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The Ice: Christmas in Antarctica

December 31, 2022

Back when I was working as a geologist in Australia (um, well over two decades ago) I had a colleague who was working in Antarctica – which he always referred to as “The Ice.”

Well, now I am getting to know this spectacular wilderness too, and building up my time on or near The Ice. I have just finished a month working for Lindblad Expeditions, as an expedition guide and naturalist/lecturer: our route had us first in Patagonia, and then down in Antarctica.

Here are a few pix from our last week at The Ice, all from Christmas week, uploaded as I travel home (currently in Santiago de Chile). Hopefully I will find the time to put up a few more posts (and videos) once I get home!

This is how we spent Christmas eve day – landing everyone on this ice floe (not all at once!). Once all guests were back on the ship, our expedition team had our Christmas staff photo taken while as the captain nudged the ship stunningly close up to our hunk of ice. Much closer than it appears in this photo! (Taken by my colleague Sue Forbes).
So many cool icebergs… it felt like we were just permanently passing through a sculpture gallery.

A highlight of our Antarctic voyage was, as our Captain Martin Graser explained to us, making history – by traversing narrow and spectacular LeMaire Channel alongside our sister ship, the National Geographic Endurance.

Zodiac cruising in Wilhelmina Bay, with humpback whales around. Yes, we were (mostly) extremely fortunate with the weather!
So many cool icebergs… it felt like we were permanently passing through a sculpture gallery.
Lots of grounded icebergs around Port Charcot – big ones! – a totally fun zodiac cruise, checking them all out. (Thanks for the photo, Martin).
Our ship, the National Geographic Resolution, is capable of getting very close to shore. Here we are in Neko Harbour – it was barely necessary to launch the zodiacs!
Antarctic landscape/seascape panoramic under a moody overcast sky.
A colony of gentoo penguins, which we hiked up to over the snow from NG Resolution, at Neko Harbour, with one of the very active and crevassed glaciers behind.

Leaving Puerto Williams, Navarino Island, Chile

December 3, 2022
Expedition cruise ship Silver Wind at dock at Puerto Williams, Navarino Island, Chile

I am just in from an amazing voyage – sailing all the way from Vancouver, Canada, down the Pacific Coast all the way to Puerto Williams, Navarino Island, Chile. I have been working for the expedition cruise company Silversea on the beautiful vessel Silver Wind.

Puerto Williams holds such a special place in my heart. Right from my first visit here in 2004, I felt at home. As a very remote island community of only a few thousand people, it reminded me so much of Tofino, Vancouver Island, where I was living at the time (and I still live near Tofino, now in Port Alberni). I came to know the Yagán community here, and worked with author Cristina Zárraga to translate the stories of her Yagán grandmothers to English (that book is called Hai kur mamashu chis, and yes it is still in print and available on Amazon).

My voyage on Silver Wind ended here in Puerto Williams, and I was pleased that I was able to arrange for at least one overnight here before travelling to my next work contract. I rented a bike, and spent my day peacefully riding around and hiking, reconnecting.

This place means so much to me… my short stay – the first since before COVID – was especially emotional, as we lost our grandmother the abuela Cristina Calderón earlier this year. The abuela was the last pure-blooded Yagán person and also the last remaining native speaker of the Yagán language – a loss so personally heartfelt to all of us who knew her, and a loss to all of humanity as well.

This place is not the same without her. Nor is our world…

Awarded RCGS Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration

November 21, 2021

This week, I was awarded the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

What an honour! I am quite overwhelmed. Because of COVID, the medal was presented at the online RCGS Fellows Show rather than in person in Ottawa. Here is my acceptance speech:

Although I have lived a life of exploration – sometimes as part of a large expedition team, sometimes leading groups as a wilderness tour guide, and oftentimes on my own solo expeditions – I am overwhelmed by this acknowledgement. It certainly inspires me to live up to it by continuing to embark on adventures and explore, and to share my experiences with the world.

Many thanks to my many friends and supporters – and especially to RCGS Fellows and friends Russell Clark and Jill Heinerth – and to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for their confidence in me.


The baby salmon are drying up. Again.

July 25, 2021
baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

Once again, excessive heat combined with a drought make a deadly combination for salmon on Vancouver Island. Back in 2013, Dave and I did a rescue of dozens of baby salmon from a tiny pool that was drying up in the ravine beside out house in Port Alberni, moving them to a larger pool where they would hopefully survive until rain came.

