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Harbour Porpoise

Cortes-5Jan 1st, 2015

Some of you may have heard of the dead cetacean that had washed ashore in front of Hollyhock last weekend and wondered about what had happened to it. It was a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and although the sexes are hard to tell apart, we think this one was female due to its large size and we could just make out the teat openings on either side of the genital slit. It was 1.9 metres from tail fluke to nose, 1 m in circumference just ahead of the dorsal fin and an estimated weight of about 60 kg.

With darkness coming on Sunday evening, Samantha called the cetacean hotline 1 800 465-4336 who passed the information on to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. We collected the porpoise from the beach to prevent it from being further damaged by the wolves that were seen feeding on it earlier in the day or it being washed out to sea, with the intention to preserve its skeleton.

The next day we photographed and measured it and sent this information to the DFO. Being protected under the Marine Protection Act, DFO will provide us with a letter confirming it had been collected legally. We could not confirm the cause of death because the carcass had been damaged by wolves and eagles but there did seem to be a long, clean gash that may have been caused by a propeller of perhaps by orca and orca were indeed seen from the Cortes ferry that very day.

The porpoise has now been buried under a layer of horse poop and lined underneath with wire mesh so that the flesh will rot away and we can collect the bones for a display at the Cortes museum . The fact that the spinal processes of the thoracic vertebrae were gnawed off by wolves will just add to the display story.

Here is some additional information on harbour porpoises taken from the wild whales, BC cetacean sightings network website

Harbour porpoise have a circumpolar distribution throughout the temperate and boreal waters of the northern hemisphere. Three isolated groups are recognized: north Pacific, north Atlantic, and Black Sea- Sea of Azov. They prefer near coastal waters although occasional sightings in deep water are recorded (see map below). They are frequently seen in BC’s many inlets and fjords. Infrequently, they may also be spotted in brackish rivers.
Harbour porpoise are thought to remain resident for extended periods in one area. They are a very difficult animal to spot and individually identify due to their small dorsal fin, cryptic behaviour, and minimal surface activity.
Harbour porpoises are generally seen in small groups between 1 to 3 animals. Larger congregations of several dozen harbour porpoises are sometimes observed, particularly in spring or fall. These large groups are thought to be feeding on prey that is concentrated by strong, seasonal tides. Harbour porpoise feed on small schooling fishes, such has herring, eelpouts, hake, sandlance, salmon and cod, as well as squid. Calves may also feed on euphasiids between weaning and when they commence eating fish.
Male and female harbour porpoises look similar, and while females often are slightly larger, it is difficult to tell the two sexes apart. Harbour porpoises are often described as promiscuous and polyandrous with significant sperm competition. Males have a marked development of the testes seasonally, which may weigh up to 6% of their body weight during the mating season. In British Columbia, mating appears to peak in late summer to early fall. Females are pregnant for 7 to 11.4 months. A single calf is born mainly from May to September. Nursing may occur for up to 8 to 12 months, but is significantly reduced after the first few months. It is unknown when harbour porpoises reach sexual maturity in the north Pacific, but in the north Atlantic it is around 3-4 years. Females have a calf every 1 to 2 years, and both sexes may live to 13 years.
Hybridization between Dall’s porpoise and harbour porpoise occurs occasionally in BC waters with harbour porpoise as the paternal parent and Dall’s porpoise as the maternal parent. Hybrids tend to appear more similar to Dall’s porpoise in body shape, diving characteristics and behaviour, but they lack the white side patches and the colouring is more similar to the harbour porpoise.
Transient (mammal-eating) killer whales and sharks may prey on harbour porpoises, although evidence of the latter has only been observed once in British Columbia. Harbour porpoises are the most frequently reported stranded cetacean in British Columbia though reasons for their stranding are various. In many parts of their range, harbour porpoise populations are heavily impacted by entanglement in fish nets, particularly gillnets. They also appear to very sensitive to noise and other human impacts in more urban areas.

