Saturday, April 18, 2015

Vancouver's cultural well-being under threat from oil spills

Like most Vancouverites I derive much wellbeing from recreating in the great outdoors that surround our beautiful city. Since I was young, I've valued the opportunities provided by our local mountains for skiing, our old-growth forests for hiking, and the ocean for swimming.

Over the past few years, I have a discovered growing enthusiasm for ocean swimming. The activity revitalizes my mind, body and spirit, all in one activity. One day I discovered that Tower Beach is the most beautiful beach in Vancouver, with the cleanest water, and so I started undertaking long distance swims from there.

However, this Spring the water is polluted with toxic bunker fuel and no one is allowed to swim there. On April 8th >2000 L of toxic bunker fuel spilled from a ship and swimming may be a danger to our health (City of Vancouver's report). I would like to know when we can go back and swim at our beaches? However, I have bigger questions, which revolve around the value of our local beaches and recognizing the critical benefits we derive from recreating along Greater Vancouver's spectacular shore.

Namely, What is the opportunity cost of not being able to swim? Who is compensating us for lost opportunities? The answer is that no one is paying for the opportunity cost of this terrible accident. The cost associated with the spill has been externalized, which means that neither the polluter, the city, nor the clean up crew will pay the true cost. The true cost is spread across over 2 million Vancouverites who cannot access the cultural values, such as recreation, in high demand from our marine environment.

The purpose of this post is to illustrate the costs of lost swimming through a narrative. It's a story about the high value that myself and likely many others attribute to swimming in the ocean around Vancouver.

This is the story of my first swim from Tower Beach:

I emerged from the forest to see that the tide was in and that choppy waves were lapping right up to the edge of forest. This meant that the shore was impassable for hiking, but for swimming the high tide would be fine. In fact, this seemed quite exciting because as I jumped in to the water and began swimming north I knew that I was committed to the swim. The next exit point from the water was 1.3 km away.

I traversed along shoreline peering down into the clear turquoise water, which felt smooth and fresh on my skin. I recalled a blog entry by Peter Scott, local ocean swimming guru, that advised ocean swimmers let their hands gleam along the surface of the water while bringing their hands forward to start another stroke. This was a method to help sense the waves and adjust one's swim to the ever-changing rhythms of the ocean. I tried this and just as the Scott suggested, I could better sense the waves. I sank into an efficient stroke, heading dead straight and timed to the rhythm of the ocean.

Such efficient swimming and unexpected comfort in the choppy sea was a novel feeling for me and I became mindful of my fluid movements and wonderfully content in my activity. Suddenly, swimming felt as natural as running or climbing a tree. I admit that I even imagined myself as a giant fish, whale or seal. Some creature native to the marine environment. I passed Acadia Beach, which marked the 1.3 km point but I was feeling good so I decided to continue on.

At one point I looked up from my swim towards the shore, which was full of people swimming and picnicking. A classic Vancouver site. Suddenly, a big black cormorant jumped up from the sea. He had allowed me to swim almost right next to him! Smiling from this I turned around to see that just behind me, perhaps following me, was a seal. In great detail I could see his whiskers, eyes and glistening grey skin. I could even hear his deep raspy breath. Astonishingly, We were only about 4-5 meters apart! We observed each other for what must have been over 30 seconds before he gasped a deep breath and disappeared into the water below me.

I swam into shore at Anchor beach (1.9 km from my starting point) then jogged back to Tower Beach in bare feet. As I arrived back at my starting point it was just in time to watch a fiery red sun disappear behind the mountains of Vancouver Island. As I watched this, I felt content. A deep sense of peacefulness and satisfaction with my experience renewed me. It was as if I had just spent days alone in nature. I had discovered a sense of comfort while swimming, and that feeling stayed with me as I watched the sunset. This feeling stayed noticeably with me for many days to follow, despite the fact that they were busy work days back in the lab at UBC.

About one week later I had an amazing revelation about that comfort I had experienced in the ocean.

This revelation occurred while I was listening to a very wise man, Rueben George of the Tsleil-waututh First Nation, speak of his First Nations's connection to the ocean. He accounted an annual canoe journey done collectively by aboriginal peoples all along the BC coast. Rueben told the audience of a common sentiment he and other First Nations paddlers shared. He explained that their time on the ocean permitted them a sense of spiritual oneness with the sea that revitalizes their spirits and fills them with a long-lasting sense of strength.

