By Caroline Fox
Marine Bird Specialist, Marine Conservation Program
Journal entry – November 2007:
It’s our last night and tomorrow will be our final marine bird and mammal survey transect back to the mainland coast. I am helping keep watch aboard Achiever and it’s a night to remember: a starry sky above us, aurora borealis in the North, balls of fiery jellyfish and smaller bioluminescence in our wake. A red sky at morning comes, showing the line of a weather front nearly upon us.
At eight knots, we turn Achiever east and run for the coast on smooth, rolling seas. These are the ideal conditions that we “Achievers” wait for, dispersed as they are through all the gale, storm and hurricane-force winds and heaving, boiling, eight, nine and higher meter swells.
Through the open galley hatch, I hear a blow and rush out on deck, just in time to see a humpback’s tail dripping water in the tangerine sunrise. In a fraction of a moment, it disappears below the surface, leaving only a glassy footprint and a few wheeling Seagulls.
Once the sky brightens enough to allow a clear view, I resume my post near the bow, on survey effort to identify and count marine birds. Light and dark morph Northern Fulmars, with their stiff-winged arcing flight, circle the boat. Black-footed Albatrosses, on long distance wanderings from Hawaii and beyond, hover astern on narrow wings spanning seven feet. The occasional Sooty Shearwater bounds by, a dramatic change from other seasons when hundreds of thousands of these birds blacken offshore waters with their masses. Seagulls, dressed up in a variety of plumages and composed of various species and species hybridizations, veer across the bow or fly by in lines heading mostly South. Cassin’s Auklets, small, dusky colonial seabirds, flush and dive ahead of our vessel. These are just a few of the numerous species that comprise BC’s unique diversity of marine birds, all which may forage, rest, migrate, breed, and overwinter in coastal BC.
By undertaking marine bird observations as we criss-cross Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and five mainland inlets, we document at-sea species richness, distribution and density. To the long list of anthropogenic hazards they already face — from climate change to fisheries-related impacts — risks associated with potential oil and gas development on the BC coast lends urgency to our research.
Such development is difficult to conceive out here, 70 or so nautical miles from the mainland, where the big blue sea upwells against the continental shelf. Out here, the surface, the depths below and the skies above are inhabited by such a colorful and diverse multitude of life, including marine birds, which flourish in the productive waters. Out here, marine life and habitat need protection and by discovering what’s at stake, we can work to make it happen.