Well, that was back in September. Now, we’re doing the same thing in July. Not sure that these salmon will make it until the autumn rains, but we’re trying anyway.

These photos are from a creek that tumbles (or should tumble) into Sproat Lake. We’ve been going on some hikes there lately, and watching the little pools shrink until they are the size of a frying pan – and then dry up. There’s a very smart snake who clearly understands that these are his frying pans: we see him at the edges of a different pool each day, once they have shrunk to nearly nothing and the fish in them are concentrated there and easy pickings.

baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

This weather and this drought: not only do they kill the baby salmon by drying them up, they also kill them by destroying the water quality (too warm, or algae blooms) and by exposing them to predators.

We executed a small rescue the other day – not like the last one where we caught the salmon in bulk in nets. This was just one tiny puddle with one terrified salmon scooting around and that snake lurking at the edge. It felt much more personal.

Dave said I would never be able to catch him with my bare hands (the salmon instinctively hide between or under the rocks) – but I knew that my childhood summer experiences at our cottage would serve me well, and I went for it. (Topside photos by Dave, underwater images by me on my new Sealife DC2000).

baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

I did catch that little guy – eventually. But as I did, another one scooted out. There were two in there! When I came back for the second guy, there was still another one in there. In all, I caught five baby salmon in this tiny puddle.

baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

The baby salmons’ instinct is to hide from predators, so they squeeze behind and under the rocks. It was a challenge for me to pull each one out of that pebbly pool without injuring them.

So much for our hike that day. Instead, we spent an hour catching five little guys!

baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

Then I would walk upstream, with a slippery little fish wiggling in my bare hands (super careful not to drop him on the dry rocks!) and release him into a larger, shaded pool.

baby salmon fry smolt rescue in stream on Vancouver Island

I’m not at all confident that this pool will make it through this drought either. We desperately need rain. And this is only July.

Here are some of the happier guys in the bigger pool:

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Ready to get out on the water with my new Bridgewatch certification!

May 30, 2021

I’m very happy (and proud) to have just finished the 4-month Bridgewatch Enhanced program at British Columbia Institute of Technology, in North Vancouver! This certification qualifies me to work as a deckhand. Over the long-term I am hoping to return to expedition cruise ships both close to home (along the BC coast) as well as far away (back to Antarctica, Chile, the Canadian arctic – wherever!) I’m especially hoping for work that doubles using my new nautical certifications along with my sciences background and/or photojournalism experience.

Over the short term, I’m looking forward to working on the water in whatever I can, to consolidate all the skills I have just learned through practical experience.

The whole Bridgewatch program was four months long, but of course right now, due to COVID, they are doing their best to reduce the time on campus and deliver the parts that they can do online that way.

So we did the more “booky” sections, such as Collision Regulations and Navigational Aids online. Here’s a pic of Ferg helping me with my Chartwork.

Much of what we were learning was very hands-on material, so the current COVID situation did make things challenging. We couldn’t interact very closely in class at all, and the field trips and ship ride-alongs that would normally be part of this program were nearly all cancelled.

(I have to say, though, I was very impressed with BCIT’s policies regarding COVID and keeping everyone safe. I was a bit worried about how that would go before I got there – but it was all good!)

So I didn’t get to toss a big mooring line from an actual ship to an actual dock. But here’s a little example of me practicing in class!

Ropework was in fact quite a major component of the class time once we were physically all together in class. This is something I previously knew nothing about, but really love doing (and am getting very good at!)

I can now splice all kinds of rope – three-strand, eight-strand, double-braid. I did these big mooring lines, and I also have made Ferg a really cute little custom dog leash!

The “regular” Bridgewatch program is more like three months long. The “enhanced” one that I was fortunate enough to take included additional courses: we also did our Radio Operators (Commercial) license and Marine Basic First Aid, as well as the internationally sanctioned safety courses (STCW BST and PSC), that are required to work at sea. They cover basically every aspect of safety on ships at sea: all your life-saving equipment, launching and recovering survival craft (as well as how to actually survive on them if you are stuck in them for days or weeks), and even four days of marine firefighting – which was very intimidating for me at first, but very empowering as I got over my fears. That’s me in the middle, holding the hose, about to enter a burning faux-ship! (The fire in it was not faux).

