Our beautiful ocean

Joy and Anguish in a Canadian Village: Seeing into the Sea

Living in this coastal town, I am often amazed. The sea reveals very little, to the humans gazing at it, of the universe within its depths.

The water reflects the dramatic sky, deflecting attention away from the precious world it contains, the millions of aquatic citizens who live on the other side of the mirror.

Even the shallow tidal pools reveal a mere handful of the creatures and plants that make their homes in the ocean. The animals tend to be experts at camouflage – they’re quick-moving and adept, with claws, legs, fins and exquisite markings to aid their life-saving escapes.

The Creator’s inventiveness knows no bounds. The creatures of the sea have a roster of flight and concealment strategies – strategies successful just often enough to ensure each species is able to continue its special role in the watery universe.

Ironically, the very element that deflects attention away from those beneath the sea is host to many of the predators who assault them. From the air come the beaks and sharp claws of eagles, kingfishers and gulls. The shoreline hosts other winged predators, such as the Great Blue Heron with its long and deadly bill.

Each plant, barnacle, clam, fish and crab has a role in the watery world. Thousands of intriguing creatures move through the water beside, with and because of thousands of others. Human snorkelers and divers often rave about the waters of the Tropics, but the truth is that chilled waters hold more life.

The diversity around the Sunshine Coast is astonishing. We have Giant Octopi, and pale pink sea stars over two feet across. There are several species of seals, sharks and whales. There’s a host of animals that live in shells. There are crabs in neon colours and fish with every kind of markings you can imagine.

If you are new here, you may not be aware that the waters of the Howe Sound are newly revitalized. The sea is in recovery.

For many decades, the waters of Howe Sound were poisoned by mining waste and other industrial by-products. The fishing industry shrank. People couldn’t take shellfish from local waters.

Now, stunningly beautiful Pacific White-sided Dolphins have returned after decades of absence, and people can trap crabs near Gibsons that are safe to eat. Harbour seals can be seen every day by people on or near the water. River otters, enjoying a good living, make mischief on docks and moored boats.

When I move among the new aquarium tanks in the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre in Gibsons, I’m amazed at the plants and sea creatures the dive team has brought into the Centre from waters around the Sunshine Coast.

It was a shock, the first time I saw the Plexi-glass tanks and the diversity of creatures inside. I’m not a diver or snorkeler, so I’d had to rely on television documentaries to reveal secrets of the ocean. I hadn’t been to an aquarium since I was a teenager, so sea creatures for me were limited to brief glimpses of seals, otters and the occasional leaping fish spotted from my kayak or the beach.

Here, right in the heart of my adopted town, was a universe I hadn’t had the chance to visit. The Marine Education Centre divers and staff biologist had collected entire miniature ecosystems, lovingly reassembled in one room in the Public Market, about a hundred metres from nearby Shoal Channel. I was enchanted.

I’d first seen Shiner Perch out in the harbor, close to the breakwater. They lit up in the sunshine, clustered together, and investigated our kayaks.

In the aquarium, free of worry about Kingfishers’ deft beaks, these lovely little fish are relaxed and curious about everything, in and outside their tanks. There are now three varieties of perch in the Marine Centre, graceful Rockfish of different ages and sizes, two Cabezons, Sand Dabs, Starry Flounders, Poachers, Greenlings, several kinds of Sculpins, Black-eyed Gobes and others….along with a variety of sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers, clams, scallops, cockles, snails, shrimp and a small army of different crabs. Approximately sixty species are represented.

The community of marine beings who swim, glide, crawl, climb and hide in their reassembled worlds is intriguing to people of all ages, even babies who can barely walk.

Half an hour of careful observation will lead any thoughtful person to understand that even the tiniest creature in those tanks – such as a busy hermit crab smaller than half a pea, or a Nudibranch that looks like a floating piece of fluff – is active, responsive and vibrantly alive.

Each creature – an anemone, a crab, a scallop or a clam – reacts to danger, changes paths or strategies in its quest for food or a mate, and moves about in its unique and specialized way. Some are predators, some gatherers, some grazers. Some play the cleansing role of scavengers and some filter microorganisms humans can barely see. In the world of the sea, each has its own role.

Like the bees and bats in the world of air, even the tiniest sea creatures take important roles in the greater scheme of things. The water universe is fascinating.

The creatures in the Marine Centre tanks have chased, fought with, hidden from and made peace with one another. Some compete, some run in schools, and some do courtship dances. One little fish has a habit of perching on the armpit of the most dangerous sea star in the facility. Food has been fought over, but also shared, and eggs have been laid.

The Town of Gibsons, surrounded by waters subject to the influences of others, is blessed by the dramatic yet fragile beauty of the mountain-ringed Howe Sound. When I pull my little kayak onto a local beach, the water looks clear and clean.

When I gaze later at the residents of the Marine Education Centre, I’m deeply affected. Here are our ‘guests’, lifted from a complex world most humans can only glimpse from rowboats, kayaks and canoes. The marine world, despite the powers of wind and sea, is yet another environment profoundly affected by the actions of the dominant air-breathing species.

Humans make unpredictable, thoughtless and often brutal neighbours. We can learn, though, and we can change our behavior when we see good reason to.

Lately I’ve met about two hundred living incentives to change my own habits.            They have eyes, mouths, fins, scales, feelers, claws, arms, legs and more exotic appendages. These individuals will ensure sunscreen will never again go with me to any shoreline, whether salty or freshwater. I’ll take a big shirt or a sun umbrella to the beach, because I have Aquatic Citizens to think of.

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