When I was 17, my sister got a job greeting people at the local Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) for a real estate firm that was promoting building lots on one of the southern Gulf islands situated close to the southeast shore of Vancouver Island. My dad became interested, and the company flew us in a float plane to Pender Island. There he paid about $2,800 for a small, but spectacular, property on a cliff overlooking Swanson Channel to the south. They had a tiny cabin built and made plans for a real home, but things were falling apart for our family and money was tight. They kept the property though. Years later my sisters and I pooled our resources built a small house here.
Below the cabin rocky terraces that support Gary oak, arbutus, Douglas fir and grand fir trees are connected by steep deer trails to the sea 80 meters below and it’s ever-changing tidal currents, birds, otters, seals and whales. In spring the walled terraces that the deer cannot get to are covered in purple camas flowers which are one of the 91 plants and animals that live in this unique ecosystem that are on the province’s species at risk list. This whole Gary oak ecosystem is rare and blessed with a mild, almost Mediterranean climate with the longest frost-free season in Canada. Although you can take a ferry and drive to our place, I like to paddle my kayak. In summer when the weather is good and north westerlies prevail, I can paddle right up to the rocks below our place, haul my kayak up onto some logs and hike up. In winter, which is when I tend to come more, I put in at a nearby cove because our shore is totally exposed to a southeast fetch, which is where the storms come from, and the winds can be severe. For over 50 years I’ve marvelled how fir trees once small sprouted up way above my head. I’ve witnessed arbutus trees turn pale and fall, moss brighten from brown to iridescent green with the coming of winter, guillemots and cormorants paint the steep conglomerate cliffs white with their guano and seals alternatively thrive and almost disappear. People of the Tsawout First Nation lived on the island for at least 5,000 years. Then European diseases decimated their numbers. For them the smallpox epidemic was much, much worse than Covid-19. They had no defence. There may not be a record of how many people perished, but in other communities the death toll exceeded 80%. The fractured community moved with survivors of other villages to nearby Sannich Peninsula. When I think back about my sister having that obscure job one summer and my father buying the property on a whim, I realize that this was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me and my family, and it is still ongoing. Although I don’t live here full time I am grounded here. I do wonder how much more connected to this land and surrounding sea the Tsawout people must have been living entirely off the bounty that exists here.
Swanson Channel — Journal, August, 2016
I am sitting on a bench on a bluff high above the south-facing shore of Pender Island, B.C. Looking south, across Swanson Channel, I can see the low, symmetrical hill on Moresby Island, which is in Canada. To the southeast, across Boundary Pass, I see Stuart Island, which lies within the American San Juan Islands Group. On a clear summer day I can spy through my telescope and watch Americans sitting around a picnic table at the lighthouse at Turn Point, eating lunch. This is where the big south-bound tankers and freighters turn to enter Haro Straight.
Below me, on terraces stretching down to the water are gnarled Garry oak trees, Douglas firs and arbutus trees with ever-peeling red bark that reveals smooth, creamy surfaces underneath. You cannot walk by an arbutus tree without running your hand over these luxurious, cool, polished surfaces. I often see deer: so many, in fact, they are threatening the growth of arbutus trees in many places. They enjoy munching on the young shoots.
With my telescope I check for orca (killer) whales. The orcas that I am looking for are part of the J, K, or L pod members that frequent Georgia Strait in the summer months. They often head westward from Stuart Island across Haro Strait, along Swanson Channel and around the southwest end of Pender. It is easy to spot them. You don’t look for fins or spouts. No, just look for a huddle of power boats, which reminds me of a flock of seagulls zeroing in on a boil of herring or patch of garbage. The whales will be amongst them. Professional whale chasers and amateurs alike claim that their activities are not harmful to the whales. But how do they know that? They seem to be loving them to death.
There are presently 76 whales, including two babies. (Note: as of Oct. 2019, there are 73). Biologists say this is not enough to be sustainable, especially since there are few breeding females left. These orcas hunt salmon, especially chinook, which are the largest and have the richest meat. How could these whales hunt the diminishing number of chinook amidst the racket put out by the power boats?
I have noticed that when the Orcas are being tailed by a swarm of boats they tend to swim in a pretty straight line, like in a procession, and not dive much. Sometimes, though, one or a few laggards come closer to shore and are unnoticed by the boats. These ones often behave differently. They pause more, dive more and change directions. I don’t know if this is a deliberate strategy on the whales’ part to spring a few hungry members, or just chance. You wouldn’t even notice this behaviour if you were not situated above the fray.
Brain scientists (or is it brainy scientists?) regard a high degree of folding in the cerebral cortex to be an indication of high intelligence. The only animals to have more folds in their cortexes than humans are dolphins. Orcas belong to the dolphin family and are their largest member. So, what, with their big, folded brains, do they think about?
