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BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 1: The project

October 26, 2020

It’s been a tough year, with COVID disrupting pretty much everyone-in-the-world’s plans. I was supposed to be working as a naturalist/guide for Maple Leaf Adventures but, as for pretty much everyone else who works in tourism, my contracts were cancelled. However, MLA’s CEO, Kevin Smith, came up with a great idea: how about doing a big (socially-distanced) BC Coastal Cleanup!

Not only would it keep his ships running for at least part of the season and create work for many people who had lost their jobs – it would also give something back to the indigenous communities in whose territories his company (as well as several others) operate and, of course, make a positive impact on the environment.

The project came to be known as the Marine Debris Removal Initiative, or MDRI. It would operate as two three-week expeditions, each departing from northern Vancouver Island and working the shorelines to the north. The territories we worked in are those of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Heiltsuk, Gitga’at, Wuikinuxv, and Nuxalk First Nations – who all contributed to and supported this initiative.

This post is instalment one of four about my experience on the MDRI. Find the other ones here:

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 2: The work

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 3: The nature of the debris

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 4: The heli-lifting!

I joined Expedition 2. Crew on each expedition would spend their first two weeks collecting the debris into big bags on the shorelines, and then the final week would be lifting those giant bags on to a barge by helicopter. Fun work!

Along with Maple Leaf Adventures, four other small-ship tourism companies signed on: Bluewater Adventures, Outer Shores Expeditions, Mothership Adventures, and Ocean Adventures, for a total of 9 ships making up the fleet.

In his proposal to the BC Government, which funded the project for a total of $3.5 million through their Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund, Kevin estimated we’d maybe collect, say 30 tonnes of debris from the shorelines of BC’s central coast (outer islands of the famed Great Bear Rainforest). You’ll have to read through this four-part daily series (presented mainly as a photo album) to find out what we did and how much we ended up getting… but I’ll tell you now, we more than quadrupled his estimate!

I was assigned to MLA’s ship Cascadia, a 42 m catamaran, and by far the largest vessel of the MDRI fleet. In good times (meaning non-COVID tourism voyages), she is capable of carrying 24 passengers plus 10 crew. However, even though we had all been tested for COVID a few days prior to boarding, in order to enable adequate social distancing and allow all crew to have their own cabins, for this expedition Cascadia would only carry a total of 15.

In spite of all of us having been tested for COVID, we still took every precaution to keep every person safe seriously. After all, it was possible that someone had been exposed to the virus just prior to their test, or had contracted it in the few days between testing and boarding. A COVID case on any of the ships would likely mean that ship turning around and abandoning the expedition (not to mention pretty bad news, and possibly dangerous, for every crew member aboard).

So, for the first 14 days, we wore masks nearly all the time: at all times inside (except for meals, when we were seated six feet apart), as well as most of the time outdoors: on the deck, in the crew boats, and working near one another on shore. Our temperatures were taken every morning. We sanitized our hands practically every time we moved! And the common spaces were cleaned and sanitized – even using a specially purchased fogger to do carpets and furniture – several times a day.

And contact between ships just plain did not happen: each ship had to be its own bubble. Even when there was an evening Captain’s meeting, so they could plan which ship would work which areas and how they would communicate, this was done on the water: one Captain per zodiac, floating out in the open air (photo above).

What we were especially looking forward to, though, was that 14 day mark! Because then – having basically completed our 14 days of isolation – provided that no one had got sick, we could finally assume that our ships were COVID-free, take off our masks, and be a bit social with our shipmates!

All of the other ships in the fleet had zodiacs for their tenders. On Cascadia, being larger, we had two larger aluminum crew boats: more comfortable to ride in, but more difficult to approach the shorelines with.

I would soon find this out! This “beach” cleanup would really only be on beaches in the very loosest sense of the word – more accurately, they were rugged and rocky wave-dashed shorelines! I only set foot on sand once, the entire three weeks!

Ha ha, don’t be deceived by how calm it looks here! We always anchored in sheltered coves for the nights, and then motored out in the tenders to the exposed shorelines where the marine debris has washed up, leaping off the moving bow of the boat on to the slippery wave-washed rocks.

Stay tuned to see more pix of how it all went. The next instalment, MDRI 2 will show what the work we were doing was. Then MDRI 3 will show you what we collected, and MDRI 4 will have photos and video of the heli-lifting, very exciting!

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