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November 12, 2012

The Great Bear Rainforest vs. Big Oil

I'm on the deck of the Maple Leaf-- a 92-foot schooner sailing near Campania Island, British Columbia, about 400 miles north of Vancouver as the eagle flies,  off the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest.

I clutch the mast to steady myself against the rolls of the mighty Pacific. It’s raining and windy on this late September day, but I have no desire to go down below deck into the warmth and security of the galley.

Because we're surrounded by whales.

A huge fin whale -- the second largest mammal on earth -- floats just to starboard. Four or five humpbacks dine nearby -- their tails making graceful splashes as they dive. Our captain, Kevin Smith, has put a hydrophone in the water. And suddenly the air around us is blasted with deep, alien voices—the whales are talking to each other. As humans we can only marvel at the beauty of their mysterious conversations.

"The humpbacks go to Hawaii to mate," Kevin explains. "But they have been proven to practice their mating songs here, off the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. They try them out and perfect them before they take them to Hawaii." I wonder if that’s what we’re hearing now, or if the humpbacks are chatting with the fin whales about all the abundant fish they have found here. Do the fin whales, humpbacks, and porpoises speak the same language?  I don't have the answers to these questions: I just know that the whales have to keep singing. And if Canadian Big Oil giant Enbridge and its allies in Canada’s Federal Government have their way, and the massive Northern Gateway pipeline/tanker route proposal is approved, the whales may leave this place forever. They'd be driven away by the abrasive sound of huge tar sands oil tankers bound for China coursing through the narrow channels of their pristine habitat several times a week. Or even worse, there could be an oil spill.

I know one thing for sure: I don't want the happy, healthy, talkative whales we're looking at now...

(Photo: Elisabeth Keating)

...to be silenced forever. To end up looking like this whale -- a victim of the B.P. oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Enbridge wants to build a pipeline to transport tar sands oil, also known as bitumen, from northern Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. Once in Kitimat, the bitumen would be loaded onto supertankers destined for Asia and the United States. Depending on the pipeline output, 225 to 340 tankers a year -- up to six per week -- would weave a hazardous path through an obstacle course of the narrow, reef-studded channels and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest.

I signed up for this nine-day trip inspired by an August 2011 National Geographic article about the Spirit Bear. Rare genetic variants of the black bear, spirit bears' coats are pure white. Only a few hundred exist, their habitat contained almost entirely within a small part of northwestern BC in the Great Bear Rainforest. Since the huge wakes generated by tanker traffic would kill the salmon upon which the bears depend even if there wasn't an oil spill, the survival of this rarest of bears depends upon stopping Enbridge’s tar sands tanker plans.

Starfish, Porpoises, Sea Lions, and Wolves

I knew I desperately wanted to see a spirit bear. What I didn't expect was the mindboggling abundance of all kinds of wildlife that we have seen so far on this trip through the Great Bear Rainforest's marine ecosystem. Ten minutes out of Bella Bella, as the crew was explaining the safety rules on the ship, a humpback surfaced, interrupting our conversation. It's been like that every day since then.

Starfish of every color -- purple, red, gold, azure....

(Photo: Kevin J Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures)

Dozens of curious sea lions, living on a rocky archipelago....

(Photo: Elisabeth Keating)

And day after day, schools of Dall porpoises leave their feeding to accompany the Maple Leaf -- catching a ride on her wake as they joyfully jump beside our prow to our immense delight.

Great Bear Rainforest
(Photo: Heidi Krajewsky)

The day after we listen to the whales, we visit Campania Island. Fresh wolf prints crisscross the beach, clear evidence that a large and healthy pack lives here -- sustained by a diet of salmon, clams, seals, and deer.

Wolf Prints
(Photo: Kevin J Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures)

As we hike through a bog and climb to the top of a massive windswept rock that affords a view of the harbor, a howl silences our conversation. Suddenly the whole island resounds with howls as more wolves join in the conversation. "The wolves can see us up here, even if we can't see them. They're saying, 'This is our island. You can visit, but don't get too cozy here!'" says Heidi Krajewsky, the ship's naturalist. No sooner do the wolves subside than a humpback surfaces just off shore. "Wow, wolf howls, then whale watching from the top of Campania Island," marvels Kevin. "That's a new one, even for me!"

  Watching Whales on Campania Island
(Photo: Kevin J Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures)

A Treacherous Tanker Route

Later that day, as we sail through magnificent Whale Channel along the very course of the proposed tanker route, Kevin takes out a map and shows us the many hazards any tankers would encounter.

There's already been a B.C. ferry wreck: In 2006, the Queen of the North struck a rock and sank, right along the proposed tanker route. Diesel fuel is still leaking from the wreck.

And as 2010's oil spill disaster in the Kalamazoo River demonstrated, safety isn't one of Enbridge's top priorities to put it mildly. This is a beautiful, calm day in September -- yet Enbridge proposes sailing four to six tankers a week, year-round in all kinds of weather through highly treacherous shallow waters. Even worse, on deceptive maps that Enbridge uses to promote its plan, entire islands are dropped to create the illusion that the tankers will pass through a clear and unobstructed, perfectly safe channel. Compounding the issue is the fact the tankers will be carrying bitumen -- especially toxic and difficult to clean up.


We sail past the steep banks of massive Gil Island. It takes us 30 minutes to pass the island. "Looks pretty substantial, huh?" says Kevin cheerily. "Well, Gil Island got left off Enbridge's map."

Even our small schooner is constantly course correcting and on a computer in the wheel house, the crew monitors water depth constantly. Kevin spreads out a map and shows us the course Enbridge proposes for the tankers. As a sailor and native British Columbian with deep roots in this region he knows the hazards well.

Watch Kevin give a tour of the proposed tanker route.

Though we chuckle at Kevin's humorous demonstration of the tanker route, we're all sobered by the nightmarish prospect of the playful Dall porpoises that are following us, and the two humpbacks that just sped by, struggling to survive, covered in bitumen. Yet the threat could reach well onto land, also, to the incredible rare bears that drew me to this wild coast.

As we leave Whale Channel, the Maple Leaf's course is set for the spirit bears' habitat: Gribbell Island. Our thoughts turn from whales and wolves to bears. Tomorrow, I reflect with rising excitement, I'll finally have a chance to see a spirit bear for myself.

Read Part 2 of Elisabeth's journey to the Great Bear Rainforest.

How can you help?

For more information and to help protect the Great Bear Rainforest from tar sands oil tankers contact these organizations who are working for a tanker-free B.C. coast:

To learn more about eco-tourism trips on board the Maple Leaf, contact Maple Leaf Adventures: http://www.mapleleafadventures.com/

-- Elisabeth Keating, Communications Chair of the Sierra Club's Washington State chapter.


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