Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where Have All The Cruise Ships Gone?

On October 4th the last Cruise Ship leaves Vancouver for the season.  Fittingly named the Island Princess, either because she cruises islands everywhere she goes or because she is an island all unto herself with all the amenities 1,970 passengers could expect; including a fitness centre/spa, casino and a wide variety of restaurants.  The Island Princess is part of the Princess Cruise line which, in turn, is owned by the Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise ship operator, which also owns the Carnival, Holland-America, P&O, and Cunard lines amongst others.  Royal Caribbean is the 2nd largest cruise ship operator but it has the biggest ships with 9 of the top 11 including the very biggest, Oasis of the Seas, which, at 220,000 gross tons, 362 metres in length, and 63 metres in beam, is more than 4 times the size of the Titanic in gross tonnage, 100 meters longer, and twice the width.  It's also capable of carrying over 6,000 passengers and crew, nearly double that of the Titanic. 

Crown Princess photo by Junie Quiroga
For better or worse the Oasis of the Seas has yet to make it to Vancouver but, at a fuel consumption rate of 7,000 gallons per hour at 22 knots, (which works out to 20 gallons per foot) it's probably better off puttering around the Caribbean.  At any rate it wouldn't make it through the Panama canal, where the maximum cruise ship size the locks can accommodate is 290 metres in length and 32 metres in width, so it would be a very long and expensive trip to get here no matter what route it took.  The Island Princess, on the other hand, is part of a class of ships referred to as Panamax, which is the maximum size ships can be to squeeze through the Panama canal.  As a result, they can spend the winter season in the Caribbean and then come up to the Pacific Northwest in summer to cruise the waters of the Inside Passage.

Oasis of the Seas
The seemingly inexhaustable market for folks wanting to check out the beautiful B.C. coastline and the glaciers of Alaska has kept our waterfront humming with the comings and goings of all these massive ships, even with the competition from Seattle.  The 2010 stats aren't out yet but in 2009 there were 35 different vessels here, carrying 900,000 passengers on 256 sailings. The logistics of feeding and watering all these people, never mind the thousands of crew members themselves, is too staggering to contemplate, and let's not forget about the fuel.  And this is only for the Alaska cruise season.  No wonder Micky Arison, the owner of Carnival, is listed by Forbes as the 94th wealthiest person in the world.

4 Cruise ships at the Canada Place terminal
While the Island Princess has been busy all summer taking guests back and forth to Alaska, her last cruise of the season is a 17 day re-positioning one to Fort Lauderdale via the Panama Canal.  There she will set up camp for the winter Caribbean season, along with all the other cruise ships in the region who use Fort Lauderdale as their home base.  It's an annual migration that follows the same route as the whales (at least as far as Mexico) and, for those in the know, these re-positioning cruises offer a great bargain.  Next spring, just like the whales, these leviathans of the boating world will return but for now it's goodbye Vancouver.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jelly Jelly

Every year around the end of August and the beginning of September the little aquatic paratroopers start appearing in English Bay.  Acting as the advance party of some secret mission, they quietly sail through the ocean currents, guided by their translucent chutes, towards some mysterious landing spot.  At first they're only a few in number but they are quickly joined by reinforcements and, within a week or so, they are numbering in the thousands.  Suddenly, the invasion is under way and the Bay has been completely taken by surprise.

Moon Jellyfish
Are they really from this planet or could they be friendly extra terrestials?  Are they escaping from somewhere? Is this a way station or the final destination? What is it they have come here for? Is there some special substance in our waters they are wanting to take back with them?  Are they shields for some microscopic creature that will eventually mutate into something completely different?  Can they communicate?

A lot of fantastical questions are created in my mind as I swim through all the little Moon Jellyfish, who are doing their best to ignore me as they go about their business.  I feel their gelatinous bodies bouncing gently and harmlessly off my own and, as I dive under to take a closer look, it seems like I'm in the middle of a strange underwater galaxy.  In actual fact what's happening is a spectacular orgy, and everyone is taking advantage of the perfect water temperature to really get it on before saying goodbye to this life cycle.

