Monday, December 2, 2013

Will It Go Round In Circles?

Early West Coast First Nations fishermen
In an earlier post I wrote about the how salmon consume to live as opposed to humans who live to consume, and this in turn prompted me to reflect for a moment on the history of our development. We started out as a species of hunter gatherers where we did in fact consume to live, and gradually we became a collection of agricultural societies able to domesticate plants & animals to produce all the food we needed and trade the excess. Then, with the industrial revolution, new sources of power and processes transformed transportation, manufacturing, farming, and science in such a profound way that we can't even imagine what it must have been like to live before, and consumption for its own sake now became our reason for living.

It wasn't until until the 18th century industrial age, that the pace of human development really started to take off. The agricultural revolution started 12,000 years ago and lasted with very little fundamental change until large scale factories appeared and people began migrating from the farms and fields to the big cities.  In less than 200 years this has taken us from the horse & buggy to outer space with electricity, kitchen appliances, the automobile, telephones, TV, airplanes, modern medicine, and everything else, including the Beatles, falling somewhere in between.

While there's no question all these new inventions, ideas, and methods have raised the standard of living and life expectancy of the vast majority of the human population, it has also come at a cost to our environment, particularly the oceans, where millions of gallons of industrial waste, fertilizer run-off, and sewage are discharged every year, along with an estimated 6 million tons of debris. 80% of this marine debris is plastic, everything from bags & bottles to shoes & toys and, because for the most part it doesn't bio-degrade, it continues to accumulate along the coastlines and in the centre of converging ocean currents known as gyres. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch just north of Hawaii is one example, and it's estimated to contain 3 million tons of plastic in an area twice the size of Texas.

Marine debris on the Hawaiian coast
Unlike organic debris which bio-degrades, plastic only disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces until it becomes too small to be seen.  Nonetheless it's still there, and testing now shows it outnumbers marine plankton 6:1 with an estimated 6 pounds of plastic per cubic metre of seawater as opposed to 1 pound of plankton in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  These plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, eventually killing them because they can't be digested  and, once they are consumed by fish, they also enter the entire food chain. Plastic bags which look like edible jellyfish to turtles and plastic 6 pack holders are particularly nasty. 

The more we consume the more waste we produce and how long the ocean can continue to absorb all this trash is a topic being debated by scientists and lawmakers, but what doesn't seem to be debated is the need for all this waste in the first place.  We have now reached a stage in our development where the economy is everything and it depends on goods being produced and consumed.  It's not good enough for everyone to have a computer and a wide screen TV, a closet full of clothes, a kitchen overflowing with dish-ware and appliances, and of course a car; they need to be constantly replaced; and enough is never enough.  If consumer spending declines then companies go out of business and people lose their jobs.

We've come a long way from having to worry about where the next meal is coming from and no one is suggesting we need to go backwards, especially when so many people in other parts of the world are still struggling to catch up with the more developed world, but perhaps there's a need for a new perspective on our world economy. For example, why can't production be shifted to areas that are more in need of the goods, and reverse rewards put in place for not consuming. Some of these reverse rewards could include higher interest rates for saving money instead of spending it and higher consumption taxes when you do. Instead of trying to encourage people to have more babies, (which the world does not need), promote more immigration from the disadvantaged countries. Rather than worrying about everyone working 40 hours a week we could instead institute a shorter work week and make unemployment a desired state by rewarding involvement in the arts, community service, and various recreational fields. We could put a special tax on pre-packaged food that would encourage people to start cooking from scratch again and, most of all, we could make disposable products more expensive than ones that last longer.

In spite of all the advances we've made in food, clothing, and shelter, we're working harder than ever to support our basic consumption habits. Long commutes in more than one car, so we can have a bigger house than we need out in the suburbs, long hours at work to pay for everything our families demand, and little time to relax. Why do we feel so compelled to keep buying and spending beyond our means and actual needs and put ourselves in debt?  Why are we so dissatisfied with what we already have? What happened to the leisure time in our lives and simpler ways of enjoying life? We need to get away from living to consume, with its careless attitude towards the waste it produces, and find ways of enjoying life a different way. For those who wonder where the money will come to fund the inevitable unemployment benefits and pensions I would suggest asking the top 5% of the population, who already have more than 70% of all the wealth, to pay up. These people and their families can't hope to spend even the interest on their money over the course of their lifetime, or for many generations thereafter, so a modest tax of say 10% on all cash & assets over a $1 million, like Cyprus recently implemented, would pay for a lot of social services and government debt.
With most of the world's wealth residing in the developed world where, not surprisingly, most of the ocean debris is created, it would seem a reduction in consumption would not only have a significant impact on the amount of garbage being produced, it could also have a huge effect on bringing about more of a global economic balance. We will always need to consume things, but we also need to start thinking more intelligently about our consumption needs.  Perhaps with technology, our latest revolution, this may come to pass though unfortunately "data mining" the latest trend, is nothing more than another way of trying to sell us more stuff we don't need. Success in finding a way of resolving this issue means preserving our ocean's health, and failure means watching the garbage continue going round in circles.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Strangers In The Night

