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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!

You’re not going anywhere soon: Get a grippe

October 8, 2020

Still wondering whether to have the grandparents over for Thanksgiving?

Don’t wait for our government officials to give you the answers. You probably already know what to do: it’s just not what any of us want to face.

Our leaders in government have dropped the ball from the start. They claim that they are making the best decisions using the best science. In fact, they are juggling many competing factors, from industry pressure about the economy to thoughts about their popularity and the next election.

The science doesn’t factor into their advice as much as it should.

Although few were acknowledging it, the science was clear that this new coronavirus had already started to spread globally back in January, and that it could be transmitted between people who were asymptomatic (or nearly so):

Dave and I had already done all of our emergency shopping (no, not toilet paper – but many items that are imported and may become unavailable) by the first week of February.

Yet it would take our federal and provincial governments another six weeks before they acted in any meaningful way – or even warned people adequately.

Unfortunately, that was six weeks too late. COVID was already here, and spreading.

Today, our governments are still dropping the ball – some worse than others.

Ontario’s situation is perhaps most concerning. At the beginning of this week, the province was facing a backlog of some 80,000 pending test results. With testing centres closed on Monday as the province transitioned from walk-in testing to testing by appointment only, the backlog of real-time test results will only grow.

The best science requires the best and most current data. But Ontario’s backlog ensures that its scientists and politicians do not even have the data:

  • First, they no longer know how quickly the epidemic is growing, or even how many cases there are at present. Second, contact tracing, one of the key strategies that has been used so successfully to slow the epidemic abroad in countries including South Korea and Germany, becomes useless if contacts cannot be isolated or tested in time to keep them from spreading the virus.
  • Additionally, the backlog reduces the accuracy of the tests, since virus RNA in the samples degrades over time, potentially yielding false negatives.

But Ontario is not the only province with problems. In my town of Port Alberni, we received notice this week of the first ever COVID exposure at a school here on Vancouver Island.

Problem is, though, that that exposure happened back in mid-September. I have no idea why there was such a delay in notifying the public – but the result is that by the time potential contacts received it, their 14 day isolation period was alreadty over: they have either already spread COVID through our town, or not.

We will find out how that one plays out over the coming weeks.

Data mismanagement is an issue outside of Canada, too. It was revealed on Monday that the United Kingdom, currently in early stages of a rapidly growing second wave of an epidemic that has already killed over 42,000, had inadvertently under-reported new cases this week by a shocking 16,000 (due to basic misuse of an Excel spreadsheet!)

So how are we supposed to know what to do, if even our governments don’t know what’s going on?

The honest answer is that we don’t need to be told. We already know. Even if it’s not what we want to do, and not what we thought our life had in store for us.

Four things, very simple:

  • COVID19 is very contagious. It can be spread by people who look fine and feel fine. Masks help.
  • The greatest risk of transmission is indoors. So define your one small social bubble and take it seriously. Don’t have people in, and don’t go out.
  • Travel moves the virus between communities. Stay home.
  • And, perhaps toughest of all, find it in yourself to accept this. No, it is not what any of us want. But denial will not make it go away. This is what we must do.

For most of us, the COVID19 pandemic is the greatest crisis we have faced in our lifetimes. Over millennia, humans as a species have proven to be very resilient – although much of our current population has yet had to put that to the test.

Our ancestors did it, surviving years of quarantine from the bubonic plagues of Shakespeare’s time to the Spanish flu of a century ago, or surviving the hardships and rationing of two great wars this past century. Many others the world over are living in conditions far worse than this right now. We can do this too.

So, back to Thanksgiving. Stay at home. And tell your friends and extended family to stay at home too.

Don’t get your hopes up about Christmas, or even about next summer. We are in this for the long haul.

We can be strong and resilient too. The sooner we accept that, and find new ways to go about our lives, the easier it will be on all of us.

And the sooner this thing will be over.

Thanks for your interest! If you want to find out more about my thoughts, my projects and my books, please sign up on my Contacts page for a very occasional email update (no spam, I promise!). And did you get the pun in the title?

Warblers feeding fledglings in the park

August 1, 2020

bird photography warbler nuthatch woodpeckerJust over a week ago, Dave and I were drinking our morning coffee on the front balcony. We noticed some unusual bird activity in the park across the road: flashes of black and white on the tree trunks. So we took our coffees over there to see what was up. There were a whole pile of warblers over there – several different species. All of the activity was because there were fledglings, only a day or two out of their nests, up in the treetops, and the adults were scurrying around scooping up bugs to feed them.

