Sunday, November 2, 2014

People Gotta Move

The University of Victoria's Bluefin-12S AUV is being off-loaded from the Parks Canada vessel Gwaii Haanas II at the end of the project. The team plans to return next summer for further investigation.
Unloading the University of Victoria Bluefin-12S AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle)
There were a couple of interesting underwater discoveries this year in Canada. The one that created the most press of course was the discovery of one of the lost ships from the Franklin expedition in the north but, in my view, the more significant one was the discovery of what is believed to be ancient fish weirs off the coast of Haida Gwaii,  The lost ships of the Franklin expedition were less than 200 years old and the Haida Gwaii discovery is almost 14,000 years old but they both had something in common. In the case of the Franklin expedition men were trying to discover a route to Asia through the waters of the frozen north and, in the case of the Haida Gwaii discovery, it's evidence that people came to America from Asia by way of the ocean.

We have always known the First Nations people in North & South America were of Asian descent but we never really knew for sure how they got here.  Until now the popular consensus was that during the last ice age a land bridge connected Siberia and Alaska and, this area known as Beringia, supported a human population living in an ice free grassland steppe environment that allowed plants and animals to survive.  As the glaciers started to melt 16,000 or so years ago these people were able to move southward over the now exposed landscape and eventually settle throughout the Americas.

In the last ice age, which lasted 26,000 - 13,000 years ago, ice sheets extended to the 45th parallel, which is right around Lincoln City on the Oregon coast.  During this period water was taken from the oceans to form ice sheets up to 3-4 km thick at the higher northern latitudes and caused the global sea level to drop by 110 meters. This, in turn, exposed continental shelves and formed land bridges between various land-masses including Haida Gwaii, which would then have been connected to the present coastline. During deglaciation the melted ice-water is returned to the oceans causing the sea level to rise and, in the case of Haida Gwaii, turned it into an island separated from the mainland by Hecate Strait.

Images of Haida Gwaii 14,000, 12,000, and 10,000 years ago as the ice melted

First Nations oral history claims that people have lived in Haida Gwaii for thousands of years but until now there was little evidence to back this up.  Archeologist Quentin Mackie figured that if people had indeed lived there it would be likely they would have set up salmon fishing sites along the river beds of ancient river valleys that are now under water. Typically these would be stone and wood weirs used to re-direct or trap fish as they move upstream, one of the oldest fishing methods known to mankind.

Ancient river beds (now under water) leading to Juan Perez Sound 
In an area just off of Moresby Island two ancient river beds on either side of Huxley Island leading to Juan Perez Sound in Hecate Strait were identified as possible candidates where evidence might be found of human habitation before the glaciers melted. Using the University of Victoria's AUV (a sort of guided missile with the ability to take sonar pictures) Mackie probed the underwater river beds and discovered a line of rocks which he claims form a fishing weir and are at least 13,700 years old. Interestingly, it was the same person, Alison Proctor, a research engineer at UVIC, who programmed the AUV for both the 2012 Franklin expedition and the Haida Gwaii discovery.

Fish weir illustration

Sonar image of ancient fish weir in Haida Gwaii
Not only does this make it the oldest fishing weir ever discovered, it's also the earliest evidence of human habitation in Canada.  And, while it is extremely gratifying to the present day Haida people to have their ancestral claims finally recognized, it also opens up another debate about how the people got there in the first place. Haida Gwaii is not on the land route from Beringia and the only way people could have got there would have been by boat.

A more detailed examination of the Haida Gwaii site has only just begun and, as the ice continues to melt in the north, more discoveries will doubtless be made there as well. The speculation of course is fascinating as we search for more evidence there were perhaps two routes from Asia to America, and then try to imagine the bravery and determination these people must have had to make the journey, and the circumstances around why they did it, in the first place. Regardless of the route they chose it simply proves that when people gotta move they move.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2,000 Light Years From Home or 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

With approximately 1/2 of the world's population living near the ocean coastline (defined as being within 60 miles/100 kilometres of the shore) you would think we would be much more actively involved and interested in what goes on under water.  But we don't seem all that concerned and, in fact, we spend about 10 times as much doing research work in outer space as we do in trying to understand our planet's oceans. For some strange reason the stars and heavens seem more alluring and accessible to us than the seven seas.

