Thursday, December 24, 2015

Power For The People

Nuclear Power Plant in France
The good thing about the recent Paris conference on climate change is that all the countries in the world agreed they needed to do something about global warming, the bad news is they couldn't agree on a workable solution.  Everyone wants to move away from a world that is powered by carbon to one that is powered by renewable energy sources like solar, wind, water or geothermal heat and, while each of these certainly has potential, they also have many limitations that don't make them very practical.  There is however, one power source that is very practical and could quickly help us make the transition to a cooler planet, and that's nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions to generate heat which is then cooled to create steam which in turn drives turbine generators that produce electricity. Nuclear power plants are almost identical to coal or gas fired plants in how they function with the critical difference being they don't send any nasty pollutants into the atmosphere, only harmless water vapour. Nuclear power plants with their ubiquitous water cooling towers have been in operation since the 1950's and currently supply the U.S. with 20% of it's electricity, 15% of Canada's and a whopping 80% of France's. It was high oil prices in the 1970's not fears of global warming that got France embracing nuclear power in a big way but the logic still applies if you want to reduce dependence on carbon.

Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown
Critics of nuclear energy point to the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima as reasons to avoid going this route but the actual number of people who died has been greatly exaggerated by urban myth. Nobody died in Three Mile Island, 31 people died in Chernobyl and, while 6 workers died in Fukushima, none of the deaths were from radiation. While there was some radiation in each of these surrounding areas, the cancer rate for the population is only expected to increase marginally over the years. Just like people feel safer travelling by car instead of by airplane, even though the risk of accident and death is much greater, the same irrational thinking applies to nuclear energy, even though hundreds of these plants are operating around the world without incident.

Currently only 2.5% of the world's energy consumption is supplied by nuclear power in spite of  438 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, but there are another 70 under construction with China leading the pace with 24 of the total and another 60 in the planning stages. Likewise for India which has 6 under construction now and another 50 in the planning stages. Even still it's hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of energy supplied being supplied by fossil fuels.

Coal-fired power plant
It's a good thing countries like India and China are switching as fast as they can from coal to nuclear power.  Coal has been the cheapest way for them to get started but it's the worst offender for pollution and the smog it produces is making the entire country ill.  But while we point our fingers at developing countries and their impact on global warming we conveniently overlook our own bad habits if it's going to make things inconvenient. And our worst habit is the suburban lifestyle in general and the automobile in particular.

Coal loading facility in North Vancouver - photo by Junie Quiroga
We aren't going to reduce global warming if we don't reduce the amount of C02 we put into the atmosphere and we aren't going to reduce the amount of C02 we put in the atmosphere if we don't reduce the amount of gasoline and diesel we burn by driving our cars. In the meantime, our economy depends on selling fossil fuels to the world. But we have also developed the CANDU nuclear technology that we use here and have sold abroad and perhaps this is the perfect time to accelerate those efforts. In fact the CANDU Bruce Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Huron is the largest nuclear power plant in the world.  So what's it going to be, coal or nuclear power for the people?

Bruce Nuclear Power Plant

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Another Day In Paradise

Grey whale off English Bay seawall - photo by VPD Marine Unit
There's nothing like a whale to stop Vancouverites dead in their tracks and take their minds off the high cost of housing, a boring Federal election, and the incessant beeping of their smart phones. Mind you the phones were quickly put into gear taking photos, texting, and calling everyone to come and see the latest wonder in paradise. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, the last day of September and the seawall was full of folks enjoying another perfect day.

Vancouverites watching the grey whale in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga

Vancouverites following the grey whale along the seawall - photo by Junie Quiroga
For some reason this whale has taken a shine to the Vancouver harbour and has been spotted along the beach in West Vancouver, in and around Coal Harbour, and all along the Stanley Park seawall over the past week or so. It also likes to stay close to shore for some reason, which makes it easy for everyone to follow its progress. Whether it's the same whale that appeared earlier in the summer, or is one of the many passing through on their annual road trip between Alaska and California that detours here for a pit stop and some tasty munchies hasn't been determined, but grey whale sightings seem to be a more common occurrence these past few years.

Grey whale in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
Hard to believe we nearly hunted these creatures to extinction back in the day when we refined their blubber into oil to light our lamps and make soap. Vegetable oil and electricity have saved the day and the grey whales, along with the humpback whales and others, are making a dramatic comeback, in spite of Japan, Norway, and Iceland, that continue to defy the worldwide whaling ban that went into effect in 1986. While the whales are normally spotted off the west coast of Vancouver Island they are frequently now making their way into the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait) as they seek to re-establish old migration routes.