STATUS IN CANADA_COSEWIC: Special Concern (2003)_Reason for Designation: They appear to be particularly sensitive to human activities, and are prone to becoming entrapped and killed in fishing nets. They are a short lived shy species that are now rarely seen at the highly developed areas of Victoria and Haro Strait. Continued development and use of its prime habitat by humans are some of the main threats. They are displaced by underwater noise, and could be affected by contaminants in their food chain.

Sockeye Salmon

The first salmonberry blossoms are out and the hummingbirds have arrived, spring is here! A time of hope, rebirth and renewal- or at least it should be.

Young salmon are about to leave the freshwater lake and river systems bound for their life in the open sea. But first they must pass through the fish farm infested waters on the inside of Vancouver Island. Farmed salmon have been implicated in acting as a repository for sea lice and other pathogens and when juvenile wild salmon swim by these farms, they pick up a potentially lethal dose.

Currently, there is no clear path for the wild salmon to swim through. Every single channel and passage to the north of the Straight Of Georgia has salmon farms situated in them. There are no fish farm free routes for the wild salmon to take. Several agencies have been pressing to clear out a single route, to have the fish farms removed through Hoskyn Channel and Okisollo Channel. Given the the huge labyrinth of islands and channels on the BC coast, surely one farm free route is not too much to ask to ensure the survival of wild salmon?

Of particular concern this year is the sockeye salmon. While last year’s run was inexplicably huge, the young salmon running to sea this spring are from the 2009 run which was a disaster. The returning spawning salmon in 2009 amounted to only 10% of what was expected and so every single young sockeye running to sea this spring is vital for the continued viability of that run of sockeye. But now to add insult to injury, instead of clearing Hoskyn Channel to give the wild salmon a fighting chance at survival, yet another fish farm has just been activated in these waters bringing the total to 6 farms along this waterway alone.

So now we have the progeny of the catastrophic 2009 sockeye run migrating out past sea lice and virus laden fish farms to face a very uncertain future at sea. There’s the globally changing ocean conditions resulting in shifts in food species. There’s the threat of radiation and vast amounts of pollution and debris emanating from Japan. There’s the host of other natural threats that have always been there, to keep the salmon in balance with their environment; they feed the orca, bears, eagles, sea lions and even the very forests which maintain their spawning rivers.

So what part of this equation is within our power to change? Now? Today before the out migration of salmon begins? We can move the salmon farms out of Hoskyn Channel! Over in Campbell River, the first commercial trials of closed containment salmon farms have just begun operations. Open net farms that allow the transmission of pathogens to the wild fish will hopefully soon be a thing of the past. But that cannot happen fast enough to save these already critically weak wild salmon runs. Sure, in the short term a few jobs might be lost but in the long term we may aid the survival of the wild fish that are so important to the environmental and economic health of the BC coast.

Japanese Tsunami

The students arrive aboard just before lunch on Mondays, grade 9’s from Calgary all excited about their upcoming week at sea. For some it is their first time seeing the ocean but for all it is their first time experiencing the close confinement of life on a sailing ship.

The first thing I try to impress upon them at our safety talk is that once we are away, we are on our own . There will be no easy access to medical aid, fire trucks or rescue. We need to take care of ourselves, each other and the ship. The kids will need to learn how to move around on the boat. Bumps on the head are common place. They’ll learn how to squeeze past each other in tight corridors instead of maintaining big personal space and they learn how keeping their gear neat and tidy will make the boat much more liveable. Often it is the first time some students have had to do dishes and scrub toilets. Keeping the boat ship-shape is a life skill that everyone can benefit from learning.

But outside of the tight quarters of the boat, it is a big world out there. We are going to take the students kayaking, for beach and forest walks and we’ll teach them how to work a sailing ship. The ocean is going to teach us just how wild she can be. Sailing in February and March, we expect some gnarly weather and this year had it’s share of gales and squalls in addition to ice skimming over the anchorages, cold hands as they worked the sailing rig and then day after day of soaking rain. But it is when the waves build and the motion starts, that’s when the uncontrollable force of the ocean becomes apparent. There is no stopping this ride until the next sheltered waterway is reached, no matter how seasick anyone is! And that is a great lesson to learn. We humans don’t control the world. And the price of the lesson is just a little discomfort.

