A short bio about photographer Jenn Dickie, who shoots wildlife and nature photography on British Columbia's west coast.

Oral Statement to the Enbridge Joint Review Panel

I would like to thank the panel for this opportunity to express my opinions regarding the proposed Enbridge Pipeline project.  Like many others here today, I have serious concerns regarding the expansion of the Alberta oil sands and the construction of a pipeline to carry bitumen across our province.  However my personal experiences lie within the waterways of the Douglas Channel and Caamano Sound, on the proposed tanker route, so this is what I will be speaking about today.

My name is Jenn Dickie and I have spent the past 13 summers working as a wilderness guide and educator on the west coast of British Columbia.  Over the past 11 years I have made 7 trips to the Greatbear Rainforest,  all this time has been spent in the area that will be directly affected if supertankers are to be allowed into our waters.   During this time I worked as an adventure guide for a high end fishing lodge, I  taught the Gitga’at youth of Harley Bay ocean kayaking skills and I volunteered my time at a whale research center.

I feel exceptionally privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the true wilderness areas that exist within our province, none of which are more remarkable than the Great Bear Rainforest, a region that stretches from the north end of Vancouver Island to the Alaska panhandle.    Not only does this area contain 25% of the world's remaining intact temperate rainforest, but the inlets and fjords here have some of the richest marine environments on the planet.

To say that visiting the Greatbear Rainforest has made an impact on me would be an understatement.  From the first moment I arrived there, it got under my skin and changed who I am.   Not only have I experienced this personally, I have seen it have the same impact on visitors from all over the world.

I would like to take a moment to describe a day in early September a number of years ago when I was guiding a group of tourists.

Our day began in Cameron cove, a small estuary near the lodge where I worked.  We took a short hike through lush rainforest to see the Sitka Towers, a pair of Sitka Spruce trees that are estimated to be over 800 years old.  We then sat for a while by a small stream and watched a second year black bear cub, newly apart from his mother trying to master his fishing skills.  He wandered along the creek bed, periodically belly flopping into the small pools where the salmon gathered.  After some time the small bear moved into the shallow water, where he plucked out a salmon and disappeared into the forest.  The salmon here are so abundant that it would be no problem for me to simply walk into the creek and pick one out with my bare hands.

Our small transport boat then picked us up to take us to another river with the hope of seeing the rare spirit bear, a pure white subspecies of black bear that is unique to these parts.   Around 10 minutes into our boat journey a humpback whale surfaced beside the boat, and then dove again.   As we watched enthusiastically for the next blow he suddenly soared out of the water a hundred meters from the boat in a full breach, then disappeared from sight.  We arrived at our destination a short while later, to find the elusive spirit bear standing the middle of the river,  just in front of the bear viewing platforms.  We spent the next couple of hours watching as he sauntered up and down the river bank fishing for salmon.

At the end of a truly remarkable day, both the guest and myself were speechless.  I am certainly not saying that every day in the Greatbear Rainforest was like this one, but many were.  I could stand here for hours and tell you tales of the amazing things I have seen in this part of the world.  Though many of us have seen black bears rummaging through our garbage cans, or on our local hiking trails, very few are privileged enough to see them in their natural environment where there is abundant food and they can behave as they have for a millennia.

I have also been fortunate enough to know the Gitga’at people of Hartley bay and have seen firsthand the special connection they have with their land.  Each spring the community travels to their spring camp of Ky’el on Princess Royal Island to collect and dry seaweed and halibut.  Here I have watched as the elders teach their grandchildren the traditional harvesting methods that have been passed down for generations.

I have been welcomed into their homes and offered food freshly harvested from the surrounding ocean and forest.  They have a sense of community that is almost unimaginable to those of us accustomed to a western lifestyle.  While in the territory of the Gitga’at people you are treated as a part of that community and are protected as if you were one of their own.

This was never more evident than in the middle of a dark night, when the people of Hartley Bay put themselves at risk as they headed out to rescue the passengers of the sinking BC Ferry "The Queen of the North” that had missed a critical course correction and crashed into Gill Island.

I spent portion of this past summer volunteering at Cetacea Lab, a remote whale research centre located where the convergence of numerous waterways create an ideal habitat and study location for a variety of species of whales.   The abundance of baitfish here and the pristine marine environment is responsible for the incredible resurgence of whale activity that has been recorded over the past decade.

Humpback Whales return to these rich feeding grounds each year after a long migration from Hawaii or Baja.  They practice a collective feeding method known as bubble net feeding in groups of 2 to 15 or more.   They are believed to be one of the only creatures aside from humans who collectively feed with non-family members.  The deep fjords of these inside waters act as a rehearsal studio for the male humpback who spends months practicing his song, which echoes back off the steep underwater cliffs.  Hour after hour of haunting call is captured by the hydrophone network that scatters these channels.  By the time they return to the warmer waters to mate, all of the humpback whales in the North Pacific are singing the same song.  How and why this happens is still a great mystery.

Fin Whales, the second largest creatures on the planet,  returned as recently as 5 years ago to this area they had long ago abandoned.   

Both transient and resident Orcas are frequent visitors as well.  Both are extremely social creatures that rely heavily on vocal calls to communicate with their family members as they travel and hunt with their pods.  Each family unit has a unique dialect and underwater recordings made here allow scientists to study their family groups and their behaviors.

While stationed at the remote research outpost on Ariztibal Island this summer, we heard the distinct calls of the “R” clan Orca mixed with a lone “G” clan ping.  In conjunction with the Gitata’at watchmen and the Department of Fisheries, using both photographs and hydrophone recordings, it was determined that a “G” clan calf that had recently been orphaned was travelling with the “R “ clan pod.  

This “cross adoption” had never before been documented in the orca populations of the west coast.

I don’t feel it is necessary to go into details regarding the obvious devastation that would be caused by an oil spill in this area.   Clearly it would mean the end of a way of life for the Gitga’at people and many other coastal first nations.  It would devastate the fishing and tourism industries and the effects would not just be limited to the coast, but would reach deep into the interior of the province if the salmon failed to return each year to spawn.

Even if the assurances of Enbridge all prove true and no spill ever happens, this project is not without significant impact.  The tourism opportunity that this area of our coast presents is significant, and the increased traffic would certainly have a negative impact this growing industry.  It would create underwater noise pollution that would be audible for miles, impacting the ability of the whales to communicate with each other and to find food.  There is also the increased risk of a direct whale strike.  The wake of such large boats could damage the spawning grounds of the baitfish which are so important to the entire ecosystem here.  The weather in this part of the coast can be extreme and can pose a significant hazard to navigation, particularly in the winter months when storm force winds or even hurricane force winds occur.

I have traveled all over the world and have seen some of the most unique and pristine wilderness areas on the planet.  The Greatbear Rainforest is to Canada what the Serengeti is to Africa, it is a treasure that we must protect so it can be here for all the creatures and the generations to follow.