Heading north to the Great Bear Rainforest

A few days aboard Achiever, Raincoast's research vessel

A map of Achiever's spring transit northwards with many of the animals seen along the way

by Lori Waters, Science Outreach Communications

Each year, Raincoast’s research vessel Achiever is brought home for winter-safekeeping near Nanaimo BC, where her annual maintenance is performed. In spring or early summer, she again transits north, nearly 600 kilometres, with a shakedown crew of Raincoasters who perform any final repairs, and ensure that she’s truly “ship-shape” for the field season to come.

This year’s transit began mid-June from Protection Island near Nanaimo, where scores of blue herons nesting in a rookery were feeding their nearly-fledged young, and where racoons fed in the intertidal zone, looking for purple shore crabs and other tasty morsels. Coming along for the first leg of the journey, a very young Raincoaster asked lots of great questions about weather and wildlife, and enjoyed his turn at the ship’s helm. Transiting north through the Strait of Georgia on a flat calm and sunny day, we spent time with several groups of harbour porpoise, before heading to our first anchorage in Quathiaski cove, near Campbell River.

Banner showing herons, raccoon and young Raincoaster at helm
Left to right: Young Raincoaster at helm, herons at a rookery and a foraging raccoon.

Weighing anchor the next day at 4am, we set out for Seymour Narrows — an 18km stretch of water well-known for its treacherous currents, which, during large tidal cycles, can reach speeds of fifteen knots (nearly twenty-eight kilometres per hour!). This is the same stretch of water where Ripple Rock used to lie in wait for unwary mariners, and sunk over a hundred ships before it was blown up in the world’s largest non-nuclear man made explosion in 1958. Even at a slack tide here, the water roils with whirlpools and eddies.

The head of swimming grizzly bear in one of the small channels
A young grizzly swimming across Thurlow Channel north of Campbell River

North of the Narrows, the wind and waves picked up significantly, and Achiever’s transit headed inland for calmer waters, between the Thurlow Islands. There, Andy Rosenberger – a marine biologist with Raincoast’s wild salmon team, spotted what at a distance appeared to be a seal, but upon closer approach turned out to be a grizzly bear swimming across the channel. Landing on shore, the grizzly clambered up the bank, and walked nonchalantly into the forest, seemingly unbothered by the boat passing nearby.

An opalescent nudibranch in a small tide pool near Alert Bay
An opalescent nudibranch in a small tide pool.

Continuing once again, we found a sheltered bay to inspect part of the vessel’s equipment and prepared for potential repairs at the night’s anchorage. Three of us went ashore at Blenkinsop beach in search of wolf tracks or other interesting signs of wildlife. This beach stretches out in a long muddy tidal flat, populated with bivalves, plentiful mussels and gooseneck barnacles on the enormous driftwood trees ashore here. In one tidal pool nearshore, we found an opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis; left) – a tiny member of the phylum ‘mollusca’. This beautiful creature is not as fragile as it might seem, and stores nematocyst stinging cells in its own cerata (tentacle-like protrusions along the animal’s back), which it gleans from eating its prey – sea anemones.

Many bald eagles in a tree
Bald eagles wait patiently in a tree.

Further up Johnstone Strait, near Chatham Point, Discovery Island, and Blackfish sound, Achiever slowed her transit so we could watch a feeding humpback whale. An area of strong currents, the upwelling here means that plentiful nutrients make this a popular spot for feeding eagles, with some trees having two and three eagles on every branch. With the first leg of the transit ending, we headed into Port McNeill for a crew change, some would be leaving us, and new crew joining. Just outside Port McNeill, we witnessed a small black bear run quickly away while a larger black bear came down onto the same beach – both animals looked very healthy with thick, lush coats. With the small bear gone, the larger animal meandered along the intertidal zone on the beach, and we headed into port, to be greeted by a Rhinoceros auklet.

Leaving Port McNeil, we gathered the remaining supplies and admired the giant plumose anenomes below the dock, and the thousands of green gunnels in the mudflats as the tide quickly began to flood. We pulled out and headed for islands nearby in a beautiful area known as “God’s Pocket” where the ocean was full of life, and the skies and water full of seabirds.

We couldn’t do the work we do without our research vessel Achiever. However, as many of you know, boats require a tremendous amount of work including yearly haulouts, gear upgrades and safety equipment. Help protect BC’s coast by supporting Achiever.

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At anchorage that night, the water was very turbid, as it was thick with phytoplankton and zooplankton. With visibility of only about three metres in the water, a short zooplankton tow of ten metres brought in a thick green plentiful sample containing many species of both holoplankton and meroplankton (zooplankton species which are distinguished by whether they spend their entire life cycle, or only the juvenile portion of their lifecycle as planktonic organisms drifting in the sea), phytoplankton, and diatoms.

Banner showing black bear on shore, marine bird and humpback tail
Left to right: Black bear, Rhinocerous auklet and humpback whale.

After hauling the sample, much of the evening was spent looking at and identifying these creatures under the microscope, before returning them to the ocean later that evening. With darkness fallen, pouring the sample back into the water resulted in a cascade of sparkles, as many of these creatures contain luciferin, the light-emitting compound responsible for the magical phosphorescence. When marine waters are stirred at night, these abundant tiny creatures light up beautifully for a moment, like water-borne fireflies.

Leaving the beauty of “God’s pocket” on an overcast peaceful morning, we saw sea otters – including some mothers lying back with their young atop their bellies – and were heartened to see this species return to a more plentiful state, having been extirpated from many parts of our coast during the height of the fur-trading industry of the 1800’s. After saying goodbye to the Northern tip of Vancouver Island near Cape Scott, we headed offshore where whales often feed. We saw rocks thick with Stellar sea lions as we transited north for the day along Goose bank, toward the Goose group of islands, not far from the Raincoast field station and our final destination of the transit near Bella Bella.

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Although this stretch of water can be rough and inhospitable, we were fortunate to have light winds in our sail and a mild swell. This area was also bountiful with seabirds – rhinocerous auklets, Brandt’s geese, several species of cormorants, grebes, pigeon guillemots, murres, grebes, loons and murrelets – among others. Before setting out again towards Queen Sound, we took a portion of the morning to explore the expansive tidepools of Goose Island, and retrieved some derelict fishing gear that was thick with Caprella caprella – also known as “skeleton shrimp” – a very interesting (and I think beautiful!) crustacean that is an important food source for diving ducks and other marine life.

Kyle Artelle, Raincoast researcher at the field station in Bella Bella
Kyle Artelle – a Raincoast scientist – at the field station in Bella Bella.

The final morning’s transit was misty and damp, with some much-needed and welcome rain. This year has seen little snow pack on the Coastal mountains, and a drying coast with little rainfall in May or June has meant that many creatures are under increased pressure, with low stream flows affecting wildlife and humans alike.
Arriving at the field station that afternoon, we enjoyed talking with Kyle (Raincoast’s field station co-ordinator and bear project researcher), and hearing about the successes of the spring field season. The bear research crews had just recently departed back to the university to analyze their data and write about their findings. With the “shake-down” transit of Achiever complete, we headed south. Achiever prepared for more crew, her whale monitoring field trip, and other projects that lay ahead.

Look for a ten-year anniversary update on the fascinating story of Raincoast’s determination to acquire and rebuild Achiever, enabling her decade of service (so far) to research and conservation.

Thanks for coming along for the journey and for your continued support of Raincoast’s work! I hope you enjoyed the transit and that these trip notes from only a few days on the coast helped share some of the incredible beauty and vibrancy of the biodiverse coast we work so hard to protect!

Photos and map by Lori Waters

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