So I went back for my camera. Warblers are very hard to photograph: they are typically high up in the trees, flitting behind leaves and branches, and they move very quickly. This was a photo opportunity at my doorstep!

Here are a few highlights. In addition to warblers (yellow, black-throated grey, and yellow-rumped) there were baby nuthatches and woodpeckers too, and a group of cedar waxwings also flew through.

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The yellow-rumped warblers were by far the most active: swooping low over the grass to flush flies, and probing cracks in the bark on the tree trunks to find spiders and other arthropods.

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The yellow-rumped warblers were fighting with the yellow warblers, all competing for the same territory. This guy gave me a funny look after one of those encounters.

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And this one was a treat – a warbler that is not exactly rare here, but you just don’t see them much: a black-throated grey warbler.

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Warblers were not the only ones with babies out: here is a ragged little downy woodpecker.

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And this little red-breasted nuthatch was just hanging’ around with his spider.

Quite an unexpected but very interesting couple of hours of avian interaction! Especially amazing that all of these guys must have been nesting right here, in front of my house – but they have been so quiet until now.

If you want to be in the loop about my projects and adventures, touch base with me over at my Contact page!

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On having a good camera. Or not.

January 29, 2020

thumbnail_IMG_20191215_152004So here’s something that really bugs me: I show someone one of my nature photographs and they say, “Wow, you must have a really good camera.” Or I finish a slide show presentation, and the first question is, “What kind of camera do you use?”

I mentioned a while back that I would put up a post with photos that I took on Dave’s phone. So here we go…

thumbnail_IMG_20200116_154157Honestly, these days, pretty much any camera – or phone! – is capable of taking a really good picture. Sure, sometimes I lug around 20 or whatever pounds of equipment. But, like they say, “It’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean.” Or something like that.

Yes, of course, if I am heading out for the purpose of photography, I lug the gear.

But if I’m out just for a training jog or something quick, I leave “the gear” behind. If I come across some stunning scene and I don’t have my camera (and of course I don’t carry my phone – I hate my phone!), then I grab Dave’s phone (it seems to be surgically attached).

That’s what this post is: examples of photos I have taken, not with some amazing camera gear, but with Dave’s phone.

These are straight out of the camera, not touched up with Photoshop or anything. And I’ve loaded them up full-size, so you can click on them to see them larger.

Having an amazing camera, with quality glass and a range of lenses, not to mention extras such as a tripod, can give you many additional options. But on the other hand, travelling light – and not having to use up precious time while that gorgeous light changes on you as you are trying to set everything up – can give you a lot of options too.

thumbnail_IMG_20190727_122503_BokehThe real key, no matter what gear you have, is knowing how to work it.

Remember: the word “photography” is photo (light) and graph (painting/drawing). Photography is painting with light.

If you pay attention to the light, and devote a little bit of thought to sharpness (hold the camera or phone still, and manually focus it on the actual thing you are trying to photograph, like this wild orchid and not the background), you can get amazing photos just from a simple camera or a phone.

So – click on these pix, check them out full-size, and tell me what you think!

And, by the way – I have lots of cool projects on this year. If you want to receive an occasional update about my exciting adventures and projects, head over to my Contacts page and drop me a line. (Don’t worry, I will never share your info or spam you).

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A snowy week for the hummingbirds

January 17, 2020

L-8790I have been working on my Anna’s hummingbird photography project for six years – which is when the first Anna’s hummingbirds appeared on my property. They used to be natives only to sub-tropical climes – mainly Southern California and Mexico – but in recent years they have been expanding their range in western Canada, especially on Vancouver Island.

Being a wildlife photographer just means that you have to drop whatever else you are doing, if the timing is right: the orchids are blooming or the salmon or swimming or the leaves are changing colour. So this week it was the #BCstorm blizzard – and I have hummingbirds hanging around the house.

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Fortunately I could do a lot of the photography right from my balconies. My hummingbirds know me – well some of them do – and I know who is likely to perch when, where.

So here are a few of the shots that I got this past week. That’s Squeaky Jr. up top, and Rosetta in the middle. And below, a little video clip of Flathead buzzing up as kids toboggan down the hill in the background. Look up, people!

Are you interested in what I do? Then sign up for occasional email updates about my projects and my speaking events on my contacts page (Don’t worry, I will never share your info or spam you!)

Banded flamingos in Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Mexico

December 12, 2019

Flam P-3041In November, Dave and I visited the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. We’d flown into Cancún a week or so earlier, and were slowly making our way down the coast to Xcalak.

Flam L-2982I’d seen the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the maps as I was researching our trip – a big wetlands area on the east side of the Yucatán Peninsula. No roads in.