One of the advantages of shorter daylight hours in autumn is that I get to go for my morning swim in the dark. Now, while that may sound a little strange and scary, there are a couple of mitigating factors that make night swimming particularly beautiful. The first, particularly if the sky is clear, is having a little moonlight to guide you on the way.  At this time of year the moon is always overhead in the early morning hours and there's nothing more beautiful than a pathway of silver light over the ocean, even if you only have a seal to share the experience with.

Moon over English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
The other, perhaps even more interesting occurrence is the sparkling light that suddenly appears in the ocean itself as soon as you dip your hand in the water and a milky way of microscopic stars suddenly appears. What I'm referring to of course is a phenomena known as bio-luminescence, something made famous in the movie "Life of Pi".  Bioluminescence is a brief blue flash emitted by a type of marine plankton, known as dinoflagellates, when they are disturbed.

Microscopic photos of dinoflagellates
These dinoflagellates bloom in concentrations by the millions and, for the most part are quite harmless. However, at certain times of the year, particularly in the summer when nutrients are especially abundant, they reproduce in such a rapid fashion they become toxic and the ocean turns a reddish brown colour which is known as "red tide". The toxins they produce accumulate in shellfish and can be fatal to humans who eat them which is the reason there are often shellfish closures on the coast.

Red tide at midnight

In spite of being responsible for "red tide" most dinoflagellates are quietly nibbling on smaller algae and photosynthesizing during the day and only turn on their lights at night as a protective mechanism. The theory is similar to that of deterring a burglar when one enters your home and the lights go on to scare him/her off. In the case of the "dinos" the light not only exposes the predator, it makes them visible to other fish who might be looking for a meal. Very clever when you haven't got much else to defend yourself with, and it's all thanks to an enzyme called "luciferin".

Fortunately for the "dinos" I'm not interested in eating any of them, and fortunately for me there isn't anything out there interested in eating me either when the lights go on.  Occasionally I see a fish or a seal swim by bathed in blue/green light and it just makes me realize how magical the ocean really is. Photographs others have managed to take also demonstrate the beautiful effect such a small creature can have on such a vast area. So between the moon and stars above and the bioluminescence below I've got all the light I need and I'm quite happy to be swimming with these strangers in the night.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Long And Winding Road

Returning Sockeye salmon 
Once again this year all the players in the salmon fishing industry were up in arms, pointing fingers, and trying to blame one another for the non-existent sockeye salmon run.  It wasn't until the pink salmon showed up in such overwhelming numbers that everyone finally quietened down and focused on hauling in their fair share while grumbling about the price. Meanwhile behind the scenes environmentalists, Fisheries officials, scientists, commercial & recreational fishing interests, not to mention fish farm operators and First Nations groups continue to push their own agendas regardless of the facts.

Harbour seal with bullet wound
One of the first casualties of the truth is of course the harbour seal.  For some reason fishermen think the seal population threatens the fish population and are competing with them for the salmon.  On the East coast massive seal culling has been justified on the same false logic and, while on the West coast hunting seals is not allowed, there are still those fishermen who take things in their own hands when they think nobody is watching.  Seals who have been shot eventually wash up on local beaches providing grisly evidence of people's ignorance. Simply put, if the seals ate all the fish they would soon starve to death themselves but, if there's a growing seal population, clearly there are plenty of fish to go around.  Nature, unlike Mankind, always has a way of keeping things in balance and seals also have predators, including of course transient killer whales.

There are 5 principal species of Pacific salmon and, while each one has its own distinct characteristics, they have a common life cycle that sets them apart from nearly every other animal on the planet.  Indeed there is something about their clarity of purpose and purity, in spite of everything we've done to ruin their habitat and fish them to near extinction, that makes them the poster child for making this world right again.  Instead of finger pointing we all need to stop for a moment and examine the salmon life cycle a little more closely.