Aside from the firefighting, we learned about and practiced launching and recovering three types of survival craft: lifeboats, life rafts, and rescue boats. We also had pool sessions to learn how to don and swim in immersion suits, and to practice skills such as getting into the life raft from the water.

This is me, docking the lifeboat – first try!

Like I said, because of COVID our class was not able to get out on the water much. So it was a real treat for us to get out on the water during our final week with Group Ocean, one of the tugboat operators on Vancouver Harbour. Their tugs are big and powerful – super impressive – and being out on two of them made it easy for us all to maintain appropriate physical distancing.

Here the Group Ocean captains are demonstrating how they can spin the boats around – first the other one, then, quite to my surprise, the one that I am on while I was filming!

I’m already putting my new skills to use – the photo at the top of this post is just the other day out on Sproat Lake with Dave. We had to tow some logs back to the lakehouse, and I was able to put my new splicing skills to good use making a towing bridle and tying the towline securely. I am super excited, and currently looking into a few work possibilities for this summer. It feels really good, getting more comfortable with what I need to know and do on the bigger ships.

Many thanks to my great BCIT instructors, and also to my amazing classmates (some of whom shot the photos/videos of me here). See you on the water!

And if you like what I have here on my site, or want to keep informed about my current exciting projects and adventures and speaking engagements, please sign up for an occasional email update on my Contact page. (Don’t worry, I respect your privacy and I will never spam you!)

An open letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry

February 21, 2021

Dear Dr. Henry:

I cannot comprehend your on-going refusal to take any meaningful action about COVID-19 in British Columbia.

Under your direction and leadership, over 75,000 British Columbians have caught this virus.

More than 1300 British Columbians are dead.

On March 7th, 2020 – just under a year ago – you cried at a press conference after an outbreak at a long-term care home. At that point, you had still not taken any action at all to protect British Columbians from the virus (with a total of only 27 cases thus far detected here, keeping it out was still a possibility).

You cried. Even though no one had died yet!

And here we are, one year later. More than a thousand dead, and counting.

Your weak and vague guidelines (which some percentage of British Columbians continue to diligently follow, now on guidelines for one year – and which some percentage of the population does not think apply to them and have never followed and will never follow) have resulted in a year of:

  • economic devastation,
  • personal financial stress,
  • business closures,
  • undue mental and emotional stress for citizens,
  • as well as created a long-term financial burden that British Columbians will have to repay over years, if not decades.

And the worst part of that is that your weak and vague guidelines have not helped anyone or anything. You have only harmed us.

Your refusal to take any meaningful action is mind-boggling: You do understand the science, and you have many role models around the world where decisive action ahead of spread of the virus has limited or even stopped the spread of COVID19 and allowed citizens to return to somewhat normal life.

As examples, we have every one of Australia’s states, and countries like New Zealand, and our own Atlantic provinces.

(Caption to the graphic above: These are the data for new COVID cases in Australia for TODAY. The population of Australia is just under Canada’s at 25 million. Donuts mean NO NEW CASES in that state (yes, they are actually having fun with their stats!). HQ means a new COVID case in someone who was being monitored under Home Quarantine. So today, in Australia, there were ZERO new cases via community transmission, and a total of SIX new cases in people being monitored under Home Quarantine. Yes, a total of SIX new cases – in contrast to Canada’s average of around THREE THOUSAND new cases per day, and with the new variants unleashed here).

You have known all along what needs to be done. It is inexplicable why you have not taken action to protect the citizens of this province – who it is your duty, as our one and only Provincial Health Officer, to protect. It is inexplicable that you have allowed over one thousand to die (and countless to become “long-haulers,” changing their lives forever and also creating a long-term financial burden on our province).

But you have one more chance to do the right thing.

You understand that the spread of these new and more contagious variants will behave, in many ways, like the introduction of a completely new virus.

In the absence of a sufficient supply of vaccine at present, the B117 variant (which was first spread in our province because of ineffective “quarantine” procedures through infection of a traveller’s housemates), and possibly the other variants, are likely to soon become the dominant variant in our province. This has been shown by example in many other countries, and is also predicted by our own federal government’s modelling.

So here is your second chance, Dr. Henry.

You took no meaningful measures to protect British Columbians from the “first wave” or even the “second wave” (as our government focussed on getting re-elected rather than limiting virus spread over Thanksgiving).