Grey whale tucking into bed at sunset in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
It's been 5 years since I started writing this blog after suggesting to the local papers they write a column about the waterfront and was told there wasn't enough material to write about or readers that would be interested. Our waterfront is connected in so many ways to all the things in life that really matter and I've always found something of interest to write about, averaging over one posting per month and 1,500 readers around the world logging in.

Grey whale
When I went for my swim this morning the whale was waiting for me, having spent a comfortable night sleeping in our cozy bay, and I couldn't believe I had such a magnificent swimming partner to start my day with. A little intimidating when he got too close but otherwise magical.  I think I'll name him Stanley. Another day in paradise.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Shark Attack

Nelson & dogfish shark - photo by Mistin Wilkinson

Shark attacks make for some of the most dramatic news stories around the world and this summer was no exception with Australia, Florida and South Africa continuing to be the most common locations where they seem to occur though there were also reports from Hawaii and California. But, as dramatic as they are, on average only 75 attacks are actually reported each year and only 1/3 of them ever end up being fatal.  This is because most of the time the shark attacks are unprovoked and, in a case of mistaken identity, referred to as "hit and run" or "bite and run" the shark does a quick test and quickly determines the human isn't worth eating.

Not all sharks are created equal and out of nearly 500 species in the world it's really only the Great White Shark, Bull Shark and Tiger Shark that are responsible for fatal unprovoked attacks. On the other hand thousands of people die every day by drowning and that of course hardly ever makes the news. While there are 14 different shark species found in B.C. waters, including the Great White, there have never been any recorded shark attacks and encounters of any kind are rare.

Salmon shark - photo by Andy Murch

Not surprisingly the salmon shark is one of the most common sharks in B.C. and, while they can be up to 10 feet in length and 450 lbs in weight, they are fortunately primarily only interested in salmon. The rare and intriguing 6 gill shark can get up to 15-20 feet in length but, because of the great depths in which it normally dwells, it's usually only encountered by scuba divers and it prefers to eat small fish and crabs. But the most common shark of all is the dogfish shark and this is what came across my path the other morning as I was about to start my swim.

Nelson petting a six gill shark - photo by Peter Mieras

Called the dogfish because they hunt in packs like dogs, this shark can travel in schools of hundreds of individuals and is the most abundant shark in the world. Typically around 3-4 feet in length it only eats small fish and is not considered dangerous though it does have slightly poisonous dorsal fin spines. In England they are very popular for fish and chips but here they are labelled trash fish and usually thrown back in the water by fishermen because there's little or no demand for them.

Dennis & Nelson with dogfish shark - photo by Mistin Wilkinson

A little bit of trick photography and positioning made the dogfish shark look a lot bigger than it actually was which I suppose feeds off the drama these creatures continue to attract when in actual fact they are under severe threat of extinction thanks to the wasteful and horrific practise of "finning" that goes on around the world.  How this dogfish ended up on shore is a bit of a mystery but at least its fins were still intact and Dennis and I weren't in any mortal danger going for our swim. Ironically it's fear of shark attacks that keeps people out of the ocean, where of course they could drown without the right training or equipment, so perhaps we should thank the sharks for keeping us safe.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fly Little Purple Bird Fly

Purple Martin in Silva Bay, Gabriola Island
At selected moorages, predominantly along the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, there's a delightful little bird that can be observed constantly flying around and going in and out of little nest boxes that have been mounted on pilings.  It's called a Purple Martin, and it has a remarkable story that I have to share with everyone simply because these birds are so captivating.  In fact I was so charmed by them I built one of the nest boxes just for something to do one day without even realizing I was unwittingly participating in a program that had been established to bring them back from near extinction.

Nesting pair of Purple Martins in Silva Bay
Purple Martins are the largest swallow in North America and, while their range extends throughout most of the continent, the extreme range of the western sub-species is the Georgia Strait basin. Historically Purple Martins nested in woodpecker holes in old trees and old pilings but, as all these habitats slowly disappeared, along with competition from European starlings and house sparrows, their numbers began to rapidly decline until, by the 1980's, there were less than 10 breeding pairs in the area. In 1986 a volunteer based nest-box program got started and the population has steadily increased since to where there are now 1,000 nesting pairs in the Georgia Strait basin.