Without getting into the debate about which came first, the salmon or the egg, salmon eggs are laid and hatched in the hundreds of fresh water rivers and streams along the West Coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, often hundreds of miles upstream from the ocean. The juveniles stay in the fresh water for a year or so and then swim hundreds of miles into the open ocean where they spend the rest of their lives fattening up (1-5 years depending on which species) before returning with built-in GPS precision to the exact same place in the fresh water river they were born in, to spawn and die. Even though the females lay thousands of eggs, the life expectancy numbers are shocking. More than 90% of these fish die before returning to spawn, mostly in the open ocean, but they still manage to return by the millions.

It is the predictability of the salmon life cycle that enabled First Nations people on the West Coast to easily catch the returning salmon and depend on them for their own survival. It's estimated there are 137 other species from eagles to grizzly bears and even the forest itself that depend on the salmon for part of their diet. Unlike other fish species that would continue to grow if they weren't caught (tuna, halibut, swordfish, etc.) the salmon are going to die shortly after returning to spawn because they only spawn once in their life a term known as "semelparous" a reproductive characteristic shared primarily with insects and, interestingly enough, the octopus. Just as the poor sockeye run this year was easily predicted by their 4 year cycle and the terrible run of 2009, so too was the excellent pink salmon run with its return in odd numbered years.

Pink Salmon
Unlike humans who live to consume, the salmon consumes to live and then, after braving countless obstacles on its heroic journey through life, it returns to its place of birth and sacrifices its body for the good of the community with the conviction the community will in turn nourish its offspring so the cycle can continue. Imagine what we could do for the future of our planet if we had the singularity of purpose the salmon have and their community spirit?  It's a long and winding road for the Pacific salmon but at least they know where they're going, what they need to do, and how much time they've got; if only we could say the same about ourselves.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fixing A Hole

It's often been said by boat owners themselves that boats are nothing more than a hole to pour money into. The unexpected repairs and annual maintenance involved in trying to fight a losing battle against Mother Nature who is doing everything in her power to sink, rust or otherwise destroy a boat are truly not for the feint of heart or pocketbook. Building them is even more expensive and, the bigger they are, the more staggering the numbers.

Current view of Vancouver Shipyards
Take for example the recent $8 billion shipbuilding contract awarded to Washington Marine Group Seaspan to build 7 non-combat vessels including an icebreaker, two naval support ships, three fisheries vessels and one oceanographic vessel.  $8 billion equals the combined average income tax paid by 800,000 Canadian families; a large number by any measurement, especially when the entire Canadian population is only 35,000,000. Even before they can start, Seaspan had to put $200 million into upgrading its existing shipyard and drydock facilities including the installation of a 300 ton gantry crane.

Proposed rendering of  upgraded Vancouver Shipyards

Cruise ship in Vancouver dry dock - photo by Junie Quiroga
The dry dock is already quite capable of handling large vessels needing repairs, retrofits, and maintenance including a variety of freighters, ferries, and cruise ships that have been serviced here over the years. In Victoria, where the Washington Marine Group also owns and operates Victoria Shipyards, repairs and maintenance continue on the submarines Canada bought for next to nothing from Great Britain 15 years ago and still aren't capable of being anything but a tourist attraction despite the billions spent so far to make them operational. Time, however, works against all marine vessels and, if and when these submarines are ever back in the water, their 1960's technology will be hopelessly out of date and taxpayers will be once again digging into their pockets for billions more to build or purchase newer ones.

Canadian submarine in Victoria drydock
These new shipbuilding and repair facilities are supposed to be employing thousands of skilled workers, many of whom do not even yet exist but are frantically undergoing training while the upgrade to the yards continues and Seaspan management works out the logistics to making it all come together.  Given the cost overuns of the FastCatFerry fiasco, (a budgeted $70 million per ferry ended up costing $150 million per ferry) also built by the Washington Marine Group, who then later bought the ferries for $6.5 million each and sold them to buyers in Abu Dhabi for an undisclosed price, it should make us all a bit nervous about the size of this upcoming hole that's sure to appear.

