Ocean bottle drop expected to reveal mysteries of currents

Calgary Herald

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News October 1, 2010

Students drop bottles with tracking devices inside into Hartley Bay in B.C. to help scientists learn more about ocean currents.

Photograph by: Courtesy, Ian Jansma

Jenelle Reece and her schoolmates had just finished tossing hundreds of beer bottles overboard when a humpback and her calf swam up for a friendly encounter.

The whales hung around for close to an hour, splashing their mottled flippers and sidling up so close the students could almost touch their huge heads. Then the humpbacks, like the beer bottles, headed for parts unknown.

“Just unbelievable,” says Ernie Hill, principal of the school in Hartley Bay, a remote First Nations village on British Columbia’s Central Coast, who welcomed a chance for his students to participate in a growing global experiment.

The drift bottle project, led by federal scientist Eddy Carmack at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is charting surface currents and how they can carry things along — be it beer bottles, young salmon or spilled oil.

Carmack’s growing army of volunteers from Greenland to B.C. has dropped more than 4,500 bottles since 2000. Each one carries a message saying when and where it was tossed and asking the finder to contact Carmack’s team.

Some bottles beach within days, many sink and the ones that meet their demise on rocks “return to the earth,” says Carmack, as the glass, paper and cork break down.

But others make incredible journeys.

One far-flung “drifter” turned up in Puerto Rico after travelling about 15,000 kilometres — almost a third of the way around the Earth — from where it was dropped near Baffin Island four years earlier. Another 50 bottles tossed off icebreakers and ships in Canada’s North slipped out of the Arctic by Greenland, and were swept across the Atlantic, bobbing along at five to 10 kilometres a day, before making landfall in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Denmark.

Carmack says the bottles do “a pretty good job of mimicking anything that is floating in the surface waters.”

This fall’s 500-bottle drop in B.C. waters helps underscore how poorly understood the currents are off the rugged Central Coast — and the danger posed by plans to ship Alberta’s crude oil to Asia and the United States, says Hill, who is also a hereditary chief in Hartley Bay.

The community, accessible by boat and air, is part of the growing coalition opposed to Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway project to pipe crude from Alberta’s oil-sands to a container terminal in Kitimat, B.C., where more than 200 supertankers a year would be filled and head down a long channel passing within sight of Hartley Bay.

“It would be the end to our way of life,” says Hill, noting the waters are home to killer, humpback and fin whales, five species of salmon and a bounty that has sustained aboriginal people for eons.

Carmack says there is plenty to learn about currents and the “globally unique” waters on the Central Coast. But he stresses the B.C. bottle drop is not a protest against Enbridge’s supertankers.

“The bottles don’t say ‘Stop the oil tankers,’ ” says Carmack, a senior scientist at the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences outside Victoria. “Our group is not taking a stand.”

“This is an experiment, and it’s one the public can participate in, that can add to the body of knowledge that we need to make better decisions,” says Carmack, who has long championed “fish boat” or “folk” science projects that make ocean research relevant to communities and young people.

While the drift bottle project “wouldn’t pass a lot of highbrow scientific scrutiny,” Carmack says the bottles can go where mainstream research won’t, or can’t, because of prohibitive costs.

“It’s really hard to study surface currents,” says Carmack, a veteran of dozens of scientific cruises to the Arctic on Canadian Coast Guard vessels. “You have a vast area and you’re looking at instruments (current metres) that cost maybe $10,000 each.”

The bottles are cheap and, as he puts it, “go with the flow.” So does his team of volunteers, which includes hundred of students, coast guard captains who have facilitated the drops and a retrieval crew that includes Inuit hunters, fishers in Norway, beachcombers in the tropics and an Alaskan couple who asked for a case of beer before revealing where they found a bottle. (They eventually relented, says federal researcher Helen Drost, keeper of the bottle log.)

For the B.C. drop, the folks at the Litehouse Brewing Company donated the 500 brown bottles; a volunteer crew in Victoria rolled up the messages and corked the bottles, and mariner Brian Falconer of the nonprofit Raincoast Conservation Foundation stowed the bottles on board his 21-metre sloop, the Achiever, for the cruise up the Central Coast.

Last week, Falconer sailed into Hartley Bay to pick up students and teachers to help with the toss.

As part of the growing project, Hill says the 34 students in Hartley Bay School are planning to connect with a community in Greenland, which will stash messages made by his students into some of the 500 bottles to be dropped into Baffin Bay.

While many of the 500 bottles will likely wash ashore in B.C. and Alaska, Carmack says it’s possible some will end up crossing the Atlantic via the Arctic before returning to the Pacific.

“A bottle that you toss in off our West Coast could easily follow the coastline of Alaska, slip into the Arctic Ocean, go around the north end of North America, come out in Baffin Bay and join the Gulf Stream and head for Norway,” says Carmack, noting how the currents could then sweep a bottle across the Russian side of the Arctic and back down through Bering Strait.

“It could,” he says, “go all the way around.”

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.