It is human nature to take our environment for granted. Once in a while we get a reminder of how privileged we are living where we do, particularly if we enjoy being out in forest and field. That is certainly the case living on Vancouver Island. We enjoy a benign climate and we are surrounded by a diversity of organisms that is unparalleled in the temperate regions of the world. Lately I have certainly been reminded of this.
During the summer I have entertained myself by bird watching and enjoying the rich diversity of pollinating insects in my backyard. I have found at least 4-5 species of bumblebee, numerous species of social and solitary bees, as well as flies, beetles and butterflies (although the latter are surprisingly sparse where I live, unfortunately). I am trying to learn to identify the more common species, but it has been tough going as I
have evolved an aversion to killing anything in my old age (insects and spiders can often only be identified if they are killed and examined under a microscope). I and my wife have also been going to the beach or kayaking, and at low tide this provides a wealth of opportunities to see the most wonderful diversity of invertebrate life. With a bit of luck, you get to enjoy sea lions, harbor seals, and river otters, in addition to ducks, gulls, shorebirds etc. And all of this doesn’t even include the incredible diversity of microfauna right under our feet!
I am not a botanist, but I do recognize that plants and algae provide the very foundation of every other life form. You don’t have to be a plant person to marvel at how a Douglas-fir or Sitka spruce tree can develop from a tiny seed into enormous, almost 100 m tall giants, seemingly without using any resources at all! In Nanaimo, we are blessed by Harewood Plains, a unique area with rich flowering plant diversity which covers the open areas in a rainbow of colours every spring. Botanist or not, this area takes your
breath away when in full bloom, and as an entomologist, you can enjoy the rich insect fauna that accompanies the bonanza of flowering plant competing for pollinator attention.
It could be even better, had humans not engaged in virtual genocide against some of the most charismatic members of our biological community. Whales were driven to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling (humpback, minke, sperm and gray whales), or they were simply subjected to random killing because of a lack of knowledge, e.g., fishermen regularly shot at orcas, seals and sea lions. A friend of mine who spent part of his childhood at Hartley Bay told me that they were taught to run away from the beach if orcas were seen because of the misconception that surrounded these amazing animals. Now we tend to aggregate to get a closer look! The epitomy of the persecution folly was perhaps the wanton slaughter of basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, which were commonly sighted in BC waters during the summer months not too long ago. Many died accidentally after getting tangles in fishing nets, but at the height of this slaughter they were even deliberately killed by ramming them with the regional fisheries patrol ship, the Comox Post, which had been fitted with ng a sharp blade on the bow. Basking sharks are now extremely rare visitors to our waters, and then only on the outside coast.
When we did not kill marine life directly, we depleted their sources of food. Seals and sea lions were killed because they competed for fish, which affected the transient orca population, salmon and herring was over-fished and their spawning grounds destroyed, affecting resident orcas. Sadly, the southern residents are now endangered.
One of the most charismatic of the marine mammals is the sea otter. Sea otters were hunted to near extinction because of their incredible fur, which is denser than any other mammal’s. Sea otters lack blubber, so the fur is critical for insulation, which is maintained by meticulous grooming by which a layer of insulating air gets trapped. Oil spills are disastrous, e.g., the Exxon Valdez disaster killed about 90% of the sea otters in the area affected. The removal of sea otters drastically impacted the coastal marine ecosystem as sea urchins, in particular, multiplied, which in turn devastated kelp forests critical as fish nurseries, among the other ecological services they provide. Recent research has shown that sea otters also impact eel grass beds positively. In California, the Elkhorn Slough eelgrass was in decline due to algal growth caused by high nutrient levels from farmland runoff. When the otters moved in, the problem reversed! To make a long story short, abundant crabs suppressed populations of algae grazers in the absence of sea otters. The otters quickly suppressed the crab, releasing sea hares (a type of sea slug) and other species that kept algae down.
I have just finished reading “Return of the Sea Otter” by Todd McLeish. When I read about something that excites me, I tend to get somewhat obsessed. I knew there are sea otters at the northwest end of Vancouver Island, as well as along the west coast further north, so I was starting to think about how to travel to where I would be able to see them. Fate intervened, and I ended up spotting one at Botany Bay, just southeast of Port Renfrew, BC, on a trip my wife and I did to visit Botanical Beach in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park recently. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes, so it took a while to register that it was a real live sea otter. It turns out that otters from the Washington State
population cross the Juan de Fuca Strait and show up in the Port Renfrew area of Vancouver Island now and then, meaning they have to traverse open water over a distance of 17 km or so. Vancouver Island’s established population ranges from Cape Scott in the north, to Barkley Sound in the south. They are descendants of 89 Alaska sea otters introduced to Checleset Bay at the south end of Brooks Peninsula in 1969 and 1972. Presumably, further expansion to the south is occurring, and eventually we may again be able to see these wonderful animals along most of BC’s coast.
The otter was just the icing on the cake, as we saw lots of invertebrate tidepool life, and a black bear appeared late in the day, ambling along the beach as if it was one of the many tourists. Port Renfrew is only 2 hours by car from Nanaimo, so Botanical Beach is easily visited on a day trip (If you have a tendency for motion sickness, this trip may not be a good idea). In the summer it can get extremely crowded, so the best time to visit may be during the shoulder seasons. Even if you don’t want to travel that far, Vancouver Island’s coast offers a wealth of opportunities for enjoying nature. We truly are living in paradise.