Fast Cat ferry being towed by Seaspan tugs
Nobody can argue there isn't money to be made in the ship building and repair business if you have the facilities, skilled workers, and know how to write a good contract. Since 1902 Vancouver Shipyards has been building and repairing boats for the navy and other government and commercial operators under a variety of corporate owners before becoming part of Seaspan in 1970 and then, in 1996, part of the Washington Marine Group when it purchased Seaspan. Dennis Washington, who owns the Washington Marine Group that his son Kyle is now running, has a net worth of over $4 billion and is listed as the 58th richest person in America.

Attessa IV in drydock
When you have that amount of money the only way you can hope to spend it is by buying a boat, and the bigger the better.  Even if you own the shipyard doing the repairs and retrofitting it still gets expensive. Just ask Dennis who poured millions over a 3 year period into making his yacht an award winning masterpiece and # 23 in the world's largest yachts ranking.  The accompanying link details some of the effort that went into this incredible effort.
Attessa IV out of drydock

Serene waiting to go in dry dock - photo by Junie Quiroga

But no matter how much money you have and how big your boat is there is always someone with even more money and a need for an even bigger boat to spend it on.  This summer the mega yacht Serene, (the 11th largest yacht in the world) owned by Russian vodka tycoon,Yuri Sheffler, was in dry dock getting work done.  Not sure if he was shaken or stirred by the bill when it was presented to him but at least it kept the crew at Vancouver Shipyards busy while they wait for the really big holes to show up to be built or fixed.
Serene in drydock - photo by Junie Quiroga
Serene off Hornby Island

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Over The Hills And Far Away

Anyone living in Vancouver could be forgiven if they thought they simply lived next to English Bay or perhaps along the edge of Burrard Inlet and there was nothing more to it. A closer look at Vancouver however shows it located on the outer edge of a series of harbours leading into Indian Arm, which in itself is a good sized 12 mile fjord. When we think of fjords we tend to think of some misty, forbidding Scandinavian place (where the word originated) but in fact some of the largest fjords in the world are right here.

Tanquary Fjord photo
A fjord is formed when a glacier cuts a U-shaped valley out of the surrounding bedrock of a mountain valley through the sheer mass and weight of all the sediment it carries as it moves along its inexorable journey to the ocean.  But once the glacial age came to an end and the glaciers started to melt and slowly retreat (a process that continues to this day) the melted freshwater of the glaciers, along with the surrounding seawater, filled in the trough that had been carved and deep, new waterways appeared. While the longest fjord in the world, Scoresby Sund at 217 miles, is found in Greenland, the second longest is the Greely/Tanquary Fjord in Ellesmere Island, Canada at 143 miles.  The famous 127 mile Sognefjord of Norway is third, though it's also the world's second deepest at 4,291 feet.

Bute Inlet Aerial View
Norway may have at least 61 fjords to its credit but B.C. alone has 39 and they range across the Coastal Mountains from Indian Arm to Alaska with Knight Inlet being the largest at 78 miles in length. Imagine poor old Captain Vancouver as he sailed up in 1792 trying to discover the mythical Northwest Passage only to be frustrated yet again by a dead end.  Added  to his frustration was his astonishment at the depth of these B.C. fjords as compared to the English Channel which ranges from only 85- 390 feet vs. 700 - 900 feet for Indian Arm & Howe Sound, 1,200 - 1,500 feet for Bute & Knight Inlet, and 2,400 feet for Jervis Inlet, the deepest of all the fjords on the B.C. coastline.

Boating in Indian Arm - photo by Joseph Blackburn
Indian Arm is a very popular boating destination with its calm, protected waters providing plenty of room for weekend water skiers, leisurely sailors and cabin cruisers to spend the day or night enjoying the scenery and not having to venture far from home. The next fjord over is Howe Sound, a 26 mile fjord that offers spectacular views as one drives along the sea-to-sky highway, provides a gateway for boaters to the various islands in its midst including Bowen, Keats, Gambier, Bowyer, Anvil and Hutt, and is a mecca for windsurfers thanks to the strong winds and flat head waters, where it terminates at Squamish. It's also a great haul out for the seals, a prime scuba diving area, and a sanctuary for birds in places like Christie Islets and Pam Rocks.