Astronaut in full gear
Part of the problem of course is that it's easier to look up and see the stars than it is to look down into the ocean. But while the average person is never going to be an astronaut or even an aeroplane pilot the average person can certainly be a scuba diver, and that's all it takes to get a taste for what's under water and how equally exciting and challenging this parallel universe can be. Interestingly, scuba diving is also part of the training required for being able to function in outer space where dealing with weightlessness, cold, and a mechanical breathing system are all part of the deal.

Nelson in full scuba diving gear - photo by Junie Quiroga
The nearest space object to Earth is the Moon and that's 384,000 kilometres away whereas the deepest point in our ocean is less than 11 kilometres, but the design challenges for getting to either location are equally extreme and produce equally strange looking vehicles. James Cameron (of Titanic and Avatar fame) built his own research submersible that recently took him to a solo record breaking depth of 35,787 feet to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point on earth. This is equal to the average height a commercial aircraft flies, but with the complete opposite problem in terms of pressure. At 35,000 feet under water the pressure is 16,500 (psi) pounds per square inch.

Eagle lunar landing module

Deepsea Challenger submarine
Ever since Titanic James Cameron has been exploring the ocean for his films and documentaries and the next Avatar movie is rumoured to be set on a watery planet.  But he isn't the only one interested in deep sea adventures with Richard Branson also financing a submarine capable of matching the exploits of the Deepsea Challenger with his Virgin Oceanic Deepflight Challenger.  While it may appear the ocean depths are only for the super rich in their Jules Verne machines nothing could be further from the truth and, in fact, the best part of the ocean for exploring is no deeper than 100 feet, well within the range of recreational scuba diving.

Virgin Oceanic Deepflight Challenger
In order to start exploring the ocean the first step for anyone is to get their scuba diving certification with a local dive shop offering courses through PADI or a similarly recognized agency. In the Vancouver area there are quite a few established shops to choose from and they all use the local shore dive sites at Whytecliff Park or Porteau Cove to get you familiar with your gear and water conditions as well as give you a taste of the life you can expect to encounter in the "Emerald Sea" as this area is known.  But to really appreciate what the Northwest coast has to offer you have to get out on a boat charter with experienced guides who can show you the sites that are truly exceptional.

Sea Dragon hosts Kevin & Jan Breckman
For Howe Sound nothing beats the Sea Dragon folks who have been running charters in these waters for years. Conveniently based out of Horseshoe Bay they can take you to an astonishing variety of colourful dive sites featuring underwater pinnacles, walls, and reefs for your two dives and still have you back at the dock in time to have a nice lunch and share stories with other divers over a pint or two.  They also have a boat based out of Nanaimo that can take you to the key dive sites in that area with shipwrecks of course being the primary attraction.

Nelson and a wall of white plumose - photo by Michael Mehta
Hornby Island Diving hosts Amanda & Rob Zielinski
For a different experience, only a short drive up from Nanaimo, you can check into the lodge at Hornby Island for a weekend of diving.  Here the fabulous diving is only rivalled by the great food and cozy accommodations that are provided. One of the original research stations for the elusive 6 gill sharks that started to appear there regularly each summer, they are perhaps even more famous now for their annual sea lion dives in winter.

Nelson & sea lions off Hornby Island
But if you really want to take a walk on the wild side then you have to go over to the west coast of Vancouver Island where the folks from Rendezvous will meet you at the dock at Port Alberni and whisk you away to their secret hideaway in Barkley Sound. In addition to fantastic food and accomodations with a stunning view you will experience a weekend of exceptional diving where everything is super sized, super colourful, and super natural. It's also the go to place in summer for 6 gill shark encounters, the holy grail of Pacific NorthWest divers.