To his people the ocean supplied spiritual inspiration and the well-being of his people. In my travels of coastal BC I had learned of the importance of the ocean for coastal First Nation's subsistence but I never understood the spiritual connection between humans and the sea.

Rueben George was speaking on behalf of his First Nation, and about their concern that one day oil would contaminate their home. He explained that his nation derives sustenance, spiritual balance and cultural identity from the ocean. He was worried about the construction of a pipeline, the Kinder-Morgan, pipeline that was proposed to deliver 550,000 barrels of diluted bitumen to the Burrard inlet for export

I left with a new perspective of my relationship with the sea and the implications of how the proposed pipeline could affect my own and our city's collective well-being.

The long-term, pressing effect from this pipeline will be its contribution to climate change; the pipeline will export 86.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum, which is much more than all of BC's current within-province emissions of 64 million tonnes; learn more here: UBCC350. Climate change is a critical concern, but the short-term, localized threat of an bitumen spill  is an erosion of our health as a city. Vancouver is considered one of the most desirable places to live in the world. It is blessed with natural beauty and outdoor recreation that rivals any city on earth. Our healthy environment sustains the health of our minds, spirits and economy. As Vancouverites, our cultural identities are explicitly linked to the environment that surrounds us

As I write this, Vancouver beaches are closed for swimming. The costs of this for cultural values, such as recreation opportunities and our cultural identities as Vancouverites, are externalized. Now its really clear to me. Even a spill that is relatively trivial in size compared to a tanker spill is disrupting the cultural benefits we derive from the ocean. Externalities are common but some are more concerning than other. I emphasize that the impacts of oil spills to the cultural values we derive from the ocean surrounding are of significant concern to more than two million local residents.

Unfortunately, during this past spill there have been no efforts to compensate for the loss of these cultural values. Furthermore, I want Vancouverites to be aware that consideration of these cultural values, or strategies to mitigate oil spill impacts on them are absent from the Trans Mountain Pipeline Environmental Assessment.

A sceniuc shore traverse from Tower Beach to Anchor beach

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I am back in town, the water is warming and its time for Vancouver ocean swimming!

Frigid Pacific Ocean along the Oregon Coast
I recently returned home from a 10 month bicycle-powered journey from Vancouver to Panama. It was one of the finest adventure trips of my life. Highlights included 10,800 km of cycling among nine countries, a half dozen mountain summits, two months engaged as a tropical forest research assistant in eastern Panama and a variety of ocean and freshwater swimming experiences. The inspiration behind the trip was to search for the world's largest trees (see but I packed along my swim cap and goggles since I was planning to follow the coast many thousands of kilometers right into Central America. Unfortunately, the Oregon and Northern California ocean is substantially colder than I was accustomed so I swam very little until entering Mexico at which point I promptly lost the goggles without ever using them. It did not seem like there was much time to swim anyway as I was cranking out over 100km a day to get to the Mayan heartland for celebrations of the Dec 2012 solstice.

I later bought a snorkel on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and swimming picked up with some fantastic offshore reef snorkelling at Tolum and then interesting swimming continued all throughout Central America. Notable experiences were swimming against large wind-driven waves at Lake Nicaragua, the only lake in the world with freshwater sharks;  an adventurous solo swim nearly a kilometer up the dramatic Somoto canyon in northern Nicaragua, which is (or was?) apparently contaminated enough to make me concerningly ill; and my daily baths in a remote jungle clad stream with my team of indigenous forest researchers where little fish nibbled on my nipples (quite annoyingly).
Lake Nicaragua

Those were all interesting times and the whole trip was a genuinely fulfilling life experience (check out the main blog). But here we are talking about swimming and lets get back to Vancouver swimming.

Surprisingly, the scenery and freshness of Vancouver's waters seems in some ways superior to all other places I have been. I know I wont get shark attacked, jellied, sting rayed or nipple nibbled. Its just good clean fun here and I am stoked to get out my wetsuit, reconnect with the local sea, and train up for a big swim at the end of the summer.  Last year I ended the season with a 5 km swim in Howe Sound from Sunset Marina to the far side of Boyer Island (with boat support). This year I would like to do something similar or even step it up a notch... I just need to find the time and get motivated, which should not be hard. Our northern beaches are rich in spirit and hold a place in my heart. Upon reviewing some of my blog from last summer I am reminded of the invaluable revitalization I experience swimming among the seals, below the herons and eagles perched on twisted firs. I remember spending hours along the rocky shore swimming, running and doing yoga and can feel the health and balance I experienced. Enough said, Im back to it. Tomorrow I go for my first ocean swim of the year!