Incredibly agile, high speed acrobats, these birds have been a favourite of farmers and Native North Americans since day one thanks to their voracious appetite for insects. In the 1960's a conservation movement to promote the Purple Martin as a natural insect control agent, instead of using pesticides, got the nest box program started with a slogan "Two thousand mosquitoes a day" and there are now over a million nest boxes in North America. In the 1980's the invasion of non-native European starlings and house sparrows caused a severe population crash across North America as the Purple Martins got pushed out of their own habitat and they are now almost completely dependant on the artificial nest boxes for their survival.

Purple Martin colony in Tod Inlet
Without the nest boxes the Purple Martins wouldn't survive and without the Purple Martins we would have to put up with a lot more insects than we would like, especially in an anchorage. On the west coast the the preferred location for these boxes is over open water on abandoned pilings in groups of five. They make for a very photogenic installation and, all day you can watch the parents darting in and out of their house as they take turns providing fresh food for the insatiable babies inside.

Purple Martin pair and fledgling in Silva Bay
In the winter the Purple Martins migrate to South America where they soak up the sun east of the Andes in Columbia, Bolivia and Brazil.  They roost in large groups with as many as 5,000 reported on one site in Brazil. There was already an established colony on the dock at Silva Bay on Gabriola Island but, at the end of the nesting season, I decided to put up a nest box to see what would happen. Sure enough when I returned to Silva Bay in late spring I was pleased to see it had been occupied and the parents were busy teaching the babies to speak Spanish.

Nelson installing a Purple Martin nest box in Silva Bay
A symbiotic success story between Mankind and Nature isn't something that happens very often so it's nice to be part of something that's good for everyone, except of course the insects!!! The birds are heading back to South America now after a great summer of warm weather and feasting. Over the winter people are invited to build more nest boxes and wait for the little purple birds to fly back. Check the link below for more information.

All Purple Martin photos by Junie Quiroga

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

All Washed Up

Another washed up sailboat on Sunset Beach - photo by Junie Quiroga
A little stronger than usual northwester blew into town in the past few weeks keeping gale force winds going for quite a few days. The end result of course was a few more sail boats being washed up on shore and more headaches for owners and the coast guard to deal with. Sometimes the boats can be salvaged other times not.

Washed up Q52 buoy on wrong side of False Creek channel - photo by Junie Quiroga
Proof that it was a little nastier than expected was the washing up of starboard navigational buoy Q52 to the opposite side of where it's supposed to be at the entrance to False Creek These indispensable aids to mariners are specially designed and installed to never move so it was quite a surprise to see this happen, not to mention the fact the buoy itself was now creating a hazard to boaters not familiar with what side the hidden rocks are actually located.

Washed up English Bay slide - photo by Junie Quiroga
But strangest of all was to see the English Bay summer slide (that had just been put in place) washed up on the high water mark of the beach. Somehow it had torn free from all 4 of its moorings. Fortunately these things eventually all got fixed but you could definitely say the start of summer was all washed up.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Wishin' & Hopin'

Mother Goose & her goslings - photo by Junie Quiroga
Every spring Mother Nature brings us fresh evidence of her endless effort to ensure survival, regardless of species, in both the plant and animal kingdoms. Baby seals appear in the ocean, flowers start to bloom, and recently hatched little ducklings wander about under the careful watch of their mothers.  Nothing is more adorable than a baby and nothing is more upsetting than a mother whose baby is being threatened.

Mother Duck and her ducklets - photo by Junie Quiroga
While some mothers in the Lagoon are happily enjoying their new offspring there's a mother swan left all alone to wonder yet again what has gone wrong in her world in spite of having done all the right things. Every year Mrs. Swan carefully builds a nest with her mate and lays a few eggs but every year they either don't hatch or else simply disappear. Everyone else in the neighbourhood has a spring baby why can't she?

Mute Swan alone on her empty nest - photo by Junie Quiroga
The culprit isn't any of the other creatures in the Park or surrounding waterways but the Parks Board staff themselves. They have taken it upon themselves to single out the swans for systematic extinction and they do this each year by either addling/shaking any eggs that are laid or simply removing them, causing incredible stress to the birds in the process. From the dozens of pairs of swans that used to exist in Lost Lagoon there are only 2 pairs now remaining.

Mute Swan - photo by Junie Quiroga
These beautiful birds (properly known as Mute swans) are the most photographed creatures in Lost Lagoon, but have been deemed an invasive pest by Environment Canada. Introduced to North America in the 19th century Mute swans have rapidly expanded their population to the point of displacing the native Trumpeter swans, which the Parks Board would rather see in the Lagoon. Both are roughly the same size with the main difference being the colour of their beaks; the Trumpeter's is black while the Mute's is orange.