Rendezvous Dive Lodge - photo by Junie Quiroga

Rendezvous hosts Peter & Kathy Mieras

Nelson & 6 gill shark in Barkley Sound - photo by Peter Mieras
So much to see and experience, and so many great dive sites here in B.C. and around the world, and it's all so accessible and within a normal person's budget. How can anyone ever get tired of pretty fish, colourful invertebrates, and playful marine mammals? As fun as it is to look up at the stars and speculate how we might someday be living 2,000 light years away, for now I'm happy to go out in my little dinghy wherever I happen to be boating and explore the 20,000 leagues under the sea outside my own back door.

Nelson going dinghy diving - photo by Junie Quiroga

Friday, September 26, 2014

Just Another Day

Vancouver Rowing Club - photo by Junie Quiroga
On the shores of Coal Harbour, with Stanley Park in the background, stands the clubhouse of the Vancouver Rowing Club, a 103 year old heritage jewel, though not quite as old as the actual club itself which has existed since 1886 when the City of Vancouver also came into being.  The Vancouver Rowing Club consists of four distinct sections; rowing, rugby, field hockey, and yachting, for which Crown Jewel and myself are eternally grateful. Far from being a stuffy, private club for only the privileged few, the VRC is open to anyone who wishes to join, even if only as a social member.

Crown Jewel in her slip at the VRC - photo by Junie Quiroga
There's another sub-group of the yachting section which doesn't pay any dues but feels quite entitled to make use of the docks for their own amusement and it includes otters, raccoons and seals.  For the most part they are well behaved, unlike other members who frequently have too much to drink at the Club's many social events, but then again if they happen to get into your boat it's a different story. All in all though the members of the different sections get along quite well with one another.

Seals on the VRC dock - photo by Junie Quiroga
At the end of summer each year the Club organizes a fun competition between the yachting, rugby and field hockey sections with the rowing section offering everyone a crash course in rowing, or "sweeping" as it is referred to since each person has both hands on only one oar. Getting the right rhythm of legs, arms, and back takes more than a little concentration and, when you combine that with trying to coordinate each stroke with seven other novices, the physical effort gets quite intense. It's all good fun though and, surprisingly, these fragile shells seem to keep their balance in the water with nobody ever getting wet.

2014 Yachting Section Team - photo by Joseph Blackburn
In the past the rowing section has produced some award winning medallists in both the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics.  Like any sport it requires many hours of dedication and commitment to be successful but there's something to be said for the grace and tranquillity it seems to offer once you get it right, and plenty of folks strolling the seawall watching the rowers practise are inspired to take advantage of the "Learn To Row" program offered by the Club. The VRC may yet produce another Olympian someday but, to old "Coach" who watches the daily antics of everyone trying to master the technique, it's just another day.

Coach - photo by Junie Quiroga

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1,2,3 Red Light

Red tide on Salish Sea - photo by Joseph Blackburn
For anyone looking out over the ocean this past month and wondering if there had been some kind of a mass slaughter taking place they wouldn't have been alone in their thinking.  A massive red tide that quite literally turns large patches of the ocean into the colour red seems to have been lingering all over Georgia Strait & Howe Sound, otherwise known as the Salish Sea, for most of July and it can probably be connected to the nice warm weather we've also been experiencing.  But rather than the ocean hemorraging blood it's actually an algae bloom caused by a species of marine plankton known as dinoflagellates.

These blooms happen when the reddish brown algae starts growing and accumulating too quickly in the water, and their sheer numbers produce a discolouration of the water. These algae blooms occur around the world for different reasons including; chemical run-off from agricultural activities, iron rich dust blowing off coastal deserts, and seasonal up-wellings of ocean currents which is what happens in our waters every summer, and in each case it means there are lots of nutrients for the algae to feast on. While on the one hand the presence of so many organisms can deplete the oxygen levels to the extent other creatures have to leave the area or die, these marine plankton are also an important source of food in the marine ecosystem. 

