Saturday, July 28, 2018

Pictures of Lily

Water lily invasion at Beaver Lake 
Once upon a time there was a lake in Stanley Park named Beaver Lake because it was occupied by beavers who tried to live there happily ever after until 1936 when some silly people introduced water lilies to the lake to enhance its beauty and celebrate Vancouver's 50th anniversary. In time the lilies took over the lake, completely covering its surface and then filling up the bottom of the lake with decomposing vegetation. Year by year the water level decreased until it was estimated that by 2020 the lake would completely disappear.

Beaver lodge in Beaver Lake
The beavers did what beavers do when they sense the water level in their lake is diminishing and got busy building a dam on Beaver Creek to flood the area. Every night sticks and mud are put in place to stop water from draining out of the lake and every day the Parks Board takes it apart in order to save the trails for the public and the trout living downstream. As the stalemate continues, and the Parks Board dithers over what to do, the water lilies have kept proliferating and the water level is now less than 1 metre.

Moose eating water lilies
If beavers would eat water lilies the problem could quickly be solved but unfortunately the great Canadian icon prefers to eat trees. There is, however, another great Canadian icon that loves eating water lilies and that is the moose. Owing to the sodium content of aquatic plants they can make up to half of a moose's diet and the moose is the only deer species capable of feeding underwater. The obvious solution of introducing moose to Beaver Lake was actually considered by the Parks Board in the 1990's but in the end they decided against it.

So while it doesn't look like moose will ever be coming to Stanley Park, in spite of their amazing potential as a tourist attraction, the Parks Board has now approved a multi-million dollar plan to dredge the lake, remove some of the water lilies and re-introduce native species of plants and animals. As we wait for this to actually start happening, a well informed team of enthusiastic volunteers is on hand to explain things to members of the public. It's almost ironic that, as folks enjoy a walk around what is left of the lake, the most popular subject for their cameras are pictures of the pretty lilies.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Go Their Own Way

Dead Right Whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Right whales off the east coast and killer whales on the west coast have one terrible thing in common, they are both dying thanks to the fishing activities of humans.  On the east coast the whales are getting tangled up in crab trap gear and on the west coast the over fishing of Chinook salmon is causing starvation. As a bonus, both species are also having to deal with being run over by large ships and putting up with the underwater noise they generate.

Dead Killer Whale on the beach at Sechelt
When the whaling industry was in full swing the North Atlantic right whale was the preferred species to hunt because they were slow moving, close to shore, and floated after they were killed. It's impossible to know how many North Atlantic right whales once existed but we know there are only about 450 left and, with 17 of them getting killed last year (12 alone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence) they are now considered an endangered species. Likewise with the Southern resident killer whale population which now has only 76 individuals remaining and is also listed as endangered.

Right Whale Mother & Calf in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
To try and protect the right whales from ship collisions the Canadian government has brought in speed restrictions of 10 knots maximum in the western part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the whales come to feed with their calves in summer. To try and protect the whales from all the fishing gear they are opening the snow crab season earlier and closing it sooner so that hopefully there won't be any traps in the area when they arrive. Meanwhile in the Juan de Fuca/Georgia Strait area of the west coast the commercial fishery for Chinook salmon has been completely shut down and limits put in place for recreational fishing as well.

Killer Whale in Georgia Strait
As summer approaches we can only cross our fingers and hope these measures will help these poor creatures survive. In spite of the vastness of our oceans things can get crowded pretty quickly when human activity comes up against the animals living there. It would be so much better for the whales if we focused our fishing efforts on aquaculture and let the whales go their own way.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


With a habitat ranging across the North Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe the Atlantic salmon has always been an important and popular species for sports and commercial fisheries. But habitat destruction, over fishing, and warmer waters have decimated the wild population to the point where conservation measures have been introduced in most countries. The numbers for farmed Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, have increased exponentially with over 3 million tonnes now being produced annually vs. the 3,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon being caught in the wild.

Atlantic salmon are the preferred species for fish farming because they grow quickly and consistently, are resistant to disease, and taste great. Salmon is also popular with people looking for healthy food alternatives because they provide Omega-3 fatty acids. Combine all this with the fact farmed salmon cost less than wild salmon and are available year round and you can see why the salmon farming industry is exploding.