Who would have known, but at least they don't bite or sting, unlike another type of jellyfish which also shows up at this time of year, the Lion's Mane.  At an average diameter of 4 - 6 inches the little Moonies aren't even in the same league as the Lion's Mane which are the world's largest jellyfish, growing up to 8 feet in diameter and having a thick array of tentacles, resembling the mane of a lion, that trail up to 90 feet in length, (though the ones I've encountered are generally a third of this size).  They pack an amazingly nasty sting that can leave your arm feeling very sore and painful for hours if you make the mistake of accidentally touching it (which I have) and there are even stories of people dying after being stung.  Even the ends of the tentacles can leave your skin feeling numb if they happen to graze your face or hands.

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Feeding on zooplankton, small fish, moon jellies and unsuspecting children, the only good thing about the Lion's Mane is they are usually easy to spot and they don't show up in large numbers. Like the Moon jellies they have only a one year life span and, while they spend most of it in the open ocean, they show up in sheltered bays at the end of the year to breed and die.  Their main predators are sea turtles, who like eating jellyfish of any description but must really like their food hot and spicy if they eat these beasties (actually they are immune to the sting).  Unfortunately, sea turtles also get confused by plastic bags that end up in the ocean and try to eat them as well, even if it clogs up their digestive tract and kills them.

With the arrival of the autumn equinox and the end of summer the jellies have suddenly disappeared, and I can swim now without fear of being attacked by a Lion's Mane or being captured by an alien landing party of Moonie sex fiends.  There are over 2,000 species of jellyfish in the world but, thankfully, only a few ever show up here.  Technically they aren't even fish.  Still you have to admire how they get around, and their great sense of rhythm as they pulsate through the water.  Jelly jelly baby.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sockeye On The Run

The biggest story this past summer has to be about the 35 million Fraser River sockeye salmon that appeared without warning from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the largest run since 1913.  Even as I was going for my morning swim in English Bay the salmon were jumping out of the water.  Originally presumed missing in action by the Department of Fisheries & Ocean, which has done everything in its power over the years to mismanage fishing stocks on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, it was a pleasant surprise for the commercial fishery, the first nations, and the general public to suddenly have all this wonderful fish available.  Sockeye, of course, being the most prized of the 5 indigenous salmon species (Coho, Pink, Chinook, & Chum being the others) due to its rich flavour and firm, deep red flesh.

Granville Island Salmon photo by Junie Quiroga

Like all salmon, the sockeye have a well established fresh water/salt water life cycle that starts with the eggs hatching in some fresh water stream, the juvenile smolts eventually making their way to the open ocean to feed and grow and then return, as mature adults 4 years later, to spawn in the exact same spot where they were born, before dying.  In the case of sockeye this cyclical migration can be thousands of miles from spawning grounds to feeding grounds and, how they find their way back and forth, is probably one of nature's most enduring mysteries. Some annual cycles are larger than others however, with 2010 being part of the most dominant 4 year cycle for the Fraser River, the largest salmon river in the world.  In 2006 this same cycle saw 13 million sockeye return to the Fraser River, but there is a big difference between 35 million and 13 million and an even bigger difference when one considers the less than 1.5 million sockeye that returned last year.

Salmon migration routes
When the less than 1.5 million salmon returned last year alarm bells immediately started ringing.  Overfishing, sea lice, too many marine mammals, and climate change were cited as the most likely culprits and many declared the sockeye was on the verge of being wiped out. But if that was the case how do you explain all the fish this year?  In the world of fish it's either eat or be eaten.  An estimated 10 billion salmon smolts of all species enter the Gulf of Alaska every year and, while they suffer a heavy mortality rate, the millions that survive the gauntlet of predators is truly astounding.

During their time in the ocean sockeye salmon feed off plankton and tiny shrimp.  If climate change had affected the ocean it must have led to more plankton and shrimp being produced because obviously the sockeye had no shortage of food. Alternatively the predators that eat salmon might have disappeared but it would appear the seals, sea lions and orca whale populations are all on the increase so that isn't the answer either. It's also unlikely the sockeye have developed an immunity to sea lice, considering they have been around for as long as the salmon themselves so, as nasty as they are, the speculation over sea lice from fish farms doesn't really seem to have any substance.  And with the annual fishing quota being steadily reduced it doesn't seem like overfishing was the culprit this time.  More questions than answers.