My friend James Caldwell cycled with me from Vancouver to Mazatlan. Here we rest a night and swim in the Sea of Cortez on the Baja California and aside from the jelly fish it was picture perfect. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

No more swimming!

Good day ocean swimming friends. I'm afraid I will not be swimming in Vancouver's ocean waters for some time now. It's neither because an oil spill has occurred nor have I been forbidden from the beach by strict Vancouver beach policy. Rather, it is because I am joyfully travelling southward for the winter towards warmer waters and returning my attention entirely towards forest adventure and away from the sea, or at least to some extent. 

 I am cycling along the west coast of the United States exploring the world's largest and tallest trees with the aim of eventually making it down to the southern tip of the continent. So, while my main interest is now in trees, I am still delighted to travel parallel North America's pacific coast all the way to Panama. Some of you may be proud to know that I am travelling with swim cap and goggles but I gotta say from my current location south of San Francisco (2300 km later) that I am having a hard time finding anywhere to swim. Nothing yet equals the convenience, relative warmth, or safety from predators and strong currents as we have at our local Vancouver shoreline.

I can hardly wait to return to swim in our local waters and I hope no oil spills ruin this potential while I am gone! Vancouver is one of the best places to live in the world; we prosper as a city and as individuals in our healthy environment and transporting tankers of diluted bitumen out of our port will not improve our welfare, while risking it enormously. 

anyway, check out my new blog, the adventures are so far wild!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Liberty through nighttime ocean swimming

The police officers, in their heavy uniforms and gadgety belts, were helpless to stop me as I dived into the sea and sped off towards the darkening horizon. It troubled me that they held authority to force me and my friends to leave the beach following sunset but this concern seemed to wash away with the rolling waves because I knew that while Vancouver's beaches may sometimes close, the ocean is always open.

I had last seen my friends as they were launching their canoe from the far end of Wreck beach under the watchful eye of one of the police officers enforcing Vancouver's beach closure policy. I would have felt more comfortable swimming out into the uncertain waters had my friends been with me, but I left them before entering the water myself to run up and down the access stairs to build some body heat. Despite feeling a bit alone, these were familiar waters and as long as I was able to eventually find them down shore I could retrieve my gear from their canoe, which included my warm clothes, my dinner and the key to my bike lock. I was hoping they would arrive safely because their was some major ocean swell coming in, almost too much for a canoe to handle.

The horizon ahead of me was burning a fiery orange and red while the sky above still had a vibrant, almost neon blue tint. The old trees above Wreck Beach still glowed in warm light from the horizon and the unique shapes of tall Douglas-firs and arching alders were still distinct amidst the forest.

Swimming out from the shore towards the first point felt liberating because the beach had been so crowded and now I was alone. Also, I knew I was one of a few beach goers who would actually enjoy the sunset on this fine evening. 'Sunset' does not end when the sun dips below the horizon. Sunset is never an instantaneous event, rather it is a period of the day that lasts for many calm, sometimes euphoric hours. It should be legal to enjoy this period of day that is undoubtedly appreciated by most people, but in Vancouver all beaches are closed the moment the sun sets and they remain closed until 8am, long past the time that the sun rises.

But this didn't matter, those troubles were long behind, I was now passing the big rock at the first point and could see the first Tower up ahead. It is getting dark, though, and the forest has lost its glow and the water below me has become obscure and black. Removing my goggles for clearer vision I switch onto my back and see there are stars over head, dozens of them. The ocean swells are the largest I have swam in along these typically calm shores but they are moving with me, propelling me and I enjoy their slow lift and gentle drop. I cant help but wonder what may be in the water below or around me but it doesn't matter because whatever is there is not a threat. Harmony is with me on this swim.

Soon, more stars are appearing and the empty space around Earth grows ever bigger, more expansive, until I have to pause and float motionlessly in the rolling swell. Tilting my head back and chin up I can see a horizon of water appearing above me and stars and endless space in between. I am dumbfounded by the vastness of the universe from my deep perspective. Despite being at least 40m from solid land, I feel deeply grounded in the Earth and while my focus and imagination drifts towards distant galaxies I know where my physical self remains.