Over the years Atlantic salmon have been bred to more efficiently turn "feed into flesh" but recent genetic development has now allowed the fish to reach market size in just 18 months or less than half the time if it was in the wild. By adding the growth hormone gene of the Chinook salmon (the largest species of Pacific salmon) with an antifreeze gene of the Ocean Pout to the fertilized egg of an Atlantic salmon the fish is able to grow continuously while eating less than half the amount of feed. After more than 25 years of testing and red tape this amazing breakthrough for the AquaBounty salmon has finally been certified by the Canadian & American governments as being safe for human consumption.

No matter how you look at it raising animals for protein is highly inefficient with feed inputs many times over what is ultimately produced. Because salmon are carnivorous it's even worse as more wild fish end up being harvested for fish food than for human consumption. But with this new genetically modified salmon the food cost ratio drops to 1:1 and this has profound implications for worldwide food production and the sustainability of other ocean populations.

Killer whales for example in the Pacific Northwest are a fish eating species that relies particularly on wild Chinook salmon. Competition with commercial fishing and a decline in the wild fish population is causing serious concern for their survival and another reason we should be getting our salmon from farms, just as we do for every other food group, and leave the wild salmon to the whales and recreational fishery. The demand for aquaculture products is huge and growing larger every year with salmon being one of the most important products.

Most farmed salmon are raised in open net pens that can hold up to 90,000 fish. While they provide a lower operating cost than closed land based systems, they also discharge a lot of waste, parasites, and disease into the surrounding water and this is what concerns folks who worry about Pacific wild salmon picking something up as they pass through on their migratory route. They also worry about Atlantic salmon escaping into the wild and competing with native Pacific salmon species.

Strangely enough various governments over the last 100 years have tried to introduce the Atlantic salmon to the Pacific coast and none of these efforts have been successful. Every species of salmon has the same life cycle which means being born in fresh water, moving on to the salt water ocean to become an adult, and then returning to the same fresh water it was born in to spawn and die. For whatever reason the Atlantic salmon couldn't make it through the adult stage in the ocean and return. To worry about any of them escaping from a net in the middle of nowhere and taking over the Pacific Northwest is ridiculous. But just to be safe the AquaBounty salmon are being raised in fresh water pens and they are only using sterilized females so there is no chance of interbreeding.

The hysteria over genetically modified food and animals is another version of the science vs. religion debate where fear, ignorance and misinformation combine to create a toxic dialogue. We've been eating genetically modified plants for quite some time now and this technology holds open the door of possibility for many parts of the planet that are currently unsuited to agriculture because of salinity, lack of moisture or other issues. There aren't any 2-headed fish coming our way only fish that cost half as much to feed in half the time and I call that a bargain.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

It's been 48 years since the first Earth Day was declared, though of course the environmental movement has been around since the smokestack days of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. While there has been an increasing awareness of how humans have affected the planet with their various forms of pollution, nothing has really changed in their behavior. Relentless population growth with its emphasis on deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, and the dumping of our collective waste into the ocean, has led to species extinction, ruined the land, sea, and air, and raised Earth's temperature.

Like the boiling frog analogy, we love to write letters to our politicians, march and demonstrate, but refuse to make any changes to our lifestyle. Our suburban world is centred around the automobile, our consumption economy is based on producing garbage and, while we may live longer, we certainly aren't any healthier. The only thing that might save the planet is if it gets so hot there is mass extinction of the humans.

SpaceX Interplanetary Base On The Moon 
If we persist in ruining planet Earth for ourselves to live on, and by all indications that is exactly what we will do unless a stray asteroid does it for us like it did 65 million years ago for the dinosaurs, then we need to get behind the movement for interplanetary colonization. The SpaceX folks are making plans to use the Moon or Mars as an exploration base for Space travel and other organizations will be soon following suit. After all, in another 2 billion years our Sun will burn out and Earth will disappear so we might as well get started.

While space travel is inevitable and no doubt exciting, I can't help but feel a certain fondness for my own beautiful place here on Earth. Outer space is cold and unfeeling and requires all sorts of complicated equipment to survive whereas here I can go for a walk or hike in the forest, swim in the ocean and just enjoy all the life around me free of any encumbrances. For now it's still paradise but, for how much longer, who knows. As Marvin Gaye would say, mercy mercy me.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Break On Through

The Hudson's Bay Quest sled dog race got cancelled this year. This is an annual event that has been going since 2004 but, without a railway service to Churchill, it was a little tough to get all the dogs and equipment in place. Another nail in the coffin of lost opportunity for Churchill Manitoba.