Granville Island Salmon photo by Junie Quiroga
It all goes back to what happens during that 2 year period the sockeye are in the ocean with no babysitters, GPS tracking sytems, or video cameras watching their every move.  Teenage wildlife with no responsibilities or restrictions.  An all too brief time to bond with friends, eat and drink to their hearts content, and travel wherever the current leads them.  What goes on the road stays on the road and the kids aren't talking. 
But what to do with all these fish?  It seems like feast or famine.  Normally selling for anywhere between $10.00-$20.00/lb in the market, now whole sockeye were being sold for $20.00 or less right off the boats.  With hardly any canneries even operating anymore everyone was scambling to find a way to unload the catch and restaurants everywhere had salmon specials on the menu.  But all of this is only affects a fraction of the fish, with the majority being left alone to try and spawn.  Critics are now saying the spawning channels are overcrowded and most of the fish will simply die, a colossal waste of fish.

It wasn't always that way.  In the late 1800's the canning industry came to the Fraser River.  Perfect timing as it turned out with a unique combination of events.  The fur trading posts at Prince Rupert and Fort Langley were closing down just as canneries were being established to replace the previous method of packaging fish by simply salting the salmon in barrels.  With the great CPR railway construction project completed there was lots of surplus labour, mostly Chinese, to work in these very labour intensive factories.  In 1871 the canning industry was launched by Alexander Ewen with 2,000 salmon hand filled into 300 cases of hand soldered cans.  By 1880 42,000 cases were filled and 126,000 cases the next year.  The race was on.

Canneries started proliferating and soon there were nearly 100 canneries between the Fraser and Skeena Rivers. With the seemingly endless supply of fish in B.C. it was a license to print money but, over the next 100 years, the industry would be in constant conflict with competing claims for the fish by Natives and  fishermen, labour disputes for better working conditions and wages at the canneries and racist government policy towards the Chinese and Japanese that culminated in the confiscation of Japanese fishing boats during the Second World War Internment. 

Confiscated Japanese fishing vessels
From the beginning it was evident the amount of fish being harvested was unsustainable but, instead of practising conservation or some form of restraint, the industry simply went after other fish including the other salmon species as well as herring and halibut.  Almost exactly 100 years from when the salmon fishing industry got started, it collapsed.  Canneries were amalgamated and closed, fishing vessels were mothballed, their licenses sold back to the government, and the farming of Atlantic salmon took over. 

For the sockeye, however, it wasn't the fishing industry that had the biggest impact.  In August 1913 blasting by the CNR caused a landslide at Hells Gate in the Fraser River that destroyed one of the largest ever salmon runs trying to make its way upstream.  Millions of fish died before getting to their spawing grounds and, by 1921, two cycles later, the sockeye industry was dead.  It would take another 100 years to recover.

Hells Gate before the landslide
Hells Gate after the landslide
Hells Gate today with fish ladders
So now its August 2010, the sockey are back and we are hopeful that the last 140 years of greed, mismanagement, and folly can somehow be repaired.  That a species with a history probably older than ours can get back to its routine again in spite of everything we've done to disrupt it.  The arrogance of thinking we can "manage" something we know so little about is almost more astounding than the 35 million sockeye who appeared this summer out of nowhere.  But it's a great year in the spawning grounds and, at least for today, there's plenty to spare for us to eat as well.  It could always be that way if we are just a little more careful.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Whale With No Name

Over the Labour Day weekend someone had made a whale sand sculpture on the beach at English Bay.  A tribute no doubt to the grey whale that has been delighting everyone with his sporadic guest appearances throughout the summer.  I say "he" because in the whale world it's generally the women and children that stick together and only the males who go walkabout on their own.

Whale Sand Sculpture photo by Junie Quiroga

Of course the whale didn't have any papers to show either the Fish & Wildlife, Coast Guard, or Customs & Immigration officials that would normally be controlling the access of pelagic tourists choosing to enter Vancouver by sea, so nobody really knows anything about him including his name. He first showed up in May coming into False Creek and doing a bit of an O.J. Simpson with helicopters circling around him and everyone crowding the bridges and seawall to get a glimpse and take photos.  He also took his tour to the bustling metropolis of Squamish to wow the locals there and then spent the summer cruising along the Sunshine Coast and mingling with the boaters before coming back to Vancouver.