Perhaps you have already have missed that opportunity with what is about to become our third wave, which will be driven by the spread of these new variants – now with at least 72 confirmed cases of the new, more contagious (and more lethal) variants in our province and likely community spread of those new variants.

But please, at least try!

You know what to do.

Lock down hard, and for real – for a short time. What some jurisdictions call the “circuit-breaker.”

This endless semi-lockdown is not helping anyone. Most of us have been doing it for a year now.

And those who aren’t, well, they never will – and they are the ones driving the spread, and keeping all of us in this horrible and interminable situation.

(As British Columbians continue to get sick and die).

It is time for you show some leadership and make those tough decisions.

I am confident that you know what must be done. You now need to do it.

Stop all travel. B117 is loose in Surrey, and probably elsewhere in our province too. Contain it!

Yes, it is horrible for the people living in regions which have a high case rate to have extra travel restrictions imposed – but everything about this virus is horrible. You needlessly allowed it out from Fraser this past fall, with lethal consequences for people in the north, the interior, and on the island.

Stop all travel – even between regions and communities – until we have curbed the transmission of every single variant (including the “original”). Many states and countries around the world have successfully slowed or stopped transmission by temporarily disallowing any travel – “any” travel meaning anyone being more than 5 km from their home. This harsh, but short-term, imposition is a far better option than this interminable and ineffective semi-lockdown, not to mention than allowing hundreds or even thousands more British Columbians to die.

Secondly, impose meaningful quarantine. “Isolation at home” is not quarantine – not unless no one else is entering that home for the whole period of that “isolation.”

You know that well. And you know that a failed “quarantine” is how the first known transmission of B117 occurred within our province. So do not allow that to happen any more. Any visitors (or residents returning) to British Columbia must undertake a 14 day supervised quarantine. Period.

The majority of British Columbians, who have given up all travel for a year now, must not be put at risk – nor should we be required to suffer this endless yet ineffective semi-lockdown, with all of its implications on our finances and on our mental health – for the sake of those few who choose to travel during a pandemic.

Finally, consider closing schools. For now.

You know very well that the phrase “There is no evidence that… (the infection can transmit from person to person, that asymptomatic people can transmit this virus, that the virus is airborne, that the virus can spread in schools)…” does not mean that this “thing” does not happen. It merely means that this is a NEW virus and we don’t actually know yet: we do not have the evidence either way.

There is, in fact, a lot of emerging evidence from around the world that transmission does indeed occur in schools, and that children may be vectors of spreading by bringing COVID-19 home. There is also emerging evidence from the UK that the new variant B117 has a higher attack rate in children than does the original “wild” variant. We already have B117 in our schools here in British Columbia.

Dr. Henry, you know what to do.

Your failure to act, for over a year now, has cost over one thousand lives. Time to practice what you preach: be brave.

Yours most sincerely,

Jacqueline Windh, PhD

How do we know if we are “due” for the Big One?

January 26, 2021

Today is our Earthquake Anniversary. Three hundred and twenty-one years ago, at 9pm, our last Big One hit the west coast of North America.

Every year, my blog post marking this anniversary (which I wrote back in 2010) gets a lot of attention. That article outlines both what scientists know about the Cascadia subduction zone as well as how we know it – and it talks about what to expect when our next giant earthquake-plus-tsunami event hits.

Pretty much every year, I get questions from readers about when, exactly, the next Big One is going to come, and whether we are “due” or “overdue” for it.

Predicting earthquakes is still not really possible – the best we can do right now is study when past ones occurred so we know how often they happen, on average, and calculate probabilities.

Last year, however, I made a new friend on Twitter: someone who has a lot of new information about this. Jay Patton is an Engineering Geologist at the California Geological Survey, Seismic Hazards Mapping, Tsunami Unit. Part of what he does there is figure out those earthquake recurrence intervals.

Jay retweeted my article about the earthquake anniversary, so I followed him. A few days later, he posted a really interesting map (reproduced below), which explains a lot about scientists’ current understanding of recurrence intervals of Cascadia subduction quakes. It comes from a paper that Jay is a co-author of (Goldfinger et a., 2017: Marine Geology, v. 384, pp 4-16, 17, 25-46), but he modified the map slightly for Twitter.

I was really intrigued by this map (my PhD is in structural geology, but I have been out of the research world for quite a few years) – so I asked Jay a few questions about it. This blog post is essentially an expansion of what he explained to me via Twitter.