Neither the government or the railway company have dealt with the washed out tracks from the winter of 2017 and the town of Churchill continues to sit in limbo as it waits for the politics and lawsuits to eventually decide things. Tourism of course has been down as well for the polar bear and beluga whale viewing. But worst of all is the shutdown of the port itself.

Port of Churchill
Located on the shores of Hudson Bay the Port has never been able to live up to its full potential in spite of being operational since 1929 when the railway link to Winnipeg and the Port itself were completed. This is mainly because of ice which covers the Bay half the year but with global warming this could gradually change. While primarily an alternative outlet for the grain farmers, it could also be more effectively utilized as a staging post for supplying the communities of Nunavut and a conduit for Western oil & gas exports.

Even more interesting and exciting would be the establishment of an Arctic Bridge between Churchill and Murmansk in Russia which is connected by rail to St. Petersburg and the rest of Europe. Ships would travel between the two ports for at least 6 months of the year aided by icebreakers that, in the case of Canada at least, would be based out of Churchill as part of our commitment to establishing a permanent and viable Arctic presence.

For now it's all talk and pipe dreams. The ice comes and goes every winter and spring and everyone has to make the best of whatever opportunity presents itself. But whether you are a husky dog, a polar bear or the Town of Churchill it would be nice to finally break on through the impasse.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'm Beginning To See The Light

If there is one defining feature of the North country, other than ice & snow, it's undoubtedly the Northern Lights, more properly referred to as the Aurora Borealis. Occurring year round, though not really visible around the summer solstice or when it's cloudy, this magical night time display will always take your breath away no matter how many times they are viewed. And no two nights are ever the same either.

The Aurora Borealis is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the Sun, during sunspot or solar flare activity (referred to as coronal mass ejections) that collide with the oxygen and nitrogen gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Driven by solar wind these particles enter the Earth's atmosphere through the north or south pole where the Earth's magnetic field is weaker. A roughly oval shaped area near the north pole called the Auroral zone offers the best viewing opportunity and, in Canada, one of the most perfectly located viewing spots is Yellowknife.

It was a perfectly clear night when we arrived at the viewing station and the Aurora started as soon as it was dark. Driving out of town to get away from any streetlight we were quickly overwhelmed by the display that shimmered and danced across the heavens with incredible speed. Constantly shifting shape, as if an unseen hand was stirring up a cosmic light show, we never knew where to look from one moment to the next.

Overwhelmed by our incredible good fortune we spent over 4 hours in the cold night air (minus 20 Fahrenheit) watching in stunned admiration as the mostly green light kept changing the night sky. Luckily we were dressed for the occasion in specially designed thermal clothing, but was nice to get back to our hotel where we fell fast asleep after taking in all the fresh night air.

On the second night we were ready for another session under the stars but wondering how Ms. Aurora was going to top off her last performance. We need not have worried as once again the sky was lit up with yet another spectacular display of rapidly moving curtains of light. Northern lights are mostly green in colour caused by the interaction with oxygen at approximately 60 miles above Earth but they can also be purple at the edges and at an altitude of 200 miles they can be red.

It's a long way from Vancouver to see the Aurora Borealis (even further if you want to see the Southern one called Aurora Australis) and people come from around the world (particularly Asia) where it's considered good luck if you see the lights.  There's never any guarantee but, when it does all come together, you feel very privileged. It's a national treasure and it's free, no wonder so many folks are beginning to see the light.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bend Me Shape Me/ Under Pressure

The one thing that affects all scuba divers, regardless of the water temperature, is pressure and the deeper they dive the greater is the surrounding pressure their body has to face.  At sea level the atmospheric pressure (ATM) is only 1 but every 10 metres or 33 feet deeper adds another ATM. The deeper you go the faster you consume your air supply because at 2 ATM you are inhaling twice the number of air molecules as you would at the surface and, at 4 ATM, or 30 metres deep, each breath is 4 times what you would at the surface. Understanding how the body reacts to all this pressure is the key to safe diving. 

Pressurized air in a scuba tank still contains the approximate 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen we are accustomed to breathing on land. However, during a dive, the body tissues are absorbing nitrogen in proportion to the surrounding pressure, which is anywhere from 2 to 5 times more than normal depending on depth. As the diver ascends and the pressure decreases the excess nitrogen will slowly leave the body (off gassing) but if the pressure is reduced too quickly the nitrogen will form bubbles in the tissues and bloodstream causing decompression sickness or what is referred to as the "bends".