Trumpeter Swan
Regardless of how the Mute swan got established, they are here to stay, just like the Red Eared Slider turtles, another so-called invasive species that have taken over in the Lagoon. I don't see the Parks Board doing anything to wipe out these professional sunbathers and, even more ironic, is the Parks Board's active participation in a breeding program for Beluga whales which are definitely not a native species to Vancouver.
Red Eared Slider Turtles sun-tanning in Lost Lagoon - photo by Junie Quiroga
Managing Mute swans is one thing and now that we are down to only 4 I think we could allow a few cygnets to see the light of day. People need to register a protest with the Parks Board. In the meantime it's another year of wishing and hoping on the part of the mother swan and another year of wishing and hoping the Parks Board comes to its senses.

Mute swan with baby cygnets

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cum On Feel The Noize

Dead Fin whale in Vancouver harbour - photo by Belle Puri
A fin whale arrived in Vancouver harbour last weekend but unfortunately it was already dead when it was discovered floating around the docks. According to officials it had been struck by a luxury cruise ship somewhere off the northern end of Vancouver Island, and carried all the way back on the bow of the boat. Ironically, this cruise ship, Seven Seas Navigator, bills itself as a wildlife sightseeing vessel that takes passengers on tours in the waters between Vancouver Island and Alaska.

Seven Seas Navigator
Strange as it may seem this is apparently the 3rd time since the 1990's that a fin whale has been dragged like this into the Vancouver harbour and you wonder how many other whales have been hit and simply sank or washed ashore. While I appreciate the difficulty captains of these large ships have in avoiding objects not in their size class you would think something as large as a fin whale would show up on their sonar before they collided and that someone would have noticed a whale stuck on the bow as they cruised along. After all a fin whale is the second largest animal after the blue whale and grows to a length of over 80 feet.

Fin whale on the surface
Conversely, how is it these gentle giants aren't able to stay out of the way of a cruise ship? Long and sleek, these baleen whales are often referred to as the "greyhound of the seas" for their shape and speed which can exceed 20 knots. Like so many other species of whales they were hunted nearly to extinction (after close to a million had been killed) until the 1975 ban on whaling came into effect and, while they have since somewhat recovered to a worldwide population of around 100,000 they are still considered an endangered species.

Fin whale under water
Perhaps the most logical answer is the unfortunate whale didn't even hear the ship coming and just happened to be in the wrong place while taking a nap.  There's growing evidence the increase in ocean noise from modern shipping and naval activity is affecting the hearing of all marine mammals, particularly whales, and even affecting their ability to mate. Fin whales in particular transmit long, low frequency mating calls that in earlier times could be heard thousands of miles away under water but are now reduced to a much shorter distance due to all the background noise in the ocean.

Hearing Damage Chart
Much more serious however is the effect of U.S.& NATO naval sonar testing which is causing death and mass strandings wherever this testing is being conducted.  For humans any noise level over 85 decibels requires hearing protection, 140 decibels causes hearing damage, and at 150 decibels your eardrums would burst. Anything over 185 decibels could kill you, and for marine animals anything over 170 decibels can injure them.  The low frequency active sonar being used by the Navy is 250 decibels and carries for hundreds of miles. The navy has acknowledged this sonar testing is responsible for the deaths of whales in the Bahamas, Canary Islands, Tasmania, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places where whales have turned up with massive haemorrhaging around the ears or stranded on beaches.
Dead beaked whale in the Bahamas
Marine animals rely on sound far more than sight, as it's their way of communicating, hunting and mating.  Sound travels 12 times faster and much further through the water than the air and the combination of commercial marine traffic, seismic surveys, and naval activity is creating so much noise the animals can't hear themselves and it's changing their patterns of calling, foraging and migration. If we care about these animals we need to make a more conscious effort to avoid making noise where they live because they don't need to feel it as well.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Black Water

Nelson Quiroga in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
So there I am around 7:00 a.m. ready to go for my swim on a glorious, spring morning when I notice a bit of a sheen on the water as it's washing up on the beach.  Looks like someone spilled some kind of petroleum product here, thinks I, maybe a little gasoline or some nasty bilge water that's drifted in but, as it was only on the water by the edge of the shoreline, I didn't give it much thought and jumped in.  Everything seemed perfectly normal and it was only when I was finishing my swim an hour or so later that I realized something was up because there were all sorts of people on the beach with cameras and microphones. When they came up to me and asked if I knew I had been swimming in the middle of an oil spill my heart sank because I knew this everyone's worst nightmare.