Before I go there, though, I just want to get a few definitions and concepts out of the way – to make sure we are all on the same page. (If you are not clear about what a subduction zone is, and why ours is here, then please check out my earlier post first).

What is a fault?

A fault is any fracture in a body of rock along which there has been movement. That movement can be at any scale: from a few millimetres to thousands of kilometres. Most faults are no longer active (their last movement millions of years ago). Some faults are still active. That does not mean that they are moving this second, but it means that pressure is building up across them, and they will move again at some point.

What is fault displacement?

The displacement is how much a fault moves when it slips. Faults do not release all of their slippage at once – rather, they break periodically, slipping a little bit each time (each time it slips is one earthquake). The total displacement of a fault is the total amount the two sides have moved relative to one another over time. We also talk about the displacement during an individual earthquake event, which can be from millimetres up to several metres. (A displacement of metres all at once would generate a very large earthquake).

What is a recurrence interval?

The recurrence interval is how often a specific fault slips on average – in other words, how often there is an earthquake along it. Calculating the recurrence interval is one of the most challenging things for geologists to estimate, because we cannot predict an exact timing for that. That’s why recurrence intervals are expressed as averages and/or ranges and/or probabilities.

What is a fault rupture?

The rupture is the part of the fault that actually breaks. This is a super important concept to get, if you want to understand Jay’s’ map.

Let’s take a large fault zone like the Cascadia subduction zone, which is nearly 1000 km in length. It is possible that the whole fault zone might break at once. But it is also possible (and more likely) that only one section of the fault breaks. The whole fault is there and exists – but only one section of it slips in any one earthquake. The part of the fault that breaks, or slips, during one earthquake is the rupture length. The next earthquake may rupture along a different part of the fault.

Jay’s map covers the length of the Cascadia subduction zone:

The surface trace of the subduction zone lies offshore, extending from Vancouver Island down to northern California. It is basically the region shown in red.

The orange lines that Jay has drawn to the right of the map represent different possibilities for which parts of the fault might rupture. The yellow writing represents the recurrence interval for that fault segment. The recurrence interval is expressed both as an average (e.g., in the north, where I am, it breaks on average every 480-505 years) and also as a range (it can be as little as 110 years and as much as 1150 years).

So the line A represents the entire zone rupturing in a single (huge!) earthquake event. All of the other lines represent partial ruptures – only a portion of the fault breaking in any one event. (Which would still be a pretty big earthquake!).

However, what Jay explained to me, and what I find extremely interesting, is that the northern part of the fault zone behaves very differently from the southern part. Look at the southern segments: C, D and E. Their average recurrence intervals are very small (320 years or less) compared to the northern segments (average recurrence interval 434 years or more).

This is because the southern segments all share portions of the subduction zone when they slip during an earthquake. So the southernmost segment, E, might slip and cause a moderate earthquake. But if the next one to the north, D, slips, the fault will also slip along the segment E portion. For that reason, E slips more often – both on its own schedule and when D goes and triggers E.

Same thing for C: if it slips, it also slips in the same part of the fault as for segments D and E.

And B slips in the region of segments C, D and E. Therefore the earthquakes down at the south end are more frequent. As Jay puts it, “For most earthquakes, the southern part of the fault slips.”

In contrast, up in the north, segment F is doing its own thing. It mostly does not slip when the other parts of the fault slip (unless it is a total rupture along the entire length A). Earthquakes along segment F are therefore much less frequent – which means that they may be more powerful, because the stress across the fault is not being released as often.

So, what does that mean: are we “due” for the Big One or not?

Well, like we said, the last Big One was on January 26, 1700 – so 321 years ago. Here in the north, where I live (on Vancouver Island), these big earthquakes occur on average every 480 to 505 years. If earthquakes occurred like clockwork, right on time according to their averages, you might breathe a sigh of relief: “Phew, we have another 160 years!”

But that is not how they work! An average means just that – it is an average, with a 50% chance of the quake coming “early” and a 50% chance of it being “late.” Look at the range on Jay’s map: the quakes here in the north can be as little as 110 years apart (or as much as 1150 years apart). Looking at it that way, with our last Big One 321 years ago, we are most definitely within range.

So our Big One could come tonight – or it may be centuries away. We cannot predict when the next Cascadia subduction zone earthquake will happen, but we do know that it will definitely happen, and that it will be huge. This doesn’t mean that you should panic, but you should check in with your own community’s Emergency Preparedness program so you know how to prepare for it.

