Archive for category Photography
Spring in the Rainforest – By April Bencze
It is difficult to understand a place you have never been before. Pacific Wild introduced me to the ecosystems thriving in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s wild coast long before I came here. They have unveiled the behaviours and interactions of wildlife using non-invasive, high-quality camera systems streaming live from remote locations, bringing you a piece of the Rainforest, wherever you may be in the world. Before I ever set foot here, Pacific Wild brought me face to face with wolves, bears and marine life with still images that captivated, inspired and introduced me to the many faces of this place.
I first met the wolves of this coast through Ian McAllister’s photography and conservation efforts. Then I met the bears, followed by the inhabitants of the underwater world. Ian’s images and those from the remote cameras brought me into the heart of a place I had never been, uncovering the lives of creatures I would not have known existed, like the spirit bear. I felt connected and driven to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, and all those who call it home. As a diver and wildlife photographer, I knew my future would be tied to British Columbia’s central coast, due to the strength with which it affected me. So here I am, at Pacific Wild headquarters operating the remote cameras from the Float Lab.
I was born and raised in Campbell River, on the east coast of Vancouver Island in Southern British Columbia. I spent a year scuba diving in Australia and Indonesia, before returning to my home waters to dive my days away. Photography slipped itself into my life through an urge to share the underwater world with the people around me. It quickly became much more and I find myself in the pursuit of a life dedicated to conservation of the natural world through photography. There is a responsibility to the subject after the shutter is pressed and an image is created. It is an obligation to share their story, and unfortunately many of the lives I am photographing are threatened.
This is what brings me to the Great Bear Rainforest, to do what I can to help protect the wildlife from the many threats they are facing. Pacific Wild has been an inspiration and I am thrilled to be volunteering my time to aid in their conservation efforts. Three weeks ago, I loaded up my touring bicycle with my camping equipment, camera gear and a cooler of food. Six days of riding from Campbell River brought me to Port Hardy, where I jumped on a short flight to Bella Bella.
I am blown away by the diverse habitats and life seen in my short time exploring this coast. I have traveled to many corners of the world, yet nothing can compare to the natural beauty I have witnessed in my time here. After the past few weeks of listening to whale song on the hydrophones and observing the wildlife in the Great Bear Rainforest, I am beginning to understand just how devastating supertankers in these waters would be. It would be destructive for the people, the land, the wild and marine life of the most untouched place I have ever seen. I’m incredibly thankful to the First Nations people and conservation groups who are working, and will continue to work, tirelessly to stand up for our coast.
Yesterday, Ian and I left Pacific Wild headquarters to do some camera maintenance. We headed out by boat during calm seas. As we passed numerous small, rocky islands, it was apparent that it was June in the Great Bear Rainforest. Harbour seals with newborn pups dotted the shorelines, sea otters bobbed in the kelp, and Oystercatchers trilled from their nests. New life was buzzing all around us as we cleaned the camera housings and completed some electrical maintenance.
The remote camera systems are proving to be a powerful tool in telling the story of this coast. Right now, one of the cameras is trained on a Steller sea lion rookery on the outer coast. It is capturing the birthing and nursing of this year’s pups on the live feed and distributing it to the world. I am in awe recording the intimate daily behaviors of the sea lions, in a way I have never been able to when out photographing them in the field. Please watch a compilation of sea lion and bird footage I pieced together in the weeks I have been here. The stories of the numerous species of wildlife continue to unfold before my eyes with these cameras. I hope you are watching the live cameras and meeting the local wildlife who call this coast home as well!
Help support our Digital Technitian Geoff Campbell and his friend Mikhayla’s “Ride for the Wild” Indiegogo campaign. Geoff and Mikhayla are undertaking a A2,500km bike expedition down the Pacific Coast to raise money to fight pipeline development & increased tanker traffic in British Columbia.
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
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.
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.
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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.
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.
How did one of the most important herring stocks on the BC coast suddenly collapse, contributing to a cascade of economic, cultural and ecological decline?
As with most things related to fisheries mismanagement in Canada, it starts with DFO.
The long-standing DFO policy to allow a Sac-Roe Fishery (SRF) to harvest herring eggs for Asian export has always been an incredibly wasteful and shortsighted industry. Using seine or purse nets to capture schools of pre-spawn herring SRF boats can kill thousands of tonnes of fish in a matter of minutes. Of those huge catches, only the roe is removed for human consumption; the carcasses are treated as by-product and used to make feed tablets for fish farms, bait or put into garden fertilizers. As herring can spawn seven or eight times over their lifetime, this kill-fishery not only removes huge biomass from the overall herring population, but also destroys their ability to reproduce in future years. Also, by targeting the larger herring, the ‘elders’ are removed and therefore the years of teaching that normally would follow through the ranks of the herring schools is eliminated. Unlike salmon, who have evolved strategies to survive without ever having met their parents, herring are not born orphans. They rely on their parents and elders to teach them the ways of the north Pacific.
