. Perhaps Ian and Tavish are documenting ancient adaptations of the creatures here, in their quest for survival in the Great Bear Sea.

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From D.C. to B.C. Part V: Launch of the Indiegogo Campaign!

By Loren Clark-Moe

This is the post that I have been oh so excited to write from the moment I got here and I cannot believe that I get to be part of this effort! In my very first post I mentioned a video that we were working on. I also promised that there would be more on that in a bit. Well, here it is!

My first visit to the Great Bear Rainforest was in September, where I was introduced to the region’s stunning beauty and incredible wildlife. On the second day up here, I went kayaking and our group spotted a pack of wolves on the shore. We spent the next few hours following this wolfpack, as they ran around their territory and met up with more members of their pack. It was an amazing, magical introduction to the Great Bear Rainforest that left me totally enamored.

That same night, I learned of Pacific Wild’s Great Bear LIVE program that brings the world of the Great Bear Rainforest straight to us online. I was fascinated to hear Ian and Karen’s amazing stories about being able to document wolves, sea lions, sea otters, whales, and anything else that comes into view in a non-invasive way. A few weeks later, I learned that Pacific Wild was moving forward to expand this program and create even more ways to capture this world on camera for the world’s viewing pleasure.

And so, without further ado, I am beyond pleased to help announce Pacific Wild’s Indiegogo fundraising campaign to expand the Great Bear LIVE program!

Hopefully you are signed up for Pacific Wild’s Great Bear LIVE Alerts that let everyone know when the wolves are out fishing. That camera feed is part of the Great Bear LIVE program, and lets us watch a very active part of the rainforest all day long. What it currently cannot do, however, is capture the nighttime and underwater aspects of this world, and this is what Pacific Wild wants to give us all access to.

The campaign is asking for everyone’s help to raise money to purchase a night vision camera and an underwater camera so that Pacific Wild can bring the world a comprehensive view of this amazing ecosystem. If the campaign is successful, Pacific Wild will be able to install a night vision camera along with the current daytime camera in the estuary, providing 24/7 coverage of this very active part of the rainforest. Pacific Wild will also be able to place underwater camera in different waterways, to capture everything going on beneath the water’s surface.

What I love about this campaign is that this is something that every single person with an internet connection will be able to use and enjoy. You will quite literally see the result of your contribution in action as you watch even more of this amazing world come to life. Oh, and in terms of incentives to contribute, did I mention that (in addition to other great giveaways) anyone who contributes will be entered into a raffle for a chance to control the cameras once they’ve been installed?! Don’t worry, I’ve tried it a bit up here and its pretty easy to get the hang of.

Here’s the video for the campaign, where Pacific Wild team member Max explains everything about the campaign and why it’s so important!

So please go check out the campaign and spread the word that the Great Bear LIVE program is expanding to bring us even more of the wolves, sea lions, eagles, sea otters and whales that we love to watch! With our support, Pacific Wild will be able to give us a front row seat to images from the nocturnal and underwater worlds of the Great Bear, so let’s make it happen!

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From D.C. to B.C. Part IV

There is an epic struggle between the playful wolf pups’ love of chewing and Pacific Wild’s desire to have a functioning camera in the estuary where they fish. In my last post I wrote about how Rob and I went out to repair the camera feed and the next day we were all rewarded with watching 5 wolves all morning via the Pacific Wild website. Unfortunately, that was short lived. Two days after we fixed the cables the first time, we awoke to a lack of camera feed and, to our dismay, saw that they had discovered our cable once again and chewed right through it.

We decided it was time for a new approach, so Rob, Diana and I went out with some new supplies, namely metal pipes, that we hoped would keep them away from the wires. Like most of the BC coast, it’s been incredibly foggy the past few days, so daylight was a huge factor and it started getting very dark very early. While the fog would’ve made for a stunning photograph, it wasn’t great for actually getting the task at hand completed. So we laid new pipes, rewired new cable, and tried securing it all as quickly as possible before it got too dark to see anything. We finished up just in time, and had our fingers crossed for a working camera feed the next morning.

No such luck: the camera was down and we could only assume the pups had gone straight for the cable again overnight. When we went back out to see what had happened, we discovered that the silly wolf pups had seemed to enjoy the new pipes even more than our previous set up, to the point that it looked like they had participated in an epic tug-of-war game.

Loren and Diana expressing their feelings about the cables becoming chew toys

Loren and Diana expressing their feelings about the cables becoming chew toys

So we tried yet again! It was a gorgeous day, so we had no trouble with the amount of daylight and it was nice and warm. But the pretty weather didn’t help another factor: the smell of hundreds and hundreds of rotting salmon carcasses. It’s all part of the great cycle of life up here, but my goodness does it make for some strong smells! Another fun factor, as you all have probably noticed when watching the camera feed, is that the tide comes in and out pretty dramatically in the estuary. Though the tide was pretty low when we first got there, after a few hours our work area started flooding as the tide came in, making it trickier to keep the equipment and ourselves dry. (***thank goodness for gum boots***)

