How oil spills are spotted in B.C.
'We have the best view in the house'
Six days a week, a large red airplane scours British Columbia's coast — on the lookout for oil spills.
Transport Canada's National Aerial Surveillance Program (NASP) operates two of the red Dash 8 airplanes, one of which is stationed in B.C. The federal department is responsible for preventing pollution from ships. and the surveillance program helps detect spills.
"This is a great airplane for what we do," said pilot Josh Kerr with the surveillance program.
Originally designed as a commuter plane, this particular Dash 8 has been modified to fly slow and bank at a 45-degree angle — manoeuvrability that is needed to spot pollution.
Spotting fuel spills can be difficult because they can differ in appearance. A leak from a small outboard engine can present itself as a slight sheen on the waves, while a bigger spill from a military vessel — like a navy frigate — can create a much more noticeable discolouration in the water.
Last week, the HMCS Calgary accidentally spilled up to 20,000 litres of fuel into the shipping lanes between Parksville, B.C. and Nanaimo.
Keeping an eye out for a spill requires concentration and the ability to multi-task.
You need be able to spot the spill, take a photo of it and then log any information you have, all while sitting beside a large window in a plane that is tilted to the point that it's nearly flying on its side.
"That's why the ability to not get airsick is key," said regional program manager Owen Rusticus.
In addition to the Dash 8, the surveillance program employs other oil spotting tools: a set of high-powered cameras; a side-scanning radar and a suite of remote sensing equipment.
When a spill is noticed, crews try to identify the source of the pollution from their aerial vantage point, and then relay that information to Transport Canada.
Because they're so well equipped to spot things from the air, oil spills often aren't the only things the surveillance program is tasked with hunting.
On any given mission, they may be called on to look for blue whales, scan beaches for tsunami debris, assist with search and rescue missions, and check on shipping traffic.
The Dash 8 was also employed to monitor wildfire activity.
"We have the best view in the house," said Kerr.