A change both remarkable and concerning is taking place in the waters off the province’s coast – in an area some are calling “tropical B.C.”
A group of scientists and divers are sharing incredible footage and photos that show warm-water sharks, sunfish and dolphins roaming the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
“[We’re] diving and exploring and documenting the changing ocean that we’re experiencing,“ said Ian McAllister, a conservation photographer with Pacific Wild, a non-profit wildlife advocacy group.
“The species that we’re documenting are largely predatory, and from the vast schools of jellyfish that’re stretching from Alaska down to California preying on juvenile salmon, to mackerel and Mola mola sunfish, to tuna and sharks coming in shore: these are all having a significant impact on the native life that our coastal ecosystem is built from.”
Part of the surprising transformation is taking place in a patch of coastal water about 240 kilometres off the north coast of Vancouver Island – where the continental shelf drops off into about 2,400 metres of water.
“On the one hand, it’s amazing, it’s fascinating to be diving with species that I’ve never seen before in these waters,” he said. “They’re not just rare visitors but they seem to be doing quite well here. The problem of course is that this is happening at such a rapid rate and on such a profound scale.”
Warm-water species are becoming more comfortable farther and farther north as research organizations like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration say the sea is warming rapidly.
Those species include blue sharks, rarely seen in the frigid Pacific, leatherback turtles and fur seals.
In February, a rare Risso’s dolphin was found dead on a Haida Gwaii beach.
The month earlier, an emaciated Guadalupe fur seal was rescued from a beach in Pacific Rim National Park, but later died despite the efforts of veterinarians.
While the tropical creatures are certainly a sight to behold in Canada, McAllister said the long-term impact of the changing ocean is unclear.
“The lack of that stability is causing untold harm,” he said. “What the long-term impact will be from what’s happening to our salmon, our herring stocks, these massive algae blooms that are more than likely the cause of the unprecedented levels of marine mammal deaths that we’re documenting on our coast, what this all means is a big question mark.”
Along with McAllister, National Geographic photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier are closely watching the shift.
“I think what we’re seeing is just a glimpse into how the oceans are going to look in the future,” Mittermeier said.
Both say they’ve been awe-struck by the beauty of the new visiting species, but they’re deeply concerned they will wipe out the ones there before them.
“The sad thing to see is to be photographing dying sea otters, photograph dying orcas, there’s been dying humpbacks and fin whales, so there’s been this hardship and tough things to photograph as well as the beautiful things,” said Nicklen.
From its home base in Bella Bella, Pacific Wild is continuing to send teams out to explore the area.
According to the organization, only 1.3 per cent of Canada’s oceans are under “meaningful” long-term protection.