English Bay oil spill - photo by Darryl Dyck
With a lively debate raging in the City for more than a year now over pipelines and oil tanker traffic who would have suspected a brand new grain carrying freighter, on its maiden voyage, to become the flashpoint every politico has been waiting for.  It may have only leaked 2,800 litres of oil, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the 30 million gallons spilled by the infamous Exxon Valdez, but even one litre is too much for most Vancouverites. This couldn't have come at a worse time, but more spectacular than the spill itself was the incredible display of incompetence demonstrated by each and every participant in this chaotic drama.

Marathassa - photo by Darryl Dyck
First off there was the captain of the ship Marathassa, who must have known there was a problem, since his boat was surrounded with oil from the previous day when it was first reported by a passing sailboat, but he chose to ignore it and initially refused to cooperate with authorities later asking questions. He should have been the first to radio in the problem and offer any possible assistance which would have demonstrated leadership and a commitment, on behalf of the shipping industry, to transparency, safety, and respect for the environment. Instead, he hurt the reputation of ship captains everywhere and helped foster a public perception they aren't to be trusted.

Coast Guard Western Region
Then we have the Coast Guard which took 6 hours to respond to the call from the sailboat and confirm there was a problem. By then of course it was very dark when another organization was finally called in to get started on the booming to contain the spill. The Coast Guard appeared to forget all about tides and currents (something that should be in their DNA) and were surprised when the oil slick started moving all over English Bay and washed up on the beaches in both North Vancouver and Stanley Park. It took them another 12 hours before they notified City officials so of course there were no signs up on the beach advising swimmers, boarders, or people walking their dogs, to stay out of the water. They then had the cheek to say that cleaning up 80% of the spilled oil within 36 hours was an "amazing success."

Premier Christy Clark & Mayor Gregor Robertson
In the meantime it took another 24 hours before either the Mayor or the Premier was prepared to step up to the microphone, presumably because of the time it took to work out the spin doctored messaging they were going to deliver. Robertson of course wanting to maintain his dubious green credentials but not wanting to be overly critical of those above who might be writing transit funding cheques, and Clark wanting to salvage her plan for shipping oil & gas that has now clearly sprung a huge leak. In the end all they could come up with was a "blame the federal government statement" that once again showed a complete lack of leadership.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation vessel
Noticeably absent in any of the clean-up efforts were the Coast Guard themselves, any of the Vancouver Fire Boats, or the Harbour Patrol.  It was all done by a private corporation, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, which maintains a base in Burrard Inlet specifically for this purpose. WCMRC is owned by the oil companies; Imperial Oil, Shell, Chevron, & Suncor as well as Trans Mountain pipelines, and its website claims to have over 2,000 members including oil handling facilities, cruise ships, and freighters visiting our ports. Not sure if the company that owned the Marathassa is a member but the others obviously had a vested interest in making sure that anything to do with an oil spill would be handled quickly given the optics and their common desire to transport oil.

Beach clean-up volunteers - photo by Junie Quiroga
In the meantime locals and activists swarmed the beach chanting, waving banners, and looking for evidence of environmental damage from the remaining 20% that hadn't been cleaned up. Fortunately there wasn't much to worry about and there were plenty of volunteers patrolling the beach, raking the sand, and cleaning up any of the gooey flotsam, jetsam, and seaweed that washed up on the shoreline. I did get some of it on the bottom of my swim boots, but thankfully it appears not a single bird was affected.

Volunteer handling gooey seaweed
If this is the best we can do for a pathetic engine room leak on one of the hundreds of regular freighters at anchor here throughout the year it certainly doesn't bode well for dealing with a major oil tanker spill or a ruptured pipeline.  The ensuing media circus ensured the environmentalists and anti-pipeline folks scored some major points though it really had nothing to do with the oil industry.  What it really demonstrated was a complete lack of planning and process on the part of government agencies at all levels who are supposedly responsible for keeping the harbour safe and clean.

Nelson and the beach closure sign - photo by Junie Quiroga
One thing for certain is the beach is now closed and I can't go for my daily ocean swim. This of course makes me a very unhappy camper, particularly with the realization that something I have always taken for granted can so easily be taken away. I know the Emerald Sea will return again but until then, for the seals and me, it's just black water.