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Monique Keiran: Ferries join the quest for knowledge

The Queen of Oak Bay joins a long, illustrious list of vessels used for marine research off our coast. Earlier this year, the B.C.
The Queen of Oak Bay joins a long, illustrious list of vessels used for marine research off our coast. Earlier this year, the B.C. Ferries ship was outfitted with scientific instruments to sample ocean-surface and atmospheric conditions as it travels its Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay run.

The scientific equipment was added during a $7.7-million upgrade that began last November, and was provided by Ocean Networks Canada, a University of Victoria-based marine observatories network.

It is the third B.C. Ferries vessel to be enlisted for research by the network. The Spirit of Vancouver Island, which plies the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, was outfitted as a mobile observatory last November, and the Queen of Alberni, of the Tsawwassen-Duke Point run, began collecting data in 2012.

Information collected by the ferries will supplement seafloor data obtained by Oceans Network Canada’s 50-kilometre-long VENUS coastal seafloor-cable observatory that lies at the bottom of the Strait of Georgia, the Fraser River Delta and Saanich Inlet.

Other ships that have added to our knowledge of B.C.’s marine environment include the Canadian Coast Guard Pacific fleet. Research vessels such as the CCGS Vector, John P. Tully, W.E. Ricker, Neocaligus and R.B. Young monitor midshore and offshore ocean conditions. The ships have, at times, been integral to Ocean Networks Canada observatories, but they also conduct federal research.

The ships that operate out of Pat Bay Coast Guard Station monitor the ocean by regularly collecting seawater and biological samples from about 80 stations in the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. They also sample conditions along a 1,500-kilometre line west from Vancouver Island.

The ships combine high-tech electronics with age-old sampling technologies, including using bottles and nets to collect seawater and sea creatures. Electronic sensors automatically measure properties such as temperature, salinity and fluorescence, while the scientists analyze the seawater’s oxygen, nutrients, chlorophyll and other physical, chemical and biological properties.

The data provide insight into ocean climate, circulation and currents, local biology and much more. The information helps researchers understand the primary processes at play in the ocean in the region.

Over the decades, they’ve observed emerging trends, such as gradual ocean warming and decreasing oxygen levels.

Naturalists voyaging to the northeast Pacific Ocean during the Age of Discovery would recognize some of the sampling techniques used today. When Capt. James Cook and Capt. George Vancouver explored these waters and surveyed the B.C. coastline in the late 1790s, their accompanying naturalists also collected sea creatures using bottles and nets. To capture sea birds and coastal mammals such as otters, seals and sea lions, they used clubs and guns.

Early scientists were interested in the Big Stuff — larger plants and animals — over chemistry and nutrients. Surgeon-naturalists William Anderson and William Ellis, who travelled with Cook to the North Pacific from 1776 to 1780, and naturalist Archibald Menzies, who voyaged with Vancouver aboard HMS Discovery from 1791 to 1795, packed and preserved thousands of critters in barrels and bottles to ship back home to museums and universities in Britain. Some of the specimen didn’t make it, and disintegrated or decomposed en route.

Later naturalists, aboard ships such as HMS Blossom (1825–1828), Vénus (1836–1839), USS Vincennes and Peacock (1841) and USS Albatross (1886–1896), investigated the economic viability of the north Pacific whaling industry and otter- and seal-pelt trade, and inventoried potential commercial fisheries in the region.

Bit by bit, through sheer numbers of voyages and collected critters and information, the naturalists built pictures of the natural and economic resources of the northeastern Pacific region, promoting its absorption into seafaring empires and worldwide trade networks.

Today, the work continues, but with more finesse and at finer scales. Now, however, the questions being investigated extend beyond mere economics and trade into ecosystem health, regional sustainability and global change. And what those might mean for B.C. and for Canada. 

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