Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gasoline Alley

Once upon a time if you looked into Coal Harbour, so named because of the low grade coal seams (first spotted by Captain Vancouver) that were visible along the banks of what is now Hastings Street, you would see at least 3 floating marine fuel stations tethered to their pilings, bright signage clearly on display, and cheerfully promoting the Chevron, Esso and Shell oil brand names.  While coal may continue to be the principle source of fuel for generating the world's electricity and heat, the world's transportation industry still depends on various petroleum products to power its trains, planes, automobiles and ships.  And with Vancouver being a port city it seemed to make sense that a water based system of refueling would be available to both commercial ships and recreational boaters.

Chevron & Esso fuel barges

Since the 1960's there seemed to have been a vibrant, competitive business going on until Shell dropped out and it was just Esso and Chevron.  Then in the summer of 2008 Esso announced it was getting out of the marine fuel business completely and was shutting down all of its stations along the coast including the floating one in Coal Harbour and another one in False Creek.  In spite of an ever growing number of pleasure boaters, fuel sales continue to drop and they claimed there just wasn't enough profit in the business anymore.  Hard to believe when I happen to own a power boat myself and nearly have a heart attack everytime I have to fill up thanks to my 2 miles per gallon fuel economy, and that's only doing 10 knots.  If I went any faster it would be even worse, but I guess that's exactly the point.  With the price of fuel continuing to rise power boaters are just not out there cruising like they used to, and most of the boats are staying tied up at the dock.

Futuristic design for a solar powered  bulk carrier
Unfortunately boats aren't very fuel efficient inventions, at least at first blush when you think about a freighter getting only 23 feet to the gallon.  But when you factor in how much cargo one of these ships can carry as compared to say an equivalent number of trucks or railcars, then the math gets much more interesting with ships twice as efficient as trains and 10 times more efficient than trucks.  However, a typical bulk carrier still goes through approximately 9,000 gallons of fuel a day so, regardless of how efficient these freighters are, you can understand why designers would want to experiment with things like solar power and other ways of reducing fuel consumption. Unfortunately none of this matters to the floating fuel stations because, while they would like to fill up the tank of a freighter, these ships only burn bunker oil, not gas or diesel, so they're out of luck. Ditto for the cruiseships. 

Futuristic design for a solar powered carrier
Another problem facing floating marine fuel stations of course is the ever changing environmental concerns and safety requirements.  Keeping an operating permit depends on all sorts of inspections and compliancy with various levels of government.  In January 2010 a brand new, state of the art, double hulled fuel barge with special design features to contain any rain water and oil contamination, was towed into Coal Harbour and set up to replace the old one that had been in place since 1959.  With storage capacity for 42,000 gallons of gas and 339,000 gallons of diesel, local pleasure boaters can be assured of a reliable supply of fuel for the forseeable future.

Chevron Fuel Barge photo by Junie Quiroga
But it's not the pleasure boaters this new fuel station is catering to, it's the tug boats.  Even the smallest one has a 50,000 gallon tank and the big one featured at the back of the barge in the picture above has a 225,000 gallon tank.  With the maximum output of the pumps around 13,000 gallons an hour it can take a deckhand an entire 8 hour shift to fuel up and that's only if the tank is half empty.  I guess I shouldn't feel so bad about the fuel I burn in comparison.  Gasoline alley may be down to just one operator now but it still moves more petroleum based fuel than any of the wildest estimates anyone ever expected when they first discovered coal.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Will I See You In December?

Swimming in the ocean every morning is always a different experience, and whether it's the tides and current, the weather, or the creatures I encounter, no two days are ever the same.  I have never kept track of every beautiful sunrise or calm ocean swim but I have tried to track every day I've had an encounter with a seal and, over the years, this has yielded a fairly consistent pattern.  I say try because, while seals appear to be curious and usually make themselves visible, they are also cautious and can be deliberately shy or coy about their presence.

Harbour Seal
While there are 19 different species of seals within the family Phocidae, also referred to as "true seals" or "earless seals" the one most common to the Vancouver area is the Harbour seal.  Generally staying within a 20 kilometer range, they're an easy going non-territorial bunch, appearing to share haulout spots, foraging for fish and crustaceans in a common area, and even swapping mates amongst themselves from one year to the next.  Pups are born from between June and September, followed by everyone having their annual moulting, and then in late fall it's back to mating season. 

This all ties in quite nicely with my own logbook, which shows the seals are less likely to make contact in the summer, when presumably they are off having their babies and suntanning in more protected locations, and then returning in December to check out the mating action.  Sometimes it even seems I'm being considered as a potential candidate because they come very close by, often swimming right underneath me, while batting their eyelashes and making splashes.  Only trouble is I don't know if they think I'm male or female, and I can't really tell what they are either.

Stellar Sea Lions
The seal superfamily known as Pinnipedia contains 3 distinct groups of sea mammals.  The Phocidae already mentioned, the Odobenidae otherwise known as the walrus, and the Otariidae or "eared seals" which are the sea lions. Of the 16 different species, the California sea lion and the Stellar sea lion are the ones found cruising our local waters.  Besides the fact that one group has ears and the other doesn't, there are some other striking differences that make it easy to tell the difference between seals and sea lions.

The most obvious difference of course is size, with the Harbour seals weighing in at between 120-370 pounds and the Stellar sea lions between 1300-2500 pounds.  On the other hand a male Elephant seal can easily get up to 5,000 pounds (even though the females are only around 1,400 pounds) so seals can be just as big.  But the most distinguishing feature is their flippers.  The two back flippers on a seal form a tail like structure that aids them in being very efficient in water but very awkward on land and their front flippers are quite small.  The sea lion on the other hand has very large, powerful front flippers, that are its primary source of propulsion, and its rear flippers can turn forward so it can move on all fours quite easily on land.

There is another big difference between the Harbour seals and the Stellar or California sea lions and that is the distance they will go to forage for food.  Harbour seals live in the same place year round taking advantage of whatever seasonally abundant prey happens to be in the neighbourhood while sea lions are quite prepared to go on long swim-abouts if the eating is good.  So every winter, when the Pacific Herring make their way to selected spawing locations on the West Coast, the sea lions are waiting for them at haulouts along the way. 

One of these haulouts is just off Hornby Island where, starting in December, the males from California head north and the Stellar males from Alaska head south, (leaving the women and children behind at the home rookeries) to congregate for a big bachelor party and herring feast.  This is a popular spot for scuba divers to interact with these friendly beasts, who act like playful dogs, and want nothing more than a little diversion, while they wait for the herring to arrive.  Occasionally these sea lions take a detour to check out the sights and sounds around the Vancouver area as well and last weekend I found myself playing with one on a dive off Whytecliff Park.   

Sea Lions & Nelson at Hornby Island

And that's another difference between seals and sea lions.  Seals will come up close to check you out whether you are swimming or scuba diving but they won't play or interact on anything close to the level of a sea lion.  It's said that sea lions have the intelligence of a dolphin and it appears they can be quite easily trained to do a variety of tasks that range from performances in public Aquariums to guard duty at Naval stations.

Nonetheless, between the seals showing up for the start of mating season and the sea lions getting ready for their annual bachelor party I always look forward to seeing my aquatic companions in December and every encounter is always special.