Water flows in the fabric of west coast culture. For those of us steeped in the maritime life, resisting the pull of the ocean is as futile as trying to still the tides. In my twenties I experimented with living away from coastal British Columbia, but I couldn’t shake a perpetual feeling of thirstiness and craving for the salty ocean air. I returned to Vancouver Island and now live within smelling distance of the sea once again.
With more than 27,000 kilometres of coastline, BC is home to an abundance of marine habitats and ecosystems. For the curious ecologist, the intertidal zones hold the most magic and inspiration. Immersed in seawater at high tide and exposed to wind, rain and sun at low tide, organisms that live in these areas have adapted to the necessities of both land and sea. Some close their shells to protect against harsh conditions, while others attach themselves in place to resist the force of persistent waves. An afternoon exploring tide pools can provide endless discoveries. Sea anemones, barnacles, crabs, sea stars and mussels are just some of the creatures that reside in these ecologically distinct places.
Over the May long weekend, I travelled to Clayoquot Island Preserve to help out at the annual Open Island weekend. Clayoquot Island is located a five-minute boat ride from the popular surfing and camping destination of Tofino, Vancouver Island. With rugged rocky shores and fine white sand beaches, Clayoquot Island is a textbook example of the richness and beauty of west coast ecology.
In December 2015, Clayoquot Island’s owner, Susan Bloom, donated 70 per cent of this island to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). She originally purchased the island in 1990 to protect it from development, and chose to work with NCC to ensure it remains permanently in conservation. Each year Susan invites the community to visit the preserve over the May long weekend – a traditional weekend of celebration on the island that dates back to the early 20th century. This year over 1,000 people came over to explore this normally off-limits nature preserve.
Clayoquot Island enjoys a little-known history of importance in scientific studies. American zoologist Ed Ricketts, one of the first to explore the field of marine ecology, visited British Columbia in 1932, 1945 and 1946. After dropping out of university, Ricketts became a largely self-taught biologist with an intense passion for studying the west coast of North America. As he lacked formal credentials, much of the scientific community dismissed his ideas.
Ricketts persevered, collecting thousands of species from the Pacific Rim’s intertidal zones and studying them in his lab in California. He spent weeks on Clayoquot Island, and wrote about the species he found there in his 1939 book Between Pacific Tides (co-written with Jack Calvin). Ed Ricketts was famous for inspiring the character of Doc in his friend John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. In 1948, he was planning a trip to Haida Gwaii with Steinbeck, intending to complete his comprehensive study of the west coast, from Mexico to Alaska, but was killed in a car accident just days before the trip launched.
Ed Ricketts recognized the west coast’s intertidal life as invaluable to — and indicative of — its overall health and resiliency. As one of the first to study intertidal zones in North America, he put the Pacific coast’s ecosystems on the scientific map. Ricketts also left a legacy in the form of ecologists in the region; those who learned from him consider him their mentor, and continue to study intertidal zones and the creatures within them. During the Open Island weekend, I was lucky enough to meet a man that could be called the reincarnation of Ed Ricketts – another self-taught biologist who has spent decades studying the intertidal zone around Clayoquot Island.
Through its stewardship of Clayoquot Island and other coastal lands and estuaries, NCC is crucially engaged in the conservation of these harbours of intertidal life. This work has special meaning to a salty girl who has spent almost her entire existence near or on the ocean, and is still spellbound by the tenacity of life that chooses to live with one tentacle in the brine and the other on land.
Today is World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate and honour oceans across the globe. The United Nations officially recognized World Oceans Day in 2008. Oceans hold history, stories and myths; fascinating discoveries past and present. Water is a constant across time, language and culture. Let’s take today to celebrate the important research being done on waters around the globe, and appreciate the beauty and intricacies of ocean life.