One of B.C.’s most important foundation or keystone species continues to be systematically extirpated in the annual SRF harvest for fish food and bait. Granted, there are many other wasteful industries in our country, but what makes this one so spectacularly so is the fact that there is a clear, effective, and sustainable alternative. It is not a new method of harvesting herring eggs, quite the opposite, it has been used along the Great Bear coast for thousands of years. Herring bones that have been uncovered deep in the substrate of ancient village sites provides evidence of the long relationship between the first peoples of this coast and herring.
This year I was fortunate enough to witness the Heiltsuk people carrying out this age old practice, and I have concluded that fishing for herring eggs is one of the most elegant and sophisticated fisheries that still exists on this planet. The Heiltsuk people today, like the countless generations before them, travel to the traditional herring spawning grounds in anticipation of the inshore herring migration. Heiltsuk families anchor logs and other floatation devices to the seabed and attach lines of hemlock branches or seaweed to them – essentially mimicking ideal herring spawn habitat. With luck, herring will see these branches and kelp fronds and choose them as a spawning location, after a few days multiple layers of eggs will coat the vegetation and the harvest can begin.
The Heiltsuk choose hemlock branches because of the needles’ spicy flavour and medicinal benefits, but also because the natural resins provide a lot of sticky surface area for the eggs to attach themselves. Certain species of kelp are preferred over hemlock by some families, and spawn on kelp remains the main product used for export.
These days, as the world’s oceans are picked clean for human consumption, the words ‘sustainable fishery’ have lost their meaning. In contrast, this traditional fishery has a very small footprint. It also maximizes ecological and economic benefits as the herring get to live and continue to spawn for successive generations.
Compare this to the DFO industrial scale kill fishery model and it becomes shameful that the Heiltsuk and other Nations have not been more supported for the long battle that they have been waging against DFO, both in the courts and by active blockades on the herring grounds – to shut this unsustainable fishery down. Like the east-coast cod and so many other fisheries that have collapsed at the hands of DFO, herring stocks here are following the same path and hundreds of traditional spawning areas in the territory have gone silent. A few years ago DFO finally shut the seine fishery down for lack of biomass – the local herring populations were overfished and getting wiped out.
Today a few small areas on the central coast continue to produce small spawns, this year was actually the largest return since the commercial fishery was shut down. Is it because of the lack of industrial fishing pressure, or was it better ocean survival conditions? Impossible to know, but what is agreed upon is that the stocks are still just a fragment of their former days.
When the Heiltsuk fishers go out on the grounds they are bringing with them generations of experience and knowledge. Unlike the DFO commercial fishery with its massive clanking of machinery and diesel belching seine boats with helicopters and airplanes overhead searching for herring schools, local fishermen keep their voices down on the herring grounds and boats idle slowly out of respect and patience for the herring. People here recognize herring as intelligent fish that spook quickly if an unnatural sound is detected.
The logic behind the SRF industry is completely lost on me. One does not have to use much foresight to see that a fishery founded on the mass and unnecessary killing of future spawning populations is doomed to harvest itself into the ground. All of the hallmarks of hunter-overkill are evident with the herring fishery. More corporate control of the fishery, more technology being used with bigger boats and hi-tech sonars while the fish get smaller in size forcing more immature fish to be harvested. This not only destroys the fish with greatest lifetime spawning potential, it is not even profitable as immature fish (2-3 years old) have fragile stomach linings that burst before any roe can be harvested.
The DFO releases an annual ‘Pacific Herring Integrated Fisheries Management Plan’, which, on the surface, appears to be a comprehensive report. Reading ten years worth of these documents, however, only further convinced me that the DFO not only has a limited understanding of herring’s ecological importance, requirements, or how to safely manage them, they also don’t seem to care. Take this section of the 2004 report, for example: “At this time there is no information available on the appropriate conservation limits for the ecosystem as it pertains to the herring stocks”. It continues on to talk about harvest rates, and ends with: “Research is ongoing to better understand these ecosystem processes and the role herring plays in maintaining the integrity and functioning of the ecosystem.” This paragraph appeared sincere enough when I first read it, a commitment to future herring research is definitely important. I then read the exact, word for word, statement in the 2013 report. Nine years later they have failed to do any of the conservation research they claimed to be working on, and they don’t even care enough to write a new excuse.
Today about 85% of the herring caught is by SRF and about 6-8% SOK (spawn on kelp).
In 1996 conflicts between First Nations’ fishing practices and DFO’s regulations reached the Supreme Court of Canada when two Heiltsuk brothers, William and Donald Gladstone, were arrested for selling SOK. In what has become known as the Gladstone Commission, the Heiltsuk Nation argued their case and became the first Nation in Canada to be granted a court-affirmed, un-extinguished aboriginal right to commercially harvest and sell SOK. Unfortunately, this victory was not the end of the Heiltsuk Nation’s struggle with DFO. The SRF continued to kill thousands of tonnes of herring biomass every year resulting in extirpation of stocks throughout the territory.
The historical and ongoing treatment of herring by DFO is a tragedy. The constant theme underlying years of collapses and management failures is a complete disregard for the essential role these forage fish play in B.C.’s ecosystem and First Nations culture. This miraculous, mysterious species – which provides a foundation for so many – needs more support.