Jay Patton keeps track of earthquake reports around the world, and he also explains a lot of the more technical stuff on his site: you can find him here. And if you like what I have here on my site, or want to keep informed about my current exciting projects and adventures and speaking engagements, please sign up for an occasional email update on my Contact page. (Don’t worry, I respect your privacy and I will never spam you!)

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!

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

November 20, 2020

When we first arrived to work on Expedition 2 of the Marine Debris Removal Initiative (also referred to as the big BC Coastal Cleanup), many of us at first referred to it as a “garbage clean-up.” But Expedition Leader Kevin Smith pointed out to us that most of the stuff we were collecting would not be “garbage” – as in stuff that people had just thrown away. Debris really was the right word: debris washed away from businesses and boats and shorelines. (Photo of me, above, by Jeff Reynolds, Insta @jkr_photo)

This post is instalment 3 of 4 about my experience 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 4: The heli-lifting!

As I mentioned in Post 2, all of the material was weighed going into the helicopter lift-bags. The reason was that the helicopter can only lift a maximum of 320 kg. We had to make sure that we didn’t make any one bag too heavy – and also, it would save time and money to know if some bags were so light (which they often were, with so much styrofoam and plastic) that the helicopter would be able to lift two or even three of them in a single run.

But a side-effect of this documentation of the material going into the bags was that we could record the nature of the debris.

At first, we worked as teams while loading the bags to estimate a rough percentage of the type of debris by class: plastic bottles, styrofoam, rope (general), fishing ropes and nets, fishing floats, etc.

It turned out that recording these estimates was really time-consuming, so we didn’t do that for the entire two weeks we were collecting, but we did it the first few days – so we still ended up with a pretty good idea of what the overall proportions were.

As long as a bag wasn’t overweight, we could tie stuff on the outside too. This worked especially well for stringing up strands of bulky fishing floats. (We didn’t even have to supply the rope – there was plenty around!) We would just chuck the floats down from the logs, then cart them over to site we’d chosen for our lift-bag.

We actually ended up transporting a lot of those floats back to Cascadia, rather than cart them to the garbage dump in Port Hardy (which is where all those helicopter lift bags were eventually going to end up).

That way, the MDRI could donate them for use to the various First Nations in whose territories we were working for use in their own fisheries. (Remember the 3 R’s – “re-use” is better than “recycle).

The ropes and nets, honestly, were horrible to deal with. They were abundant, they were everywhere, they were heavy, and they took hours to cut up.

It would often be a four- or five-person job, to unwind and chop up and remove each one.

Carrying them to the lift bags was tough, too – sometimes a single rope or net used up our full 320kg weight limit for a bag!

Some of the ropes and nets had been there for a long time, too – decades. You would see a little but of colour up above the driftwood logs – a bit of red or orange or turquoise – and then start following it up into the forest. And eventually you would find a whole giant net (or three) tangled up in decaying wood and overgrown by ferns and salal and other shrubbery.

We did, of course, also find lots of plastic drink bottles. By volume, they represented something like 10-20% of the total that we collected – which is a lot less than what I would have expected. A real lot of them were from elsewhere, mainly Asia. The bottle at the top left is Russian.

And we found a lot of just odd stuff too. Some shoes and sandals. A lot of just random foam – probably some of it insulation – as well as some very large items like different types of bins, broken boats and pieces of boats, and fridges and coolers. I think this syringe is the only one we found.

But by far, the bulk of what we found (like 70-80% of it) was debris discarded from the commercial fishing industry – and most of it from overseas.

We found a lot of crab floats like these, with ID tags on them indicating that they were from the USA: mainly Washington state and Oregon.

But most of the commercial fishing debris is from Asia.

Here’s a short video I put together : our Assistant Expedition Leader, Mike Jackson, explains from the deck of Cascadia where the debris came from, and what its impact is on the environment.

One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, right? Not so sure about that – we found a lot more garbage than treasure.

But I was fortunate to be the only person on our ship on Expedition 2 to find a glass ball – while I was digging way up under the salal, pulling plastic drink bottles out from under the moss.

I also kept this cute little float (Japanese?) as a souvenir.

This year, the organization of the MDRI was a huge challenge, and the learning curve by the organizers (led by Kevin Smith of Maple Leaf Adventures, below) was steep. Nothing like this had ever been done before – so a lot of it was figuring out things as we went along, or taking notes of things we would do differently next time.