There are many different kinds of dinoflagellets but in our part of the world they are mainly either blue or red. The blue ones are harmless and produce the bio-luminescence you can see in the summer nights whenever the water is stirred up. (see link to previous blog post for more information

The red ones on the other hand produce a paralytic neuro-toxin known as saxitoxin that is inadvertently ingested by shellfish such as mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops.  Like all bivalve molluscs, they are filter feeders and, as they filter the ocean water for plankton and algae to eat, (in the case of oysters up to 5 litres per hour) the toxin is absorbed in the digestive process and remains in their bodies for several weeks. 

Typical bi-valve
While the saxitoxin doesn't harm the shellfish, it can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans if they eat shellfish that have this toxin still in their system. The toxin is water-insoluble, heat and acid-stable, and ordinary cooking methods do not eliminate it.  Some shellfish can store this toxin for several weeks after a harmful algal bloom passes, but others, such as butter clams, have been known to store the toxin for up to two years. 

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is one of four types of shellfish poisoning and is the most deadly. In mild cases of PSP there may be tingling or numbness around lips (spreading to face and neck), headache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea . In more extreme cases there could be muscular paralysis and respiratory difficulty, potentially resulting in death due to respiratory paralysis two to twenty four hours after ingestion. When you see red tide in the ocean think 1, 2, 3 red light before eating any shellfish.
Red tide in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga

Friday, August 8, 2014

Boys Of Summer

Waiting for the slide to open - photo by Junie Quiroga
Ever since Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn decided to take off on a raft down the Mississippi for pure fun and adventure boys have been drawn to floating things on the water.  Even when they grow up they can't seem to lose that feeling of freedom they get when they are out there breaking the rules of convention and getting wet. The lure of distant objects is even more inviting when it's early morning and nobody is really watching what's going on.

Bruce on his paddleboard - photo by Junie Quiroga
First stop is the Q41 navigational buoy which is there to advise boaters they need to be on the other side and away from shore where hidden rocks pose a hazard to their boats and their boats pose a hazard to the swimmers. The Q41 buoy is also a favourite resting place for the resident pair of bald eagles who use it as a place to keep an eye on things and have their brunch. The Q41 buoy is also where I like to swim to first thing in the morning to check out the currents and decide on my swimming route.

Nelson & Dennis on Q41 buoy - photo by Junie Quiroga
Next stop of course is the fireworks barge where, in spite of warning signs to stay clear, the temptation to climb up and check out what goes on behind the scenes is too much to resist. But the signs don't have any time of day restrictions printed on them and they even provided a handy ladder for climbing up so what's a boy to do?  Well there's only one thing more exciting than climbing up a barge and that's the thrill of jumping off it.

Dennis & Nelson on the fireworks barge - photos by Junie Quiroga

Even the seals were amused as they watched us from below and wished they could have climbed up themselves.  Nothing was disturbed, nobody got injured, and it was all good fun. Once again, for a little while, we could forget about being all grown up and having to go to work and just enjoy being a summer boy again.

Nelson swimming in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Angel In The Morning

Sand angels - photo by Junie Quiroga

The other morning as I passed the lifeguard chair in English Bay I noticed the Life Saving Society of BC & Yukon were engaged in a little publicity effort to highlight the need for folks to learn how to swim.  It's something they do every year as part of National Drowning Prevention Week.  To highlight this year's message 75 sand angels were being laid to rest on the beach, one for each person who drowned in B.C. waters last year.

Angels of the Water - photo by Junie Quiroga 

The Life Saving Society is the organization that has been training and certifying lifeguards for all public pools and beaches since 1911 (I got my National Lifeguard Service back in 1985) and they also offer a number of lifesaving and first aid courses.  But they wouldn't even need to exist if people just took swimming lessons, something the Red Cross has been offering for more than 60 years and who were the folks who taught me to swim and certify me as an instructor. There was no need for 75 people to drown in B.C. last year, it was all so preventable.

