Sunday, July 22, 2012

Come Together

Harbour Seal

With the ocean warming up a little in summer I find myself occasionally sharing the waters of English Bay with a few other swimmers who have also discovered the pleasures of swimming in the natural environment.  If our paths cross and we stop to chat this will often attract a curious seal or two who like to pop up from the depths and listen to the conversation.  Usually only showing their head and gorgeous eyes, these shy, little messengers of Neptune (or "Neptune's eyes" as they are referred to by the artist and sculptor, Debra Bevaart) haven't got a threatening bone in their body.

Neptune's Eyes sculptures by Debra Bevaart
Non possessive in every sense, they share fishing territory and haulouts with other seals, change mating partners every year. and are quite content to cautiously interact with groups of swimmers or divers whenever they have an encounter.  Fishermen of course are another story, and the seals are quite happy to deprive them of their catch without any qualms or consideration for their trolling efforts. I suppose it's also hard to say thank you when your mouth is full of fish.

Harbour seal with a salmon
This uneasy relationship between fishermen and seals has been going on for a long time, with the fishermen trying unsuccessfully to bring back a cull of the seals (which ended in 1970 when there were only an estimated 10,000 seals left) who they see as competitors for what they perceive to be an ever shrinking supply of fish.  Without getting into a debate over the rights of one group or another to wipe out the fishery, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the Harbour seal population has made a comeback and continues to increase every year with 125,000 being the latest population estimate.  What nobody seems to understand is the seal population couldn't get that large if there wasn't plenty of fish for them to eat.

Dall's porpoise photo by Junie Quiroga
While Harbour seals love a good salmon dinner as much as the next person, various rockfish, herring, and hake make up the bulk of their diet. Herring and hake is also a favourite fish of the Dall's porpoise, a high speed cetacean if there ever was one, and one that likes to ride the bow wave of your boat if you are lucky enough to encounter one.  International attention was brought to the Dall's porpoise when it was revealed that thousands of them were being caught in salmon fishing nets and accidentally killed.  In spite of this and the fact the Japanese are licensed to kill 16,000 of them annually, they are not yet considered an endangered species.

Dall's porpoise photo by Junie Quiroga
On the other hand there is another herring lover which is a threatened species, and that's the Steller sea lion which mostly lives and breeds further north but can be found in the waters of Georgia Strait, particularly in herring season when they flock to one of their favourite haul-outs off of Hornby Island and frolic with scuba divers.  The overfishing of herring in the past, particularly for their roe or eggs which are a delicacy in Japan, caused the Pacific herring fishery to partially collapse in the 1960's and then again completely in 1993.  How the Fisheries Department could allow such a vital link in the food chain, for not only the marine animals but also birds and of course salmon, to fall apart is almost unbelievable until one looks at what happened to the Atlantic fishery and the West Coast salmon fishery to realize how systemic this type of thinking is in our country.

Steller sea lions and Nelson Quiroga at Hornby Island

The good news though is that herring stocks are slowly rebuilding which, in turn, is allowing the populations of Harbour seals and Dall's porpoises to increase, and is also thought to be responsible for the return of the occasional Humpback whale in these waters and a group of Pacific white-sided dolphins who have been making numerous appearances in Howe Sound and on either side of Georgia Strait.  Instead of considering  these creatures as competitors they should be viewed as indicators of things finally going right for a change.  Let's see how long the Fisheries folks can resist the pressures of the commercial fishery to destroy things again.

Transient killer whale photo by Junie Quiroga
Another thing people tend to forget is that Nature will keep things in balance all on its own.  With an abundance of seals and other marine mammals in the area yet another cetacean has made an appearance lately, and that is the Transient killer whale.  Unlike the Resident killer whales which have evolved to eat only salmon, this Orca species does not eat fish and only eats seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and other whales. They too have made a significant comeback from only 50 in the 1970's to over 250 of them identified as now plying the waters between Washington and Alaska including of course Georgia Strait.

Transient killer whales photo by Junie Quiroga

We were fortunate enough to be one of the first boaters to recently come across a small pod of Transient killer whales off of 3rd Beach who eventually scooped up one of the Harbour seals and then went on their way.  A bit of a happier story for a Harbour seal in Nanaimo around the same time who made an emergency escape onto the swim grid of a sports fisherman who spirited him away from the killer whale pod.  With a ban on the fishing of herring, the seals make a comeback, as do the killer whales, and then a fisherman saves a seal.  Strange how it all comes together.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Laughing or Make Me Smile

A-Maze-ing Laughter Sculpture

Adjacent to the beach at English Bay is a little patch of green known as Morton Park Triangle that, over the years, has become a premier location for hosting public art exhibits.  It started in 1998 when Buschlen Mowatt Galleries and the Vancouver Parks Board started a bi-annual/Biennale sculpture exhibition of international artists with pieces of public art strategically placed along various walkways, parks and beaches.  At any time folks could walk around the sculptures, touch them, and take pictures, and it was all free.

Everyone had their favourite sculpture, but there has never been a sculpture as popular as the A-Maze-ing Laughter collection of huge, bronze figures set up in the Morton Park Triangle. Each of the 14 happy bronze-cast males is 8.5 feet tall and weighs 551 pounds. For whatever reason these grinning statues, depicting the artist's face, have captured the public imagination and, throughout the day, children and adults can be seen climbing on the statues, posing for photos and trying to mimic the poses.