There are two types of decompression sickness (DCS) with Type 1 usually characterized by musculoskeletal pain in the joints and mild skin itching and rashes. Type 2 on the other hand is much more serious and life threatening as it can affect the lungs, spinal cord or brain and the symptoms include difficulty with bladder control, and numbness and paralysis in the legs. The only treatment for DCS 2 is hyperbaric oxygen therapy delivered in a recompression chamber. Getting the bends and having to go to the "Chamber" is every diver's worst nightmare.

The "Chamber" at VGH - photo by Junie Quiroga

Unfortunately for me I came down with DCS 2, following an otherwise very pleasant day of scuba diving in Howe Sound with my friends and the good folks at Sea Dragon Dive Charters this past weekend, and had to be taken by ambulance to the "Chamber" at Vancouver General Hospital. Luckily a hastily gathered team of 5 specialists were there to make me comfortable and put me through the standard regimen of being taken down to the pressure of 2.8 ATA, or 60 feet below sea level, and given pure oxygen to breathe for a session that lasted just over 7 hours. 

Nelson in the Chamber - photo by Junie Quiroga

As I sat in my chair watching movies I could feel the nitrogen slowly leaving my legs, and I happily began to regain all normal feeling, but I wasn't out of the woods yet. While I appear to have avoided serious permanent injury it will be 6 months before my recovery can be properly assessed and I may never be able to go scuba diving again. How and why the nitrogen built up to such an extent in my bloodstream is something I'm still examining from my dive profile, but there's no arguing with the physiology and the frightening power it had to bend and shape me.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Space Oddity

The most significant event of the year so far was the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by Space X on Feb 6th. A private enterprise undertaking that, thanks to its reusable boosters, dramatically reduces the cost of rocket launches, the Falcon Heavy looks to reinvigorate the NASA Space program with space tourism and missions to Mars. While capable of carrying a payload of up to 140,000 lbs. the maiden voyage featured a Tesla Roadster as cargo complete with an astronaut mannequin modelling the latest in space wear and grooving the tunes by David Bowie.

Rocket Man/Major Tom in a Tesla Roadster
Space Oddity, one of David Bowie's signature tunes, and his first hit, was released in 1969 just before the Apollo 11 mission that put the first person on the moon, arguably the signature crowning achievement to date for mankind. There were 5 subsequent moon landings before the program was abandoned and, while the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs kept NASA going, it has been difficult to secure the public support and funding for any manned missions beyond low earth orbit. But 50 years later interest is now finally building for a manned mission to Mars to establish a colony.

Proposals to overcome the considerable obstacles of getting to the "Red Planet", establishing a functioning base camp, and then eventually being able to return to Earth have been studied for the past 75 years but the distances, environmental conditions, and budgetary requirements have stymied every plan. Now, however, the Space X folks have announced a vision to begin the colonization of Mars by developing a high capacity transportation infrastructure based on the reusable Falcon technology. The newer BFR (Big Falcon Rockets) will serve multiple functions including the servicing of the Space Station, acting as fuel supply tankers, and as a cargo/passenger spaceships to Mars and other interplanetary destinations.

The key to all of this succeeding will be the re-usability of all the rocket ship components, building a propellant production plant on Mars and, of course, the lucrative commercial contracts for satellites and Space Station work. As fantastical as this may seem it was all put to rest when the first 2 re-usable booster rockets made their dramatic and seemingly effortless return to the launch pad (the 3rd one ran out of fuel and hit the ocean). The digital rocket technology of today is vastly superior to the mechanical technology of the 1960's and, if they could put men on the Moon then with slide rulers, a trip to Mars no longer seems like much of a stretch.

John Young
Ironically it was 2 years to the day since David Bowie died and 1 month after the death of John Young, who enjoyed the longest career of any astronaut as a commander on Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, and one of the 12 people to ever have set foot on the Moon, that the Falcon Heavy was launched. It was also ironic the fastest car ever produced, and one that runs on rechargeable batteries, was loaded onto a spaceship travelling 24,000 mph in an endless loop around the Sun and Mars. These space oddities mark this historic milestone as perhaps the long awaited re-launch of our existential quest to discover who we are, where we came from, and who else is out there. "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do...."

David Bowie