Forbidden island

Located off the B.C. coast, Triangle Island is crucial to the planet's seabirds — and off limits to humans

(Photo: Jim Lamont)

To the northwest of Vancouver Island, long past the giant cedars and rainforests and on the precipice of the continental shelf, lies one of the most remote and vulnerable places in Canada.

Hard to find on any map, it’s actually one of the most densely populated places on the B.C. coast — if you happen to be a seabird.

Triangle Island, which is 45 kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island and named for its roughly geometric shape, is home to about two million birds that fly in every spring and summer to breed.

It’s also one of the most sensitive ecosystems in North America, and a place where any kind of human presence is tightly controlled. The number of people allowed to visit in any given year is usually fewer than a dozen.

A visit to the island requires a rarely issued permit from B.C.’s environment ministry, not to mention a whole lot of cooperation from Mother Nature to get there.

“The weather out there can be pretty horrendous, especially in the spring,” said veteran seabird biologist Mark Hipfner, one of the very few people who have been allowed to frequently visit the island over the last two decades. (CBC journalists were not permitted to visit Triangle Island for the purpose of this story, so the researchers and volunteers agreed to share their images.)

Hipfner said the protection of this roughly one-square-kilometre island is critical to the survival of the world’s seabirds, but it also serves another mission — as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for climate change.

Hipfner's team is on Triangle largely to study how a changing climate and ocean is affecting the birds’ ability to find food, reproduce and survive.

“The effects are pretty profound,” said Hipfner.

Sixteen breeding species of birds are part of the colony, including this nesting area filled with common murres. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Sixteen breeding species of birds are part of the colony, including this nesting area filled with common murres. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Sixteen breeding species of birds are part of the colony, including this nesting area filled with common murres. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Since 1994, a small crew of scientists, grad students and volunteers from the Centre for Wildlife Ecology have been allowed to work on Triangle Island to conduct a long-term seabird research and monitoring program. The program is a collaboration between Simon Fraser University and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Triangle is like no other island in Canada, and like few others in the world. Researchers gush about being able to live and interact with hundreds of thousands of birds and sea mammals in such a pristine place, calling it an "almost religious" or "otherworldly" experience.

The number of birds that burrow into the ground and nest on the tiny islet is mind-boggling. It’s the breeding ground for 40 per cent of all B.C. seabirds. 

There are over one million Cassin’s auklets — half of the world’s population — as well as about 80,000 Rhinoceros auklets and 60,000 tufted puffins.

The rocks that pierce the shoreline are also teeming with mammals. More Steller sea lions are born on Triangle Island than anywhere in Canada. It’s considered the second-largest nursery for the species in the world.

"It feels like you're not even in B.C. anymore,” said Erika Lok, a marine habitat planner for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Lok has been involved with a recent government pledge to protect thousands of square kilometres of the ocean area around the Scott Islands chain, which includes Triangle.

“It's the remoteness and the exposure and the dynamic environment that supports all the wildlife there. And that's what makes it so unique and so special,” said Lok.

Simon Fraser University graduate student Alice Domalik holds an adult Rhinoceros auklet. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) Simon Fraser University graduate student Alice Domalik holds an adult Rhinoceros auklet. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Simon Fraser University graduate student Alice Domalik holds an adult Rhinoceros auklet. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Simon Fraser University graduate student Alice Domalik holds an adult Rhinoceros auklet. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Triangle Island is the only place in Canada where tufted puffins are found in significant numbers. (Jim Lamont) Triangle Island is the only place in Canada where tufted puffins are found in significant numbers. (Jim Lamont)

Triangle Island is the only place in Canada where tufted puffins are found in significant numbers. (Jim Lamont)

Triangle Island is the only place in Canada where tufted puffins are found in significant numbers. (Jim Lamont)

A researcher holds a Cassin's auklet fitted with a geo-locator tag. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) A researcher holds a Cassin's auklet fitted with a geo-locator tag. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher holds a Cassin's auklet fitted with a geo-locator tag. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher holds a Cassin's auklet fitted with a geo-locator tag. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

The island is also home to one of North America's largest sea lion colonies. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) The island is also home to one of North America's largest sea lion colonies. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

The island is also home to one of North America's largest sea lion colonies. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

The island is also home to one of North America's largest sea lion colonies. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

As hard as it is to get to, Triangle Island was one of the first places where Canadian biologists started recognizing the implications of a warming climate on seabirds.

The team’s research focuses on documenting life and death on Triangle, and over the past two decades, there’s been plenty of both. In 2005, they reported the most catastrophic nesting season they had ever seen.

It wasn’t an anomaly, and it keeps happening every time the Pacific starts to heat up. In 2015, thousands of birds that breed on Triangle washed up dead on shorelines up and down the west coast.

Hipfner said the long-term health of the island’s birds should be of concern to everyone because of what it could say about our own future.

“A world that’s safe and productive for birds is also a world that’s safe and productive for humans,” he said.

A researcher climbs the steep slopes of the island's west side to study birds in their burrows. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) A researcher climbs the steep slopes of the island's west side to study birds in their burrows. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher climbs the steep slopes of the island's west side to study birds in their burrows. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher climbs the steep slopes of the island's west side to study birds in their burrows. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Triangle is such an important breeding ground for the planet’s seabirds that for almost five decades, government officials have banned the public from setting foot on the island.