A-Maze-ing Laughter & Ella Kinnear photo by Junie Quiroga

It isn't just people wanting to get their photo taken, it seems there are others who want to contribute some of their own artistic flair to the exhibit, a tribute as it were to the creator.  One example being the Christmas morning decorations that mysteriously appeared and then just as mysteriously vanished.  Might even have been Santa himself making a guest appearance.

A-Maze-ing Laughter Xmas photo by Junie Quiroga
Recently there was the boating safety awareness campaign that outfitted all the happy chaps with their own life jackets and, as this type of guerrilla marketing catches on, I can only imagine some of the other costumes that will start to appear.  It's all a bit ironic when one considers the creations of the artist, Yue Minjun, a leader in the Chinese artistic movement known as Cynical Realism, are in response to the suppression of freedom following the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.  Even though we live in a land of complete political and artistic freedom, there's something about these sculptures that draws us into their happy embrace.

A-Maze-ing Laughter Boat Safety Awareness photo by Junie Quiroga

Like all the other artwork on display, the A-Maze-ing Laughter sculpture was only meant to be a temporary exhibit until it could be auctioned off.  However, because of its popularity, a proposal was made to keep it in Vancouver for at least 20 years and Yue Minjun agreed to drop the price of the piece from $5 million to $1.5 million.  Two donors were found who were willing to buy the work at the reduced price, but only if the sculptures were given a long-term home on the site by English Bay.  A deal was made with the Parks Board and now A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver's most photographed art exhibit has a permanent home.  If there's one universal emotion that brings us all together it's laughter, and it's amazing indeed what a little laughter can do.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bridge Over Troubled Water

There seems to be a lot of hysteria over the two proposed pipeline options for carrying oil from the tar sands of Alberta to tankers in either Vancouver in the south or Kitimat in the north, that strikes me as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) at its worst or hypocrisy at its best. With car choked freeways and new bridges being built to accommodate suburban sprawl, and no attempt being made to reduce automobile use, it's quite obvious how dependent we are on the automobile economy in spite of our feigned objection to the main ingredient they run on.  And electric cars and trucks won't make any difference either because when you charge them up at night the power grid will still have to run on something, whether it's hydroelectric, nuclear, or some flavour of fossil fuel (coal, gas, or oil). 

One way of reducing automobile use might be licensing fees. Compare automobile licensing and registration fees in Copenhagen & Singapore where you pay a minimum of 100% of the car's value as an annual registration tax and, in the case of Singapore, you must also bid for a certificate of entitlement on an open auction as part of the country's strictly regulated vehicle quota system.  Shanghai has a similar system with a monthly quota on new license plates being sold at auction with the average price being over $10,000.00 and Hong Kong charges an average of $1,500 per year for licensing fees.

Singapore traffic

Of course no politician in this country would risk any change to the status quo so, reduced automobile use is not something likely to occur in the near term smoggy horizon but, we can continue to smugly point our fingers at people elsewhere who also need oil.  If the main objection is an oil leak occurring in the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait) or somewhere off the coast of Haida Gwaii, then perhaps all we need to do is look at the problem a little differently and put the pipeline terminus somewhere else.

Given the treacherous nature of Hecate Strait outside of Prince Rupert and the tricky navigation of Douglas Channel that also leads to Hecate Strait from Kitimat, it's easy to see why folks are worried about oil supertankers in these waters.  Vancouver, however, is a different story with the only oil spill  we've had being caused by a backhoe doing some routine municipal work and inadvertently puncturing a pipeline in the process.  There has never been an oil tanker spill (in spite of one leaving every 3 days) because every oil tanker leaving Vancouver has 3 tug boats attached to it until it safely reaches open water.  Nonetheless Vancouverites aren't going to allow themselves to be the perceived sacrificial lamb in order to save the fragile North so basically we have a stand-off in spite of the federal government's determination to push through the pipeline.

Oil tanker passing under 2nd Narrows Bridge
Oil tanker loading up in Burnaby photo by Junie Quiroga

If the oil pipeline terminus was located in Victoria or Port Alberni, both well established deep water ports more than capable of handling oil tankers, the problem would immediately shift to the west coast of Vancouver Island which has only open sea between it and mainland China, or anywhere else in the Far East for that matter.  While it's true that an oil tanker spill in the Port Alberni Inlet would be devastating for the pristine Broken Island group, it's also true the inlet, or canal as it is often referred to, is very straight, easily navigable and quite safe to transit.  Combined with some tugboat support and the already mandatory marine pilot service, it's unlikely there would ever be a problem.  The same could be said for ships leaving Victoria once they had cleared Juan de Fuca Strait.

The problem now becomes one of getting the pipeline built to either Victoria or Port Alberni and here is where a little imagination might be useful.  While the distance from Vancouver to either city is less than 60 miles in a straight line, nearly half of it would need to be underwater, and an underwater pipeline would probably not be an option given the potential risk of rupture and the difficulty in servicing something operating in depths ranging from 500 - 1,500 feet.  But a pipeline attached to the underside of a bridge is a completely different option. and one that could potentially kill two birds with one stone.
Proposed bridge crossing routes

Getting a bridge built from Vancouver to Vancouver Island has been a dream of many British Columbians ever since the province came into existence.  While the necessary engineering is complex, unproven, and costly, it isn't impossible and the timing couldn't be better for getting it built at Alberta's expense.  A bridge that would finally connect Vancouver Island to the mainland while at the same time facilitating the transport of oil to a safer port is indeed a bridge over troubled waters and something we might wish to now seriously  consider.

Proposed floating bridge design