Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Moving to the west coast made me more of an environmentalist

Years of closeness to the sea, the vistas and the wilderness have been transformative

Being up close and personal with wilderness and wild animals changes your perspective

An orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker in the San Juan Islands in 2015. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Seven years ago, I traded a half-century of living in downtown Toronto for the exquisite beauty of Vancouver Island.

Being surrounded by the ocean, mountains and endless greenery makes you appreciate nature more fully because it is in your face every day. The mild winters mean there is more opportunity to be outdoors and realize the true value of this rich, natural environment. It also helps you realize how much that environment is under increasing threat from human activity.

Victoria is situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, surrounded on three sides by salt water. There is a place not far from my home where you can look to the south to see a long line of snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains, then turn to the left, face east, and gaze across the Salish Sea, formerly Georgia Straight, to catch the coastal mountain range framing Vancouver, with the snow white volcanic cone of Mount Baker in Washington state, towering above them all. In the immediate vicinity, everything is green, all year long.

As a sailor, I cruise among the Gulf Islands and rugged B.C. coast accompanied by seals, dolphin and whales who inhabit these waters. An encounter with sea mammals from a small boat is a powerful experience. Seals poke their dog-like heads out of the water and look at you with curiosity for a minute or so, before quietly slipping back beneath the surface.

Dolphins announce their presence with the "phush" of air escaping from their blowholes, followed by a quick "shup" as they take a quick breath, so you often hear them before your see their torpedo-shaped bodies effortlessly gliding through the water beside you.

A pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Julian Laffin)

One close encounter with a dolphin happened on a dark night when I thought something had fallen off the boat and dropped into the water. When I looked over the rail, a dark eye on a glistening body was looking back at me, swimming on its side, looking up to check me out. I was stunned to think that this warm-blooded, air-breathing mammal relative of mine was totally comfortable in cold, dark water that would kill my naked body in minutes.

Whales appear first as plumes of spray from their blowholes, then with the appearance of dorsal fins cutting the surface. It could be the short sickle-shape of a humpback, or the long black triangle of the killer whale. If you see one, you will likely see others, as they usually travel in families.

And all of this is happening within an hour of my home.

But even though it is easy to get away from humanity, you can't escape signs of human activity. Farther north are isolated beaches, only accessible by boat, where old-growth, temperate rainforest hugs long stretches of white sand with no human footprints. You get a sense of what British Columbia looked like before clear cut logging and condo development.

Yet even here there is garbage. All along the high tide mark are discarded plastic water bottles and other containers, fishing floats, nets, and rope, running shoes, tires, and since the tsunami, many items with Japanese writing on them.

To see the sharp contrast between one of the last untouched wilderness regions on the planet and the careless littering of human refuse with your own eyes is a sad, enraging experience. How can we smear the beautiful face of nature with our trash?

Orcas in the Georgia Strait (Port Metro Vancouver)

When you live in this environment, you want to protect it, all of it.  But as you will hear on this week's special episode of Quirks & Quarks, we have some hard choices to make when deciding what to save. In the end, it is not about focusing on particular species, whether its killer whales, polar bears or songbirds, but rather, it is about preserving their habitats — marine environments, boreal forests or the Arctic.

Of course, the reason these habitats have been destroyed is because of industrial and urban development, so the challenge is to hold onto nature without compromising the economy. Surprisingly, conservation scientists have found what are often simple ways to preserve habitat so everyone benefits.

Removing barriers to fish migration up rivers and allowing marshlands to grow around deltas is one example. The result is a cleaner river, more fish in the sea, a robust whale-watching industry and improved waterfront where people want to spend time. This does not have to be at the cost of development. The two can go together if habitat is taken into consideration during the planning stages.

Canada is blessed with vast wilderness areas, and nowhere is it more spectacular than on the west coast. Out here, in what is now my backyard, you can see exactly what we have to lose and it is precious indeed.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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