Flam S-3034But stopping in Tulúm on the way down, we found out that there were boat trips there. So we left Tulúm early the day we were driving southward, and sure enough, we made it out on a trip with a Mayan guide named Ulises. Our trip looks us to two freshwater lagoons, and in the second Ulises motored us over to where two flamingos were feeding at the shoreline.

“We’ve never had flamingos here in the biosphere reserve before,” he said. “These ones are juveniles. They’ve been here for two weeks.”

I pulled out my camera and did the best I could, handheld and from a distance, from a boat bobbing in the wind. I could see one of the birds had a band – so I took a lot of shots, hoping I’d be able to read the number.

Flam S-3042And sure enough! DXLV is the bird!

Looks like he was banded last August in the Ría Lagartas Biosphere Reserve, up on the northern tip of the Yucatán. I’ve reported him to authorities there, and will add to this post here when I have any updates!

Are you interested in what I do? Then sign up for occasional email updates about my projects and my speaking events on my contacts page (Don’t worry, I will never share your info or spam you!)

Barred owls, woo-hoo-ho-hoooo!

August 28, 2019

L-0043So this is fun. And a bit of a response to all those people who say to me “How’d you get such great pictures? You must have a really good camera!”

Well sure, the camera helps… but no matter what camera you have, you do need to know how to use it. (Honestly, I’ve taken some great photos on Dave’s phone when I wasn’t carrying my gear with me… in fact, I will do a post about that at some point! I’ll link here when I do). Done: here it is.

The big thing about wildlife photography, really, is just spending lots of time out there. Sure, every now and then you go out to the woods or wherever and you get lucky: something interesting happens. An eagle swoops down, a bear pops out of the bush, you come across an active bird’s nest.

But the things is, the more time you spend out there, the more of those lucky happenings you will witness.

So… these owls.

L-9936I have been visiting them for seven years now! I have not yet found the nest – as in actually seen it – but I am pretty sure I know where it is to within about 50 m.

I’ve been talking to these owls, too. They hoot back when I call, and usually they’ll fly over. (And no, I would never feed them, that is totally wrong). The summer before last, one time four of them flew over – two pairs, singing two duets with me!

L-9955These guys are fledglings – probably actually their first day out of the next when these photos were taken (I say that because there were three together – and by the next day they were more dispersed). I’d been chatting with their parents for a couple of years – but you can tell that these guys didn’t know what to say to me. Have a look (and – if you were wondering about the title of this post, this video will explain):

Are you interested in what I do? Then sign up for occasional email updates about my projects and my speaking events on my contacts page (don’t worry, I will never share your info or spam you!)

The Secret Coast Expedition 2019

August 5, 2019

With the support of presenting sponsors the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the Spanish Embassy in Canada, my adventure partner (and husband) David Gilbert and spent a month working our way down the wild, and mostly uninhabited outer coast of Vancouver Island.

Here’s a short clip about what we accomplished as covered by CTV News:

 

 

I’m now working on what will be my next book! It will weave the story of our month-long adventure down the coast with my investigation of the history of the early contacts between the Nuu-chah-nulth inhabitants and the very first foreign visitors here. Most people think of Canada’s colonial history in terms of the English and the French – but LDSC_6731here on the west coast, the Spanish were actually the first explorers to arrive here (in 1774) and to make contact with the indigenous people.

The Americans also played an important role. They were in on the fur trading, of course, but gradually came into conflict with the indigenous people. One of their ships was captured by the Mowachaht Chief Maquinna, who enslaved two of its crew members for over two years. Another American ship, the Tonquin, was sacked by Tla-o-qui-aht in 1811 (largely in retaliation for their village previously being burned to the ground by the Americans) – a final conflict that, for the next half-century, ended foreign explorations into this part of the world.

LDSC_8959Not many people know about this aspect of the history of the Pacific Northwest. The ultimate product of our adventure will be a book which I will both write and photograph (along the lines of my best-seller The Wild Edge), integrating our discovery of the landscape where these encounters occurred, with the history that I research from documents recorded by the visitors, as well as what we discovered through the oral history preserved by the Nuu-chah-nulth inhabitants. Find out more on The Secret Coast Expedition website, or follow me on Twitter to stay updated.

Quick evening hike up the Stawamus Chief, Squamish

January 14, 2019

limg_2563I had intended to get an earlier ferry over to the mainland, but there was too much to do at home. Oh well, it is what it is.  I arrived at the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park parking lot, just outside Squamish, at 3:30 pm, and got on the trail as quickly as I could. The Explore Squamish website said that it is a 2-3 hour hike (return) to the First Peak, but that fast hikers might do it in less. I had one hour to sunset.