Learn To Swim 2011 "tombstones"

Every year they have a National Drowning Prevention Week that falls in the middle of summer when most people are near the water in either the ocean or a lake. In 2011 they put up 67 tombstones on the beach in English Bay to illustrate the number of people who drowned the previous year but unfortunately the trend is not improving. Many of these drownings were a result of boating accidents, again something that could easily have be prevented if the non-swimmers had simply worn a life-jacket.

Vancouver's first lifeguard Joe Fortes
With our proximity to the ocean it's no surprise that "learn to swim" programs have been around since Vancouver came into existence.  Having a lifeguard around is always nice but it's not really something you can always count on, especially if you go out early like I do. "An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure" the old saying goes, and if people would just take the time to learn to swim they would not only make their life safer but also a lot more enjoyable as it is such a pleasant form of exercise. No need to meet the angels in the morning any sooner than necessary.

Click on the link below to check out my earlier blog post "Swim Don't Walk" for more information.

Empty lifeguard chair & slide - photo by Junie Quiroga

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Rescue Me

As someone who spends part of every day swimming 2.5 km in the ocean (occasionally accompanied by seals) not to mention scuba diving and boating on most weekends, I have a tremendous interest in all things aquatic, particularly for those creatures who make it their home and I have the privilege to encounter. While I'm always fascinated with the colourful invertebrates and fish of the Pacific Northwest, there's nothing more stirring than being close to a marine mammal.  Warm blooded like ourselves, but still living in the ocean, their intelligence, grace in the water, and the way they interact with humans, seems to generate a special bond between us all.

Unlike cats & dogs and other domesticated animals who can count on the local branch of the SPCA to come to their rescue when they get in harm's way, or the Wildlife Rescue Association for wild animals and birds, there's only one rescue facility for the entire B.C. coastline to care for any injured seal, sea lion, dolphin, whale, or other marine animal, such as sea turtles, that may be in distress, and that's the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.  Founded in the late 1960's when a northern fur seal named Nippy, was brought to the attention of the Vancouver Aquarium after it was found tangled up in some fishing gear in Campbell River, and then later when an abandoned baby seal named Buster was brought to the back door, the Aquarium realized there was a need for a marine mammal rescue centre that could look after these delightful creatures.

As part of the Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre now rescues and rehabilitates an average of 100 sea animals a year with the vast majority of them being harbour seals but, over the years, they've also been involved in the rescue of humpback whales, elephant seals, sea otters, green sea turtles, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and killer whales. Some, like the humpback whale that came ashore in White Rock in 2012, were too badly injured to survive but, others have been great success stories like; Flash Gordon, the Stellar sea lion, who had fishing gear removed from his esophagus, Levi, the harbour porpoise, with a massive lung infection that became the first harbour porpoise ever to be released in Canada and, Springer, the orphaned killer whale, who was re-united with her pod and was recently spotted with her own newborn calf.

Humpback in White Rock

Flash Gordon being released
Levi being released

Springer in the wild

The "Med" Shed
Rehabilitation is the primary goal of the rescue centre, and one of the things that makes the program so rewarding is the incredibly high success rate they have with harbour seals. Showing up dehydrated, malnourished, and suffering from maternal separation, they are quickly given a full medical, cleaned up, and then put on a nutritious milk replacement diet with a 52% fat content made up of liquid fish oil and other ingredients to get them up to their optimum weight. Within a month or so they are eating whole fish and have learned how to hunt and catch live fish for themselves.  After taking an exam with the Department of Fisheries & Oceans, who makes the final decision to release them, they are given their release papers and off they go.