A camp fire is lit along the shore so I hollar towards it in a way that my friends would recognize me if they were there. The people at the fire respond enthusiastically, as if they have been greeted by a talking seal somewhere out in the dark waters. I suspect they cannot see me. It is not my friends so I swim onwards with my eyes peering into the now black ominous water below me. About 30 minutes ago I considered landing on shore and walking but I knew that the shore is extremely rough and rocky and the going would be no safer or easier, so I continue.

Finally, I near the second tower and my shouts are greeted by those of my friends. I swim towards them, cross the intertidal zone and am finally able to sit down and relax. We join an already lit fire powered by the constant supply of driftwood from passing log booms and experience a beautiful and healthy evening, meeting some interesting people and watching the annual Percy meteor shower that reached its climax this night. There is no better place to be around this city for watching the meteors, listening to gentle roar of waves and spending time with friends by a campfire, so I stay until it is becoming light again. This is one of the simplest, but most pleasurable evenings I know. Finally, at 5:30am I decide to leave, sleep is appealing to me and I am aware that the park rangers may soon be coming down the shore to tell us that it is illegal for us to be there until 8am. It is forbidden to watch the sunrise (6:04 am on this day) from there.

From my discussion with police officers and parks officials, my understanding is that our city's beaches and parks close at night due to past incidences of violence and/or sexual assaults that have occurred during the night. Presumably, the rules are also intended to keep squatters from the beaches and reduce littering caused by beach users. While I agree, that we should respond to these incidences, as we should always periodically examine our rules and laws based on emerging empirical evidence, I question wether closing down our city's beaches is an acceptable solution. While I suspect, though I'm not sure, that this has lowered undesired incidences, it comes at significant costs on our liberty and enjoyment of ourselves and for me anyway I feel that my charter rights and fundamental freedoms (sec 2) are being infringed upon. This includes my right to gather peacefully in public spaces, as well as freedom of religion. If my freedom of religion seems irrelevant please read, but in short I will point out that my spiritual well-being is almost entirely fulfilled by my interaction with nature and that sunset and sunrise are specific times of day where I often slow down and embrace the beauty of our Earth that feeds my creativity and sense of wholeness and well-being.

While rigid regulations may meet the objectives they were set out to fulfill, they come at varying costs so I think its essential for democracy that we question them. If I had more time and energy, the next time a police officer interrupts my beach meditation, especially if it is after a very long and stressful week of work, I would politely explain to the officer the importance of my time down there and refuse to leave. This might end up in a fine or unlikely in an arrest but it would be interesting to see how it played out in court.

Connections with the forest and sea result in citizens appreciating and respecting the environment around them. If Vancouver wants to be the 'greenest city' by 2020, it must encourage interaction with nature rather than forbid it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Attempting a shore traverse

During my first ocean swim, I failed to traverse Wreck Beach against a strong current and I was freezing cold and disoriented when I emerged from the ocean. Nonetheless, the experience was invigorating and I was eager to go out again.

My second swim was three days later on Friday, June 30th. Just before finishing work for the day a deluge of rain began outside with strong force. I decided to change into my swim gear at work, in UBC's Forest Sciences Center, and then run the kilometer or so down to Wreck Beach in my bare feet. I rationalized that not only would my things stay dry inside the building but a wetsuit seemed like suitable attire for running in rain and I hoped my body temperature would increase from the run before entering the frigid water.

The beating rain sounded like soft drums hanging from the forest canopy as I sprinted down the Wreck Beach stairs and onto the desolate beach. The ocean was so calm amidst the torrential rain that it looked somewhat sheltering so I eagerly jumped in and headed towards the outer buoys. In the absence of any current or waves to challenge me, I arrived with ease in the open sea. I was curious if venturing north towards Tower Beach was feasible but was totally unsure of what to expect.

Peering around the Wreck beach point and seeing new shoreline ahead was too enticing to resist so I swam onwards embracing the unknown and letting the tingle of adventure trickle through my body. The tide was extremely low so I kept quite a distance off shore to dodge the boulders along the beach. I hit a rock with my hand and then swam further out to avoid more submerged rocks.