Flooded estuary/workspace

Flooded estuary/workspace

While ignoring the smell and avoiding the flood, we set out yet again to get the cables out of the reach of the chew-crazy wolf pups. As I mentioned in my first post on the Great Bear Blog, I work for the U.S. government, which spends a lot of time thinking about national security. In my job, we talk a lot about building a “layered approach” to security, as any one method has vulnerabilities and cannot be relied upon 100%. I started to think this might be applicable to the security of Pacific Wild’s cable and that if we could add multiple layers of protection so the mischievous wolf pups weren’t immediately rewarded with yummy cable goodness, we might have a chance. So Rob got everything rewired, Diana relaid the piping and buried the cables deeper, and I tried to be helpful wherever possible! Those two make it look easy day by day, but the fieldwork Rob and Diana are doing is not easy; it involves a lot of mud, problem solving, power tools, patience,and rain gear to get it all done!

Thursday Oct. 22nd: The camera is working! But no sight of the wolves this morning, so we’re not sure if we successfully defended the cable from them overnight, or if they just weren’t in the mood to try.

Friday Oct. 23rd: Camera is down. In show business they always say never work with kids and dogs, as they upstage you every time, and the wolf pups win yet again. But Rob and Diana now seem determined to bring this chew toy game to its end as quickly as possible and has a solution he thinks will work.

Monday Oct. 28th: The camera has been up for 3 mornings straight and we’ve seen wolves fishing non-stop! I’m currently so worried about jinxing it, that I’m not even gonna say what the solution ended up being, for fear the conniving wolf pups will somehow manage to read this blog and discover the secret! But it works! Hope everyone is watching!  Here is clip of some the highlights!

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Brig.-Gen. M.G. Zalinski – Cleaning up Oil or Image

Zalinski – Cleaning up Oil or Image

Last winter I found myself descending slowly down a black wall, my dive partner Tavish Campbell, somewhere off to my left is only recognized by the narrow beam of his dive light.    The depth gauge registered 100 feet so I figured I must have missed the shipwreck.  I kicked off into the water column and suddenly found myself face to face with a towering wall of steel; long lines of rivets disappeared into the dark.

I was staring at the shipwreck of the the 250 foot-long USAT Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a U.S. army transport ship that sank in the Grenville channel north of Hartley Bay in 1946.

Just on the other side of the steel hull it is reported that 12- 500 pound aerial bombs and countless smaller munitions lay undisturbed.    Surprisingly, late on that wet and windy night so many years ago the ship rolled down the steep wall and landed on a very narrow ledge.  By all accounts it should have kept rolling to the bottom, another 250 feet.

Fast forward to today, and the Zalinski is back in the news with the Canadian Coast Guard planning to remove the 600 or so tonnes of bunker oil (unclear if they plan on removing the bombs) that lay entombed inside.

The media is reporting that this will help bolster the government’s claim that the Canadian Coast Guard’s oil spill response capability is “world class” and can handily deal with ever-increasing LNG and bitumen tanker proposals facing the Great Bear Rainforest.

But I don’t follow.

First off, the Coast Guard had 70 years to figure out how to clean up the Zalinski wreck, yet suddenly they are spending a reported $50 million (and probably substantially more) during the winter storm season?   The cleanup of the Zalinski is conveniently timed to coincide with the December decision by the National Energy Board on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker proposal.

The other issue that raises eyebrows is Canada’s choice of hiring the Dutch company Mammoet to do the cleanup.  This seems to tell us more about Dutch capabilities than our own.

And what does the Zalinski have to do with modern Canadian oil spill clean up capabilities?   The ship is sitting in one hundred feet of water in the relatively calm and protected waters of Grenville Channel.  These are dream maritime conditions for an oil spill clean up by any standards on this coast.   If the ship had kept rolling on that late night so many years ago, more than likely the Coast Guard would have continued to ignore the problem similar to its ongoing response to the Queen of the North wreck.

The Grenville Channel does get strong current but it cannot be compared to the treacherous waters that the 1500 foot long, 2 million barrel capacity VLCC tankers that are proposed to ply our coast, just a few miles to the south, would have to face each day.

The best thing that this $50 million dollar cleanup will achieve is something that should have been done years ago and at the expense of the U.S. government (it was their ship that sank after all) yet somehow Canadians are supposed to feel comforted by our Coast Guard’s ability to conduct serious oil spill response and cleanup?  And that’s assuming they actually succeed in sucking the oil out of this wreck.

While the Canadian Coast Guard and their Dutch-for-hire spill recovery company fiddles around with the Zalinski, the real and more pressing issue of oil spill response capabilities continues to build with the onset of winter weather and the looming decision by the National Energy Board.

The waters just to the south of Grenville Channel have been listed by Environment Canada as the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world with recorded waves close to 100 feet in height.  This is where a major shipping disaster would most likely take place.  It is here that Canada will have to prove its ability to respond to an Exxon Valdez size –or much greater- oil spill disaster.

Not in the quiet waters of Grenville channel – 70 years late.

Ian McAllister is the Executive Director of Pacific Wild, a BC-based wildlife conservation organization. 

ian@pacificwild.org

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