Titanium with his umbilical cord still attached

Seal being released
Harbour seal pups have a natural advantage over other sea mammals in that within a month or so of being born they quickly become accustomed to surviving in their natural environment. Dolphins and porpoises on the other hand take 6 months to a year to learn the necessary survival skills, and whales take even longer, up to a year or two. This of course makes it much easier to release harbour seals once they are in good health, whereas other young sea mammals face a very uncertain chance of survival if they have no parental instruction. In the case of Jack, the harbour porpoise who was only 5 weeks old when he was rescued, and Daisy another harbour porpoise youngster, the Department of Fisheries & Oceans determined they were non-releasable and so they are now living in the Aquarium as permanent guests, the only two harbour seals in captivity in North America.

Jack in rehab

Jack and Daisy
There are those who think the Rescue Centre is a front for supplying the Aquarium itself with animals to put on display but that's simply not the case. The mission of the Rescue Centre is to rehabilitate the injured creatures and then release them back in the wild. Only in extreme cases is an animal kept at the Aquarium and they, in turn, become a valuable tool for researchers who are always trying to better understand them. 

For example Tag, the beloved Stellar sea lion who lived in the Aquarium for 15 years after being rescued at the age of 2 weeks, participated in many studies over his lifetime so researchers could try and explore some of the theories that have been proposed to explain the decline of the Stellar sea lion population.  He also provided Dr. Martin Haulena with the opportunity to learn how to administer the right amount of anasthetic when treating sea lions. This in turn has led to ground breaking on-site rescue techniques that allow for the removal of fishing lines and other entanglements on sea lions by being able to administer the right amount of drug to the animal while it is hauled out on log booms or rocks and not have it drown.

Dr. Haulena and Vancouver Aquarium rescue team with an injured sea lion in Barkley Sound
Treating another injured sea lion in Fanny Bay

Each year there is a new naming convention for the seals brought into the Rescue Centre, one year it was types of candy, another celestial objects, and for 2014 it's the table of the elements. Giving each one a name helps personalize things and illustrate that every animal is unique and deserving of our love and attention. As heart-breaking as some of the rescue stories are it's even more heart-warming to witness the success stories the Rescue Centre can point to. On their website they have an amazing blog filled with videos and photos documenting their ongoing efforts.

Clean up
The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is a unique institution in the Pacific Northwest, with no comparable facilities in either Washington State or Alaska. While a certain percentage of the work done at the Rescue Centre is done by dedicated staff and veterinarians, there is a huge volunteer component of donated time that keeps the facility going.  Every day the animals have to be closely monitored, cleaned, exercised and of course fed. The Rescue Centre is a very expensive operation to maintain and it's in constant need of donations and support. Fortunately there are a number of organizations who recognize the contribution being made, and a special thanks goes out to Harbour Air and Pacific Coastal for providing free transport service whenever they are called upon to assist.

Preparing dinner
Injured Wally
While the Rescue Centre generates considerable publicity for its efforts, none has captured the hearts of so many as the recent rescue of Wally the sea otter.  Picked up off the beach in Tofino after suffering from shotgun wounds that had left him blinded, as well as shattering the bones in one of his flippers which had to be partially amputated, and leaving him with numerous broken teeth that also had to be removed in addition to enduring a root canal, Wally has since made a remarkable recovery and is now safe and being lovingly cared for in his permanent home at the Aquarium.

Wally at peace
Obviously non-releasable, Wally now serves as an ambassador for a species that was once hunted to extinction. Wally is another example of how one rescued animal can help us develop a better understanding of our environment and the interconnectedness of all things.  Sea otters are now recognized as a critical component in maintaining the health of our kelp forest ecosystems because they eat the voracious sea urchins that would otherwise destroy this natural sanctuary for all sorts of fish, invertebrates, and other marine creatures that depend on it for their survival. Traumatized, sometimes scarred for life, but nonetheless grateful, I'm sure, for the help they receive, you can't help but feel good inside for being part of an organization devoted to assisting our fellow aquatic citizens when they say, "Rescue Me."

For more information and to donate, please check out the following link;

Manager Lindsaye Akhurst in front of the big tank