Tuesday, February 7, 2012

See Me Want Me Feel Me But Don't Touch Me

Besides the seals there is another animal that occasionally shares the ocean with me when I go for my morning swim and that's the otter.  There are two types of otters native to B.C waters, the river otter and the sea otter and, though they are both part of the weasel family, they are two distinct species.  And it isn't the sea otter I ever encounter but rather the river otter.
River Otter

While they look similar from a distance it's easy to recognize the difference between them. The river otter is very sleek, weighs between 10-30 pounds and has a long tail.  The sea otter on the other hand is a lot chubbier, weighing between 30-100 pounds, and has a short tail.  A river otter is at home on either land or in the water and can be seen scampering along the shoreline.  Sea otters on the other hand are always in the water and usually lying together in rafts.

Sea Otter
Sea otters once ranged in the hundreds of thousands along the northern Pacific ocean from Mexico to Alaska and along the coastline of Russia and Japan, but they were hunted to practically extinction by 1911 for their luxurious fur, the thickest of any mammal.  Only after an international hunting ban, combined with extensive conservation efforts, have the creatures started to make a comeback but in B.C. they can only be found on the west coast of Vancouver Island and on the mainland around Bella Bella.

Sea otter raft
River otters are occasionally hunted for their fur as well, but their greater range of habitat on land and water and the fact they live in dens makes it easier for them to survive.  Also their fur isn't as prized.  Perhaps this better position they find themselves in, compared to their cousins, accounts for their well known playful behaviour.  Whenever I see one they are usually in a family group that appears to be on some sort of happy expedition, noisily chirping and chuckling to one another as they swim and scurry about. 

River otter family
While the sea otter is famous for being the only animal other than primates to use a tool (breaking molluscs with a rock), the river otter is equally monkey like in its ability to climb up practically anything, particularly docks.  Boaters are especially aware of otters around marinas and need to always ensure they keep their doors closed when they aren't on board because there is nothing a curious river otter likes more than the opportunity to rummage around inside a cozy boat.  And the mess they make in the process is not something you want to clean up after.

Nyac the Sea otter

On the other hand as humans we have made some fairly nasty messes ourselves, not the least being oil spills which are particularly devastating to both species.  Nyac was one of the lucky ones rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and lived in the Vancouver Aquarium for nearly 20 years afterwards.   She became a goodwill ambassador and poster child for the sea otters who we now realize form a very important link as a keystone species in the ecosystem.  Sea otters are vital to keeping the sea urchin population under control in the kelp forests.

No name River otter
So whether you find yourself swimming in a kelp forest or wandering along the seashore one day, and happen to spot an otter, take a moment to see how much they enjoy the simple things in life.  However, as much as you might like to reach out and pet one of these cuddly and adorable looking creatures you can be sure it won't happen.  They never let anyone get too close, and for good reason it would appear, after all we have done to them.  Whether it's a sea otter or a river otter it's all look but don't touch and that's okay.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Good Libations

This February, after nearly a year and a half of construction plagued by delays, re-designs and regulatory hurdles, the new Cactus Club opened on English Bay.  Rumoured to cost over 7 million dollars, the 5,400 square foot facility (counting the patio) is a beautiful combination of wood, glass, tile and west coast modernism.  Situated in a stunning location in the heart of the West End, where Denman Street intersects Beach Avenue, it replaces the 3rd rate hot dog stand run by the Vancouver Parks Board for as long as anyone can remember.

Cactus Club at English Bay photo by Junie Quiroga
That the Parks Board has been able to cling to an antiquated policy of wretched buildings and food that do nothing to showcase the waterfront area and cash in on all the tourists and locals alike who would appreciate a decent meal accompanied by a magnificent view, is something only a city, as boring and held hostage to special interest groups as Vancouver, could perpetuate for so many years.  But the winds of change are slowly blowing away the old ways of thinking and some of the prime real estate along parts of the 22 km. seawall are finally being allowed to open up to private enterprise.

Old English Bay concession stand
It started in Kitsilano a few years ago when a deal was made to allow a restaurant to open on top of a new life guard station and public washroom, in exchange for 6.5% of gross sales.  The folks behind the Watermark, (which in 2010 was changed to the Boathouse) signed a 20 year lease with the Parks Board after a lengthy fight with with people opposed to private enterprise on public lands, folks opposed to the building's design, and other folks who plainly refused to acknowledge the benefit of a no cost upgrade to the disgusting public washrooms with this new restaurant.  In the first 5 months of 2005 the Parks Board collected more in rent  from the Watermark than they did on average for a year at any of the other restaurants leasing Parks Board property.

Boathouse at Kitsilano photo by Junie Quiroga
The success of this venture led to a "Concession Strategy Study" that quickly identified English Bay as the next place to secure a long term lease with a restaurateur and, in 2010, the Parks Board signed a 30 year deal with the Cactus Club for $240,000.00 per year plus 4% of any sales over $4 million. Considering that each of the 16 seasonal hot dog stands the Parks Board operates yield on average only $50,000.00 in net income, this is great news for Vancouver taxpayers who are on the hook for the $100 million dollar annual Parks Board budget and the $1.6 million dollar deficit it rang up in 2010.

Spanish Banks

At the other year round facilities on Parks Board property that it designates as cafe/bistro fine dining, it collects on average each year $100,000.00 per restaurant.  These facilities include The Shaughnessy in the VanDusen Gardens, the Stanley Park Bar & Grill, The Teahouse, the Prospect Point Cafe, and the Fish House in Stanley Park, Seasons In The Park in Queen Elizabeth Park and the Mill Marine Bistro on Harbour Green Park in Coal Harbour.  Each of these restaurants are privately run and they pay good rent but, it would appear there's a big difference between those who are on the waterfront and those who aren't.

Mill Marine Bistro
In 2003 the Mill Marine Bistro opened on the Coal Harbour section of the seawall with a lot less fuss, presumably because it wasn't on the beach.  However, with the success of the Kitsilano and English Bay conversions, can Spanish Banks, Locarno, Jericho or Sunset Beach be far behind?  With 22 km. of seawall surely there has to be room for more than just 3 restaurants?

Sunset Beach
One only has to visit nearby White Rock and see all the restaurants along the beach to recognize how lively a dining scene can be with an ocean backdrop.  Journey across the line and the number of places to eat along the Seattle and Tacoma waterfront staggers the imagination.  Go to any tourist area in the world and the beaches are filled with colourful walk up bars and bistros. Meanwhile back in Vancouver the guardians of the waterfront are determined to keep the hordes at bay and deny them anything except a view.

White Rock

Yes unspoiled park land is a beautiful thing and so is a decent hot dog but, lost in the rhetoric about public parks and cheap hot dogs, who is paying for all this?  Also why should a hot dog be the only food offered and why can't a person get something alcoholic to drink with their meal?  For that matter what's wrong with eating and drinking inside considering it occasionally rains in this fair city?

English Bay
The new Cactus Club is offering the best of all worlds to a very hard to please population.  The owners have built a beautiful building for dining in comfort (inside or out), they will pay handsomely for the privilege of operating on the beach, and they have agreed to offer up inexpensive hot dogs to the passing public.  Let's hope the Parks Board stays on its new course and continues to open up the waterfront in selective fashion for those of us seeking good libations.

Nelson Quiroga