They communicate and hunt with sound, which travels much faster and farther in water than in air. It is thought that at certain depths whales can communicate for over a thousand miles using SOFAR (Sound Fixing and Ranging) channels. Each orca pod has its own style of call and individual member calls. They can problem-solve, engage in abstract thought, and remember details of their environment over long distances and time. Their communities are complex and supportive, with old mom, the matriarch, leading the way. They hunt as a group using echolocation. Orcas process sound as visual images and can readily identify family members and prey. What their thoughts are is anybody’s guess, (I can’t even surmise my wife’s thoughts) but surely, they must be at least thinking about family, their marine environment, and hunting. One thing for sure, is that because they rely on sound for everything from hunting to vast distance communication, they must be extremely sensitive to loud noises. There is a rare condition called hyperacusis in which humans experience intense ear pain whenever there is any loud noise. These people can become so isolated they become hermits. There is no known cure. It may be that dolphins and whales, with their highly evolved, acute hearing, are suffering from a form of mass hyperacusis.
Rare snow cover on Pender Island. On left is Stuart Island, USA
Seismic testing is done to prospect for offshore oil. During these tests exceedingly loud, 200 to 300 decibel air guns are shot off simultaneously every 20 to 30 seconds. The tests can last for months. Shortly after a series of seismic survey tests were done in January 2015, off Farewell Spit, on the north shore of New Zealand, 110 pilot whales beached and at least 59 died. Symptoms reported by BlueVoice.org of sound damage on whales beached off Peru included bleeding in the middle ear, fracture and cracks in mandibular fat, air bubble invasions, pulmonary emphysema and massive destruction of lung tissue.
According to a study published in Nature, international journal of science, in order to meet the target of global temperatures not exceeding 2 degrees C above the average before the industrial era and thereby reduce the chances of disastrous global warming (and, incidentally, ocean acidification) most coal, oil and gas reserves and all unconventional reserves must stay in the ground. This includes all oil and gas that might be found under the sea. Since all proven reserves amount to three times more than what can be safely burned (and a study by The Carbon Tracker Initiative indicates that it is five times more, and a safer goal would be 1.5 degree C.), it is reasonable to ask “Why are the oil companies still seeking new reserves?”
It’s all about profits and share price. The values of coal, oil, and gas company shares are still dependent on the size of their strategic reserves, even though it would be collective suicide for us to burn more than a fifth of them. Since the easily extractable fuels have already been found, the fossil fuel companies are going after the hard-to-get ones, such as deposits under the sea. They have to increase their primary assets in order to justify their high salaries and “enhance shareholder value”. This is what managers of these corporations are paid to do and no amount of public relations campaigning or lobbying will change that. Should fish, whales and dolphins die so that the fossil fuel companies can keep exploring for fuels, which, if burned, will speed up global warming and acidify the oceans?
There is some progress on this, and it concerns respecting indigenous peoples’ rights to traditional practices. On July 23, 2010, a judge in Iqaluit, NWT ruled in favour of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and granted an injunction against seismic testing in Lancaster Sound, the gateway to the Northwest Passage and home to prolific sea life, including beluga whales and narwhals. In August 2017 an agreement was made establishing the Tallurutiup Imanga/Lancaster Sound Marine Protected Area. It covers an area twice the size of the Province of Nova Scotia and is Canada’s largest marine protected area.
How did this agreement come about? In the 1960s Canada’s federal government granted 14 million offshore acres in Lancaster Sound to 12 oil companies, without consulting local Inuit. They protested against this for years. Finally, in 2015 Shell signed off on their claims. The agreement calls for a special federal cabinet to work with their Inuit counterparts in a “whole-of-government approach”. A key part of this success is that there has never been a large-scale commercial fishery in the area, because of the sea ice. So, there are no well-funded fishery lobbyists straining to catch the ear of government. And searching for and extracting oil and gas in the high arctic can be prohibitively expensive. In other parts of Canada, and indeed all over the world, there are competing interests for ocean resources. By far the richest and most powerful are the fossil fuel and fishing lobbies. And that is the problem. These companies are bound by their charters to produce maximum profit for their owners and shareholders on a one-, two- or five year time table. They fish down the resource. They pay to influence governments to work in their favour. They pay to elect malleable politicians and to influence media. Today that power is directly opposed to the health of life in the oceans. 90% of predator species have been eliminated and these large companies are going after the rest. Only by breaking this power can we start on a path of regeneration. The great regional and global fishing corporations must be brought to heel.
 (Christophe McGlade & Paul Ekins, Nature Journals, 517, 187–190, 08 January 2015