We learned of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on the weather radio Friday morning. Nothing was reported of the damage only that there was no danger for the inner coastal waters of BC. We sailed our last day in peace, our world focused within the hull of our vessel. Seals, sea-lions and eagles were sighted as we ghosted along under sail. Later in the afternoon, the first inkling as to the power of the events occurring across the Pacific was the strange current that sucked and pulled the boat as we left Tsehum Harbour.

Yes, it’s a fragile vessel we’re riding on, we better take care of it kids. And each another too.

Our CO2 Footprint

So it is the end of the year and you are thinking about donating money to any of the organizations that rely on our help to keep doing their good work. But there are so many, how do you decide who to give to and even more important, how much are you going to give? Sometimes it can feel so overwhelming to be faced with so much need, especially if your “donation budget” is limited or arbitrary that indecision stops you from helping out at all. So here are a few suggestions to help you in your generosity.

First off, how much are you going to give? What amount of your hard earned cash does it make sense to give away and how do you justify that generosity to yourself or your family? Well, most of us need to work to make a living and for most of us that involves using some form of fossil fuel burning transportation to make the daily commute. If we didn’t work, we wouldn’t have any money to donate so how about a self-tax on our work related transportation impacts? For the past few years, we at Misty Isles Adventures have self taxed ourselves on the diesel that we used working Misty Isles. This year we have expanded that to include all gas and propane used for our boats and vehicles.

What is our calculation? As a business, we keep all of our fuel receipts. In 2010 we used 2,178 litres of diesel in Misty Isles. Diesel produces 2.7 kg of CO2 per litre and so we produced 5.9 tonnes of CO2 this way. In addition, we used 1751 litres of gas and propane which produces 2.4 kg per litre for a total of 4.2 tonnes of CO2. So in 2010, our business operations produced 10.1 tonnes of CO2. We self-tax ourselves at $50 per tonne and so we have established that we will donate a minimum of $505 to charities. This money is directly related to our work and we regard it as part of the cost of doing business.

But it is also more than this. It is a chance at year-end to review this aspect of our impact on the environment and to see if there has been a change in our CO2 production. It is a chance to at least partially mitigate our impacts by donating to environmental organizations. And it is a chance to reflect on using the sails and bicycles even more!

What if you don’t need to work or commute for a living? Do you still travel for recreation, adventure and learning? Keep your fuel receipts. Websites such as and make it easy to find out your carbon impacts from air travel and other activities. If you travel to someplace beautiful for a vacation, why not do a little good at the same time?

We start by giving close to home. The Georgia Strait Alliance, Friends of Cortes Island and Salmon Are Sacred are all working hard to keep our area ecosystems vibrant and healthy. Samantha is passionate about animal welfare and gives to The Fauna Foundation and Farm Sanctuary. And after my time spent working in the Antarctic, I have a strong affinity for the Southern Ocean and so we give to the Sea Shepherds for their defence of the whales against the Japanese harpoons.

Sure, there are still many more worthy agencies we’d like to help but at least now that we have justified a minimum donation budget, we can be generous to those we feel strongly about.

Our thanks to Barry Saxifrage who supplied the following CO2 calculations for a four day exploration of Bute Inlet and the Discovery Islands we did with a group of six passengers.

Barry writes ” I thought I’d pass along my CO2 emissions research for our trip. Misty isn’t great on CO2 per kilometre…but it isn’t used as a long distance transport vehicle. It is used for vacationing. On that measure it is an excellent low-CO2 vacation option…especially when there are many people on board. Here is the data:”

370L of diesel
2.7kg of CO2 per liter of diesel
420L of gasoline
2.4kg of CO2 per liter of gasoline
62 hours of Misty running
6L diesel/hour = 16kgCO2/hour
75 hours of Misty average engine time
5L diesel/hour = 13.5kgCO2/hour

1/3 tonne CO2 TOTAL
24 hours*5L/hour = 120L = 324kgCO2
1/18 tonne CO2 per PASSENGER
324kg/6people = 54kg/person = 20L/person

How does our 4-day trip CO2 compare to other vacation options?