photo by Andrew Hood
While hunted to extinction by the 19th century on the east coast of North America, grey whales survived on the west coast and, in the 20th century were only hunted sporadically.  The last grey whale hunting in B.C. was in 1953 when a dozen were killed, and in California a few hundred were killed in the 1960's.  Since then they have been protected from commercial fishing (in spite of the Makah tribe in Washington state who are still claiming the right to hunt a few every year) and their population has grown to over 20,000 individuals.
Grey Whale and her calf

Migrating up and down the coast from the warm winter waters of Baja, Mexico, where they mate and give birth, to the cool waters of British Columbia and Alaska in summer, where they come to feast, their aquatic world knows no borders.  All they are interested in are the yummy amphipods and benthic crustaceans they scoop up along with all the mud, sand and sediment on the ocean bottom, that they mix together with a generous amount of seawater, and then strain it all through their baleen, a sort of natural sieve that is built into their mouth. It's a healthy diet that allows them to grow up to 50 feet in length, 35 tons in weight, and live until the ripe old age of 60 years.

English Bay Slide photo by Junie Quiroga

Watching that September afternoon as the whale cruised along the stretch of beach between English Bay and Second Beach, where I go for my daily morning swim, I decided to put on my wetsuit and join him.  Unfortunately for me, by the time I got past all the excited sunbathers, the whale had already headed over to Kits Beach and into the ocean.  Considering grey whales cruise at 8 km per hour compared to my 2 - 3 km per hour (depending on current) I didn't have a hope of catching up.

As I watched him disappear into the sunset of his borderless world I couldn't help but envy his lifestyle and was glad to see he had such a huge fan club.  Perhaps he will spread the word to the others that it's safe to come through the Inside Passage again and the scenery is just as interesting as on the West Coast.  Maybe I'll even meet up with him down in Mexico one winter.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Over, Under, Sideways, Around

In the year 2000 I started swimming in the ocean.  It was all part of training for a millenium project, the Alcatraz Swim, that I had started with some fellow pool rats in the Vancouver Aquatic Centre, and it was to have a profound effect on my lifestyle, how I viewed the city I'd grown up in, and my view of nature.  There was another world out there I'd never really given much thought to and it had been on my doorstep all along.

Swims With Seals photo by Junie Quiroga

Even though I lived within a block from the ocean and was born and raised in Vancouver, it had never occurred to me to swim in the ocean. Other than taking an occasional dip in the summer, serious swimming was done in swimming pools.  To be fair, most of the year the water was cold and so was the air but, if we could put men on the moon, these were minor inconveniences a little technology should easily resolve. In this case all it took was a stretchy neoprene suit with matching boots, gloves and hood.

Nelson & Jack photo by Junie Quiroga

Out in the fresh air and away from the usual "smell of chlorine first thing in the morning" this invigorating new environment was already quite a shock to the system but, when the seals showed up to accompany me, things started to get magical.  Curious, friendly but also a little shy, the seals seemed to guide me and keep an eye out for boat traffic, as I swam from Kits to Second Beach, and probably wondered what had possessed me to swim here in the first place. I'd been counting laps in pools for longer than I cared to remember and, as much as I'd always enjoyed it, I realized now there was no going back to an artificial environment.

Crown Jewel photo by Junie Quiroga

I was now one with the ocean and the seals every morning when I went for my swim, and it didn't take long from there before I had purchased a cabin cruiser to start exploring the surrounding waters.  With a boat and an obsession for swimming in the ocean the final logical step was to take up scuba diving, and soon I also became a Divemaster.  The more time I spent either over, under, sideways and around the water the more I realized how much was going on and how unaware most people were of all the ocean happenings.

Nelson Quiroga photo by Junie Quiroga

Whether it's about the commercial side of things with the shipping, tugs and fishing boats, the recreational activities such as rowing, kayaking, windsurfing, paddling, and sailing, all the creatures living in the water or all the clubs and organizations dedicated to supporting and/or protecting these things, never mind all the history, the ocean has more of an impact on the city than I think anyone really stops to think about.  But where is the collective voice for all these interests? Perhaps there isn't such a thing but, after 10 years of developing and qualifying my own unique perspective, I feel it's time to start sharing my thoughts about the ocean scene in the Vancouver area.