This photo was taken at the end of Expedition 2, right after the final lift-bag had been dropped by helicopter on to the barge. (We were three weeks in by then – allowed to take off our masks!)

It’s hard to tell the scale of things – but there are over 70 tonnes of debris here on this barge (between the two expeditions, we collected a total of 127 tonnes!) One thing that we all felt terrible about on this first MDRI was that nearly everything we collected was going to a landfill. I know that organizers are already working hard to plan for future MDRI expeditions with an eye for figuring out how we can be more efficient, and especially how we can separate as much debris either for re-use or recycling as possible.

Read on for my final post in this series, BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 4: The heli-lifting! which explains (with some cool video!) how we got those 127 tonnes of debris collected on our BC Coastal Cleanup from the shorelines to the barge: the helicopter lifting operations,

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 2: The work

November 6, 2020

So what did we do out there? This post is part two of my four-part series about the BC Coastal Cleanup – more formally known as the Marine Debris Removal Initiative, which I took part in this past September.

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

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 1: The project

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

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

Post 3 will explain what we found out there – the nature of the marine debris – and Post 4 will show photos and video of our helicopter lifting operations, at the end of the expedition.

Mornings started pretty early. Most days breakfast was around 7am (socially distanced of course – for the first 14 days, meals were the only times we were allowed to remove our masks). Then we headed out in the skiffs – always with a pre-determined destination, but also always checking out the shorelines, to narrow down which of the MANY debris-ridden places we should focus our efforts on.

As mentioned in Post 1, the “beach” cleanup was really not on beaches at all… it was pretty much all rocky shoreline. But still, there are coves and curves in the coastlines which tend to gather the floating debris – everything from soft drink bottles to commercial fishing debris (lots of nets and rope, in addition to all the floats) to children’s toys and sandals and other miscellaneous garbage.

What we did was land at those rocky coves – some of them pretty protected from the ocean swell, and some of them pretty hairy with a lot of wave movement (and unfortunately, that’s when we tend to NOT have our cameras out) – in crews of three to five. We each grabbed some extra-tough garbage bags, and hauled stuff back to huge white lift-bags that would later be removed by helicopter.

This great time-lapse by Jeff Reynolds (Insta: @jkr_photo) shows the procedure.

Depending upon what we found there, we might be there for an hour or maybe for up to half a day. Any really large items – like strings of plastic floats, or hunks of styrofoam, were tied to the outside of the bags.

Sometimes we took a quick snack break on shore:

Sometimes we only had time to grab a quick snack in the skiff between sites (I did not do the Doritos – but I will tell you, the chefs treated us pretty well). That’s photographer Jeff on the right.

Everything was weighed going into the bags, and the total weight of each bag was recorded. We needed to know the exact (well, roughly exact) weights, because the final week of the expedition would be the heli-ops.

At the end of the expedition, each bag would be lifted onto a barge by helicopter, and the maximum the helicopter could reliably lift was 320 kg. (Post 4 will have some cool video of that!) If the bags were light, e.g. lots of styrofoam and plastic bottles, the helicopter would be able to lift two or even three bags at a time – a substantial cost saving compared to flying back and forth).

If there was just a bit too much to fit into the lift-bag – but not enough to justify a new lift-bag – we would haul the debris back to our skiff and take it back to the ship, to be picked up by helicopter straight off Cascadia’s deck later. This is a video – also by Jeff Reynolds – carting stuff down to the shoreline to be picked up in the skiff – that’s me in the turquoise shirt:

A lot of what we found was huge ropes and nets – all debris from the commercial fishing industry. Post 3 will talk more about that. Not only was this fishing debris the most abundant material we found, it was also the most time-consuming to deal with.

Huge and heavy ropes, some weighing 100s of kg, were tangled around and under the driftwood.

We cut them into pieces with little serrated kitchen knives to remove as much of them as possible – feeling terrible about the microplastics these materials were shedding (and which they would do, with or without our intervention).

Depending upon how challenging the site was (in terms for moving over the terrain, as well as how much time was spent digging and sawing up ropes and nets), each team would generally fill between one and three bags per site. We could usually hit two sites every morning and another two in the afternoon.

The bags were tied up and left as high up on the shoreline as possible – aiming to get them above the high high-tide mark (not always easy) so we could collect them by helicopter at the end of the expedition. More about that in Post 4!