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Take a ride on the supertanker superhighway

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By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

A new report says the risk to the B.C. coast from increased oil tanker traffic is higher than previously thought. If you want to see for yourself what a tanker spill would mean to the B.C. coast, take a ride on the Prince Rupert to Port Hardy ferry and follow one of the routes proposed for some of the 200-plus oil tankers that will carry Alberta bitumen out of Kitimat, B.C.

The 275-nautical-mile ferry trip takes more than 12 hours and passes through some of the deepest wilderness in the country, perhaps on the planet.

Port Hardy, a budding container port, is south of Kitimat, B.C. - the end of the proposed and much-debated Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Once you leave the harbour, the ship enters the Inside Passage, a slim but deep channel that threads through a long chain of islands that provide almost complete protection against the open waters of the North Pacific.

Throughout the journey through the surprisingly narrow channel, it feels like you can reach out and touch the shoreline from the railings on either side of the ship. 

Fortunately, the water is very deep. The channel is actually a sunken valley between what are basically mountain peaks sticking up above ocean, forming the line of islands. 

Along the way, there is a good chance you will see a grizzly bear looking for salmon; you might pass a pod of orcas competing for the same fish, or spot the spouts of grey whales that migrate up and down the coast. 

The one thing you will not see for almost the entire journey is a sign of humanity. 

After hours of nothing but the sight of thick, unbroken forest stretching from the water line outwards in all directions, you come to realize how large and unpopulated most of British Columbia really is. And this route only covers about half of the B.C. coastline. 

After passing through this long route, you come to appreciate not only how pristine this wilderness is, but also how remote and hard to reach it is. And how few facilities are available. 

Imagine getting all the equipment required to clean up an oil spill into that region. And a spill will happen sooner or later. 

According to the latest studies, a spill is not a question of "if;" it's a matter of calculating the probabilities of when it will eventually happen. Riding on the ferry, it's amazing to see how a 160-metre-long ship can navigate such a narrow channel, especially when negotiating two almost-90-degree turns at the southern end. 

It was a bend in that aquatic roadway that claimed the Queen of the North ferry in 2006, which sank after failing to make the turn and ruptured its hull on the nearby shore. Oil tankers are twice the size of ferry boats.

And as we saw during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, oil spreads rapidly and immediately once released. We also saw how difficult it is to contain the oil once it gets loose, especially that part of it which mixes with sea water and sinks, or is intentionally mixed with dispersants and deliberately sent to the bottom. 

And that tragedy happened in an area surrounded by oil cleanup technology that could get to the site within hours. Just getting to this remote part of British Columbia can take days, and that's in good weather. For much of the year, the temperatures are low and conditions are much less hospitable than the warm tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Gulf spill also happened in a very large open area connected to the Atlantic, so ocean currents helped to disperse the oil. A spill in the Inside Passage would be trapped between the close shorelines, where it could foul the rocks or sink to the bottom of the very deep channel, totally out of reach of everything - except the animals that live there. 

Even a single spill would have devastating, long-lasting effects on the Inside Passage.

So here's an idea: let's take all the people making decisions about tanker safety - from the oil industry, shipping companies, governments (provincial and federal), even invite the Prime Minister - on a ferry ride. It's a long way to Prince Rupert and a long day on the water. It will also be one of the most beautiful trips they will ever experience. 

During that slow journey along the magnificent temperate rainforest coastline, let them imagine turning it into a supertanker superhighway, and how much effort it would really take to stop the damage if only one of those ships strayed just slightly off course. 

Let them see with their own eyes what's really at stake and what needs to be done to protect it.