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

November 23, 2020

During Expedition 2 of the Marine Debris Removal Initiative this past September, we collected over 60 tonnes of debris from British Columbia’s shorelines. By the end of our first two weeks, hundreds of bulging white lift bags sat along the hundreds of kilometres of shoreline we had worked. Our final week would be the helicopter operations: slinging the bags on to a barge so we could get them out of there!

This post is the final instalment of my four-part series about working on the MDRI. Find the other ones here:

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 1: The project

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 2: The work

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

The barge was the Heiltsuk Horizon: operated by the Heiltsuk First Nation, towed by the tug Gulf Rival, all crewed by Lorne the captain (you can see him in the tug’s wheelhouse) and mate Robert (a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, far left in the photo) as well as the deckhand Rudy, who was present for Expedition 1.

The helicopter was operated by Airspan Helicopters, out of Sechelt.

This is the pilot, Jason.

And this is the safety officer, Nolan, who worked with the helicopter from the barge.

We lost our first day of heli-ops due to fog. The helicopter couldn’t even make it in from Sechelt: Jason and Nolan had to overnight at a lighthouse partway up the coast!

Once the chopper got here, though, the work was pretty much non-stop: picking up the bags we had left on the shorelines and ferrying them back to the barge.

Upon their arrival, Jason and Nolan gave us a training session on the back of Cascadia – then all crews were sent to shore in pairs, back to our lift-bag sites, to work each lift. This short video shows my second lift ever!

Our days were super-long: we had to take advantage of every possible minute of flying time. So we were up eating breakfast before dawn, to get crews to the shorelines when it was still semi-dark. That way the helicopter could be up and flying to its first lift of the day immediately upon first light.

We rarely stopped during the day – other when the helicopter needed to pop back down on the barge for 20 minutes to refuel. And once when Jason just needed a break for half an hour. It was really impressive to see him do such focussed and precision work for so many hours of the day – I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to maintain that degree of concentration for so long.

Normally, we had left the debris bagged up on the shorelines. But sometimes, if there was not enough to fill a bag, or if it consisted of huge light items like styrofoam, we would bring it back to the ship. So we also did some lifting straight off of the back deck of Cascadia.

When you look at all of those lift-bags on the barge from a distance, it’s hard to tell what the magnitude of everything really is. They look almost like regular garbage bags. But this photo, of Nolan and Robert in front of the bins, gives a bit of an idea of scale. We ended up loading over 70 TONNES of debris onto the barge in under a week! For a total of 127 tonnes over the two expeditions.

Here’s a short video I put together that shows how our heli-lifting operatios worked:

NO BAG LEFT BEHIND! That became our motto.

We were fighting for daylight and flying time, but we were also fighting for weather: it was autumn, and a storm was on its way in. We didn’t actually know until the last day whether we really were going to achieve this or not. There was a definite cheer that went up when that final bag was lifted off of Cascadia!

The crew from Cascadia all headed over to the barge to celebrate! We climbed up on the piles of garbage (taking care to not fall down between them) for a celebratory group photo.

Here we all are! Now you can see the scale of what we did… a great photo by Jeff Reynolds (find him on Insta: @jkr_photo). Can you see us all down there, standing on top of the garbage at the back, in front of the helicopter?

And here’s Expedition Leader, Kevin Smith, whose brainchild this project was, on the deck of Cascadia in front of the fully loaded barge after the final lift. Pretty pleased, I’d say. (And probably relieved, too!)

It was such a thrill to be a part of the MDRI expedition. It was great for me personally: it took me to a part of British Columbia’s coast that I had not been to; I learned lots; and I made some very special new friends here. And it was great in many other ways too: keeping businesses occupied and people employed during these oh-so-challenging times of COVID, while also giving back to the environment and to the First Nations communities in whose territories these small-ship tour companies operate. A win on so many levels!

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