Stopping for a moment I removed my goggles and gazed at the surroundings. Across the glassy sea from me and towering above the beach was a verdant jungle cloaked in patches of hanging mist, a few tall conifers pierced the continuous canopy of maples and alders.  Echoing with the rising melodic song of singing thrushes, the forest appeared to be thriving in the rain, just as I was thriving in the water.

While stopped I noticed that a current was actually helping me forward along the shore as if I were swimming down a slow moving river. With this realization it seemed I could swim forever, if only it was not so cold.

My hands and feet were going numb as I passed the bottom of trail 6 and continued towards the World War II light towers at Tower Beach. While passing the first tower, the water transformed dramatically. Suddenly it became much saltier, clearer and warmer. I realized that I had been in the water coming from the north arm of the Fraser River, which is diverted by a 7km long jetty to meet the ocean at Wreck Beach. I guessed correctly that the water also became cleaner at this point, later I looked it up to see that Wreck beach at that time had one of the highest coliform bacteria counts for Vancouver area swimming beaches. It was still decent (about 30% of the safe swimming limit-- Vancouver Coastal Health), but the water around Tower Beach and many Vancouver beaches is apparently much better.

Finally, I arrived at Tower Beach and cautiously clambered my way across the slippery boulders towards the trail. I had a deep chill so I charged up the stairs at full speed then kept running at the top towards the Museum of Anthropology. Inspired, perhaps by the totem poles, Haida longhouses or the curious looks given to me by a couple tourists outside the museum I sporadically decided to run down trail 6 before circling back up at full speed. I was beginning to build some comforting warmth so I continued running along in my bare feet and sprinted once again down the Wreck beach stairs and across the beach and into the ocean. I swam quickly out to the outer buoys before circling back ascending the stairs and jogging back to my work place for a warm shower.

I covered about 1.7km on my swim and a few kilometers running. The entire experience was incredible for me. I got to see the beach in peaceful solitude and the trees in their true rainforest element all from the perspective of a seal. Exploring the outer shoreline was a new experience and dodging boulders and running like mad in my bare feet through torrential down pour added extra excitement. That was enough for me to be completely stoked on ocean swimming and I knew I had much more to experience, considerable more distance to cover.

My route showing running in red and swimming in blue. The photo shows the Point Grey Peninsula jutting off the main land into the Salish Sea, with UBC then Wreck and Tower Beach at the end. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Trying out the wetsuit, the first swim.

Like many Vancouver residents I derive a significant amount of my recreation and physical exercise from outdoor activities such as skiing, mountaineering, hiking, cycling and rockclimbing. Recently I have escaped from chlorinated, often busy swimming pools and began swimming in the ocean. Of course, the ocean around Vancouver is usually frigid so for this I purchased a wetsuit. I bought a 'shorty' wetsuit for $25 at the local sports consignment store, which I figured was a reasonable price for helping me access a distinct and likely beautiful outdoor swimming experience.

My first ocean wetsuit swimming experience was a couple weeks ago on June 27th. In just a few minutes I cycled from my work place in UBC to the Wreck Beach trail, descended the steep staircase, arrived at the beach and entered the ocean. The coldness stung my lips and my face quickly went numb as I left the beach swimming towards the outer buoys. I noticed a strong southward current so I angled against it aiming to beat the current and arrive at the far end of the beach. I am a fairly inexperienced swimmer so my arms quickly tired from the front crawl forcing me to switch to a backstroke. Here, I watched a great blue heron, with a tremendous wing span fly nearly right over my head. Inspired I then looked to my left and spotted one of my favourite groves of trees in all of UBC, a group of tall, several hundred year-old Douglas-firs with dead spiked tops above a steep cliff, so dramatic.

Accustomed to the calm and clear lanes of UBC pool, the waves, zero visibility, strong current and cold water that exceeded the comfort zone of my wetsuit was challenging and slightly disorienting but I was pleased to be sharing the space with seagulls, great blue herons and even a seal whose head I spotted further out instead of competing for space in the lanes
. When I emerged my teeth were chattering, and I was exercised to the max. I had to quickly dry, change and run up the Wreck Beach stairs to regain my body heat. The swim was hard but I felt unbelievably exhilarated and felt amazing for the rest of the day. I was almost sold on ocean swimming but I wondered if I could handle it?