Seals on Hutt - photo by Junie Quiroga

Nelson all suited up for scuba diving - photo by Junie Quiroga
Bute Inlet & Knight Inlet are quite a bit further up the coastline off the area known as Desolation Sound and the Broughtons. This is uninhabited territory for the most part and, because they are so far away and services are few and far between, they aren't a very popular destination in spite of their tremendous scenic beauty. Fjords also don't offer many places to safely anchor (owing to almost sheer drop-offs from shore) so when you are far from home and the wind is howling this can be a bit unnerving.  This is also grizzly bear country and, in summertime when the salmon are returning to spawn in their home rivers, the grizzlies are there waiting, so you have to be extra careful when you take pictures.

Grizzly bear fishing at mouth of Bute Inlet - photo by Junie Quiroga
Jervis Inlet - photo by Junie Quiroga
Jervis Inlet on the other hand is just a bit beyond the local scene to make it a destination and not too far away from civilization should you decide you've had enough of Mother Nature. Spectacular mountain scenery greets you as you cruise along its 48 mile length and, while it was once a heavily logged area, with massive clear cuts everywhere you looked, these have for the most part been re-planted and a new forest is now growing.

Jervis Inlet - photo by Junie Quiroga
Waiting near the end of Jervis Inlet is a very special place called Princess Louisa Inlet, which is tucked into its own secluded corner. Now a marine park, this beautiful wilderness escape is one of the most popular cruising locations on the coast with its 120 foot high, year round waterfall known as Chatterbox Falls, the "Trappers Cabin hike" and the warm, tranquil swimming waters being the principal attractions, in addition of course to the awe inspiring views surrounding you.

Heading Up Princess Louisa Inlet to Chatterbox Falls - photo by Junie Quiroga
Chatterbox Falls and the Marine Park dock - photo by Junie Quiroga

Chatterbox Falls photo - by Junie Quiroga

Trapper's Cabin - photo by Nelson Quiroga

View of Princess Louisa Inlet from Trapper's Cabin - photo by Nelson Quiroga
But no matter what fjord you visit or where you go in British Columbia's waterways there is always one constant in the scenery and that's the seals.  Either popping up alone to check you out, or hanging with friends and family, they are always curious to see the boaters and we are always happy to see them.  Doesn't matter if you are close to home or over the hills and far away, the seals are always there.
Seals on a log - photo by Junie Quiroga

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Even if you didn't notice the days were getting longer, warmer, and even less rainy than normal, one of the surest signs of summer is when my friend Ken shows up with his metal detector.  With all the hordes of sun-worshippers lying around on the beach at English Bay, there are bound to be coins and other lost treasures to be found in the early morning hours before everyone returns to their favourite tanning spot.  Even better when there's a low tide and the ocean has also left a few things behind.

Ken & Nelson - photo by Junie Quiroga

Low tide also brings another summertime regular, Salty, a character in Skantana the Whale, my children's story, and one of the many great blue herons that make English Bay their summer vacation home as they raise their newly hatched families in nearby Stanley Park by the tennis courts and Park Board office.  While the wives & kids take in the tennis games and take care of the condo maintenance, the fathers like to get away for a little quiet time and some fishing.

Salty and friends living the beach life - photo by Junie Quiroga

There are also a pair of bald eagles who like to keep an eye on things, particularly if things get fishy or if there is a swimmer out in the bay.  The morning seems to be their favorite time and, when I swim out to the Q41 navigational buoy each day to check on the currents, they are often there ahead of me directing traffic.

Bald Eagles on Q41 buoy

While they are usually found in the Park or along the Seawall, the Vancouver Police horses also like to check out the beach scene in summer.  Soft sand and cooling ocean, what's not to like?  It all adds to the ambience of the waterfront and posing for pictures is one thing they love to do.

Police horse in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
Police horse in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga 

But of course my best reward of all in June is when the seals start coming around and the frisky young females want to play.  I'll be swimming along and suddenly feel something bumping my feet as if to say "can't you swim any faster?"  I will see a seal swimming underneath me, usually upside down and looking up at me, and marvel at its perfectly designed torpedo shaped body.  If I stop it will usually pop up close by to give me the eye and circle around waiting for me to start swimming again so she can go back to bumping my feet. A delightful way to start the day.

Liane the Harbour Seal
The Vancouver Aquarium runs a rescue & rehabilitation centre for marine mammals and each year uses a unique naming convention for the animals in its care.  One year it was scientists, other years it was candy, precious stones etc., and this year the theme is astronomy.  Because there has been a particular little grey harbour seal that greets me most mornings I've decided she needs a name and so I'm going to call her Liane, which means daughter of the Sun and sunshine = summertime.