British Columbia·Feature

How oil spills are spotted in B.C.

The National Aerial Surveillance Program uses specially modified aircraft to patrol B.C.'s coast and keep a look out for fuel spills.

'We have the best view in the house'

The National Aerial Surveillance Program, or NASP, operates a red Dash 8 which has been modified to fly slow and bank at a forty-five degree angle. 0:36

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.

The Dash 8 sets off on another coast line patrol. (Sterling Eyford/CBC News)

"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.

Pilot Josh Kerr is shown here spinning the Dash 8 above Port Alberni, B.C. The plane's ability to roll at such a steep angle is instrumental in spotting spills. (Sterling Eyford/CBC News)

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.

It takes a fastidious eye to spot some of the smaller spills. (Sterling Eyford/CBC News)

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. 

Owen Rusticus, shown here looking at sensory and video information, is an aerial observer and technologist. He is also the Regional Manager for NASP, based out of Vancouver. (Sterling Eyford/CBC News)

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.

A view out the right side of the Dash 8, overlooking Victoria's Ogden Point and Inner Harbour. (Sterling Eyford/CBC News)

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.