* SUV with 2 people driving to Nanaimo and back
* SUV with 4 people driving to Victoria and back
* Average car with 3 people driving to Victoria and back
* Full bus driving to Edmonton and back (best land transport option)

* Seaplane Seattle-Cortes = 2 times more per person
* Fly Vancouver-LosAngeles = 18 times more per person
* Fly Vancouver-Toronto = 33 times more per person
* Fly Vancouver-India = 170 times more per person. Each person flying Van to India emits more than they would taking two Misty adventures per year for 80 years.

Grizzly Bear Adventure

After a warm greeting on a cool day, Misty Isles departed Cortes Bay with almost zero visibility in the fog. Many of the guests were quite intrigued watching Mike navigate around the rocks and past other boats by radar and by hearing. We cleared the fog just off Squirrel Cove and ran the rest of the day under mostly sunny skies.

Two of our guests were to have flown in to Powell River that morning and then taken a water taxi to Cortes Bay to join us for departure but their plane could not land in the fog. They spent the day on an adventure of their own trying to join us and when they finally caught up to Misty Isles just a short distance from our destination at Orford Bay, they were very ready for a hot, relaxing cup of tea!

Upon arrival, we were immediately taken by mini bus to where the Orford River and Algar Creek join together. As we walked out on the sand bar we could see the chum salmon hovering in the streams ready to spawn and this is why the grizzlies gathered here to feed. We were fortunate enough to see a large boar come charging through the stream right towards us and catch a salmon no more than 10 metres from where we stood, then return with the fish in his jaws to the opposite bank where he devoured his catch.

That night we ate supper at the Orford bunkhouse, good solid camp fare of roast beef, potatoes, chicken wings, frozen veggies and pie. After a long adventurous day, it was good to hit the bunks in the spartan although comfortable bed rooms.

We were up at 6am the next morning for breakfast and then back out to the sandbar in the growing daylight. In all, we saw upwards of 20 grizzly bears including a very rare sighting of a mother with three cubs. In addition to the bears there were mergansers, bonapart gulls, eagles and herons all feasting on the salmon or their eggs. We even saw a harbour seal swimming in the river close to the bears. The run of salmon comprised mostly of chum returning to the river was not strong this year and any returns at all are due in large part to the fish hatchery here run by the Holmalco First Nations band.

You can’t view these magnificent bears without a sense of awe. To most of us, these top predators exemplify the wilderness and it is a wonder to us that they live so close to Cortes Island. We can only hope that it would remain so. Plutonic Power is vying to put in a run of river power plant further up the Orford watershed. The Homalco First Nations Band who run the bear watching tours are in the planning stages to replace the existing camp with a world class destination resort. The construction of reception facilities, a 5 star lodge, gift shops and all of the attendant infrastructure. We were told that it is only a half hour helicopter flight to bring guests from Whistler to Orford Bay. We were told that they wanted fewer guests with deeper pockets to reduce their environmental impact. We can only hope that the bears agree to this business plan.

Late morning saw us underway onboard Misty Isles again with partly cloudy skies and lunch with a magnificent mountain backdrop. After a close look at the “Hole In The Wall” and the abandoned Holmalco village of Church House, we hoisted sail to take advantage of the westerly breeze as we headed for Toba Inlet. We sighted harbour porpoise along the way and the maple trees blazed yellow on the hillsides. Onboard, we tended the sails and told stories while Samantha served up tea and cookies until late afternoon when we arrived at Toba Wildernest at the mouth of Toba Inlet. We gathered in the comfort of the Mountain View cabin for our supper of “grizzly fare”, Samantha’s famous BBQ teriyaki salmon with fresh, organic vegetables followed by homemade chocolate brownies. The perfect way to end a fantastic day!

Our return to Cortes Island on the third day had us southbound through scenic Homfray Channel to view ancient First Nations pictographs and old pioneer homestead sites. Desolation Sound which is normally full of yacht activity in the summer, was practically deserted and the flat calm waters threw back mirror reflections of the mountains and clouds above. A last bit of excitement was the rendezvous with the water taxi to send our Vancouver bound passengers on their way and then we returned to Cortes Bay to end a fantastic day out on Misty Isles and another very memorable trip.

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