Today, it’s an ecological reserve under the B.C. Parks system, the highest level of protection afforded to a piece of land in the province, so the island is completely off-limits to everyone except about 10 researchers a year.

It’s also part of a Marine National Wildlife Area that the federal government is proposing to officially protect by the end of 2017 because of its international significance for birds.

There isn’t anywhere to dock a boat on Triangle's jagged shoreline, so the teams of four or five people at a time have to take a helicopter on and off.

With no trees on the windswept rock, the only shelter from the near-constant west coast storms is a 12-by-20-foot, tin-clad cabin with a leaky roof, where researchers cook meals on a propane stove.

For weeks at a time, they hunker down together in four bunks in a structure that doubles as their research station.

“Yes, it’s cozy,” laughed Hipfner. “You’ve got to have people who are prepared to live like that.”

Researchers Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, left, and Mark Hipfner often work all night, when the birds return from the sea to feed their chicks. (Jim Lamont) Researchers Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, left, and Mark Hipfner often work all night, when the birds return from the sea to feed their chicks. (Jim Lamont)

Researchers Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, left, and Mark Hipfner often work all night, when the birds return from the sea to feed their chicks. (Jim Lamont)

Researchers Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, left, and Mark Hipfner often work all night, when the birds return from the sea to feed their chicks. (Jim Lamont)

The island is firmly off the grid. The only communication with anyone outside of Triangle is through a satellite phone, which, like everything else at this far-flung outpost, only tends to work if the weather cooperates.

The only other humans visiting the island are the occasional First Nations and B.C. Parks officials, or the odd fisherman who gets caught in a storm and somehow scrambles ashore.

The wildness of Triangle Island makes it one of the most extreme environments to work in anywhere in Canada. To find, weigh, measure and put geo-locator tags on birds, researchers have to use a system of long ladders, ropes and pulleys to navigate the 200-metre-high cliffs.

Much of it has to be done overnight, since many of the species are nocturnal. The birds dig their nests into holes in the ground, so crew members lie on their chest, sticking their arms into burrows to carefully pull out and examine chicks. It can be a painful ordeal.

“An angry tufted puffin in your hand is bad news,” said Hipfner. “As much as possible, we try to avoid handling adult birds in burrows, because some of them can be a little bit sensitive to disturbance.”

The work can also be dangerous. In 1982, Anne Vallee, a Master’s student from Laval University, was there researching puffins when she fell from a cliff and died. The ecological reserve, which includes Triangle Island, is now named in her memory.

Today, the crew has to wear helmets anytime they're away from the research station, and must follow strict safety rules.

“You have to go in pairs. You always have to let somebody know when you're leaving the cabin,” said Mark Hipfner. “You also have to let someone know where you're going and when you're going to be back — and if you say you're going to be back at four o'clock, you have to be back at four o'clock.”

Common murres also breed in large numbers on Triangle, although they haven't had a successful breeding season in many years, because other birds raided their nests. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Common murres also breed in large numbers on Triangle, although they haven't had a successful breeding season in many years, because other birds raided their nests. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Common murres also breed in large numbers on Triangle, although they haven't had a successful breeding season in many years, because other birds raided their nests. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Hipfner said the warming ocean has been a theme for his team’s research — trying to figure out how it's affecting food webs and how that in turn affects the number of birds that survive on Triangle Island.

He has spent more time on the island than anyone, and has seen dramatic fluctuations in bird populations in the 22 years he’s been working there. From the 1990s until 2007, he said the massive area of ocean where they feed was especially warm, meaning food was hard to come by. There was a dramatic decline in numbers — the birds were in big trouble.

In 2005, the birds that laid eggs almost entirely abandoned their chicks.

The island’s 500,000 nesting pairs of Cassin’s auklets fly over 50 kilometres away from the island every day to find copepods, their major source of food, but the tiny crustaceans had suddenly disappeared from the north Pacific.

About 90 per cent of the young birds died. Researchers worried it was the beginning of a downward trend for the survival of the entire colony.

“It’s gut-wrenching to watch the young birds starve to death,” said Hipfner.

A rhinoceros auklet has its beak measured. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) A rhinoceros auklet has its beak measured. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A rhinoceros auklet has its beak measured. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A rhinoceros auklet has its beak measured. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher holds a two-day-old Cassin's auklet weighing only about 20 grams. (Triangle Island Seabird Research) A researcher holds a two-day-old Cassin's auklet weighing only about 20 grams. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher holds a two-day-old Cassin's auklet weighing only about 20 grams. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

A researcher holds a two-day-old Cassin's auklet weighing only about 20 grams. (Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Hipfner’s biggest concern is that “as the ocean warms due to climate change, and as the frequency of extreme climate events increases ... conditions will deteriorate” for the birds, which he calls “effective monitors” for the environment.

“From a scientific perspective, this is quite interesting, because you don't really think of bird populations as being things that are going to fluctuate dramatically in a short time scale.”

The team has plans to spend a lot more time on Triangle Island and other areas of the B.C. coast over the next couple of years, as part of the ocean protection plan the federal government announced in 2017.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has a permit allowing researchers to continue working on the island until at least 2021.

(Triangle Island Seabird Research)

(Triangle Island Seabird Research)

Photos by Jim Lamont, Alice Domalik, Kevin Kardynal, Sarah Hudson, Ana Gonzalez, Mark Hipfner and Etienne Boucher