I had nothing to prove, so there was no point in me risking anything. It is mid-January after all, and even a minor fall late in the day could mean a night on the mountain (and therefore become life-threatening). I had a headlamp with me, and a spare flashlight. I’d see if I could make the summit in an hour – if I wasn’t near it by then, I would reassess.

limg_2561The trail was steep right from the start! Lots of stairs – but big, high, steep stairs, not like your regular household stairs – made of wood, concrete or hewn boulders of granite! Near the end there were a few metal ladders and chains, to get up the steep stuff (and the last few hundred metres, on bare rock, kind of freaked me out – especially when I turned around to go back down and saw how high and exposed I was!) but it was a totally fun hike.

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The sun had set by the time I made the summit, but I still had great views of the town of Squamish and of Mount Garibaldi. I took 58 minutes going up, spent 4 minutes at the top, and actually took as long hiking down – 59 minutes – by headlamp!

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Birding in Mexico

December 27, 2018

LIMG_1806Dave and I took off to vacation in Mexico – two and a half weeks in late November and early December. We flew into Mexico City without any huge goals or big endurance things planned (I know, unusual for us), aiming to eat lots of mole sauce and visit the butterflies. But of course, we always have our eyes out for the birds! So, more about the other parts of the trip coming – for now, here are some of our birding highlights.

BTW, I didn’t have my “good” camera equipment with me (my SLR and big lenses), but brought my new Canon G3X along. It is much harder to aim and focus than a bigger SLR – but for the size trade-off it actually is a really amazing camera: perfect for travelling.

Cerro Pelón / Macheros

LpIMG_1948Macheros is a very tiny village southwest of Mexico City, at an elevation of 2430 m (around 8000′), and the closest access point to the Cerro Pelón Monarch Butterfly Reserve. We stayed at JM’s Butterfly B&B – which was amazing in every way, including the birdwatching bonus of a rooftop that Dave and I could go up to every morning with our coffee mugs and binocs, and have 360° views of all the birds waking up! The cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer at the top of this post is from there – and here are a few more highlights:

LsqIMG_1776The hummingbirds were fun – this is a white-eared hummingbird.

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And this is a Rivoli’s hummingbird – very hard to catch the turquoise glow of his throat in a photo unless the light catches it just right, but for good reason this species used to be called the magnificent hummingbird!

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And these guys are part of the morning crew that we viewed from the rooftop – gray silky flycatchers.

Angangueo / El Rosario

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Angangueo is a funny little town that is the closest access point to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. It’s bigger than Macheros, and a few hundred m higher – but I say it’s funny because, even though it is the big tourist access point to the monarchs, it is SO untouristy! The few restaurants there close around 7:30 (and they may run out of food before that). But we still liked it anyway – both our visit to El Rosario, and a hike up to the cross above town, where we saw muchos hummingbirds!

LIMG_1983I think these guys would have to be the birding highlight of our trip: red warblers! They have a very small range, so not many birders will ever get to see them. But we actually saw several. This guy was one of our first, up at El Rosario – but we saw several on our “hummingbird hike” up to the cross, too. I’m amazed I got this shot at all – he was moving pretty fast!

LsqIMG_2299This hummer was super-fast moving, and this is the only photo I managed to get of him. He had dark purply “cheeks” and made a loud clacking noise – I am pretty sure he is a hummingbird called a green violet-ear.

LsqIMG_2306And there were lots more magnificents/Rivolis.

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As well as lots more white-eared hummingbirds too!

LsqIMG_2280Oh, and a new species to me – the broad-tailed hummingbird. I found this guy by the high-pitched whining of his wings. I peered into the bush where the sound had come from, and there he was, all puffed up!

Mexico City/Chapultepec Park

LIMG_2403Dave and I are not really city people – so put us in the largest city in North America, and we will find the wilderness! We headed out to the wilder western section of Chapultepec Park – a forested green area right in the middle of the city, that has been preserved as a wilderness area and water source since Aztec time. LshIMG_2394We walked for over an hour and saw almost no one: only one runner and two horsemen.

When we first entered the bush from the road, we spotted this bright summer tanager. Once we were in the forest we saw mostly warblers and flycatchers… I guess it’s time for me to learn my flycatchers!

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So, I think this is a Hammond’s flycatcher.

LsqIMG_2406And I think this guy is a gray flycatcher. Interestingly, both of those flycatcher species also occur at home, in British Columbia (as do many of the warblers we saw down here). Just like us, they’re hanging out in Mexico for the winter!