Back to the drawing board

To summarize my last post, plan A didn’t work out. I bet that most field biologists would nod their head in understanding of that statement as rarely does plan A go as successfully as one would hope. So it was back to the drawing board (we actually did draw out the location of cormorant colonies on the white board in my supervisor’s office!).

What were we going to do next? We decided that with time restraints, we better play it safe and stick with something we knew. We chose a colony that my supervisor had visited year after year and it had never failed him. We also had some insider information from another field biologist who had recently visited the colony that said the birds were being productive in creating nests and laying eggs. So this time it was all going to go as exactly as planned!

The truck loaded up with all of our gear hauling the boat behind.

We checked the weather in the morning as is common practice when you are leaving the shore in a boat. The forecast was not ideal weather for fieldwork but the wind speed was under the threshold for safe boating. We packed up the truck and drove 1.5 hours to the boat launch. As we arrived, a fairly thick fog was rolling in and it was drizzling slightly. The field team agreed that it was still safe to go, so we unloaded all of our gear from the truck into the boat and set sail.

The line is zig zag from the port to the island.

**An artist’s rendition** on the drawing board of the route to the island in the fog.

It was a little surreal being out on the open water without being able to see maybe 20 ft in front of you, let alone the lack of visibility of the shoreline to follow. Luckily we had all the fancy GPS and radar equipment to help position and orient ourselves. However, if you’ve ever tried to rely solely on technology, you’ll notice there is a slight lag time. This means that instead of a straight line to the colony, the route we were taking looked more like a roller coaster – if we were going too far towards the left we would turn right but then would be too far right so we would turn left. This lead to a zig zag pattern towards the island. I wish I could have taken a picture of our route, but unfortunately I was being splashed in the face with cold water while holding onto the boat tightly (perks to being the new member on board!) and did not want to risk falling into the lake.

The extra mileage (and therefore time) that it took us to get to the colony left a lot of time for my supervisor to quiz me with questions about statistics. So fun (said no one ever)! Once we finally made it to the island, I was so happy to be standing on solid ground again, even though I still couldn’t see very far in front of me to know what was ahead.

The island in the fog.

As we walked towards the cormorant colony, we did see birds, nests, and even eggs – what a relief from last time! Unfortunately there still was not enough eggs for my project which meant for another boat ride in the fog to get back to the drawing board.

The tide is high, but I’m holding on

Being by the water is one of my “happy” places and an ocean coast is one of my favourite places to be (a good reason to study seabirds!). The sound of the water splashing against the rocks, the smell of salt in the air, and the  sight of the horizon as far as the eye can see, all add to the experience. However, each coast is slightly different in topography, geography, and biology.

One thing that is consistent among ocean coasts is the tides. Tides are the rise and fall of the water level as a result of the gravitational pull from the moon and the sun in addition to the rotation of the earth. Tides are a very neat phenomenon and on the coast they are often quite dramatic. However, if your field work requires you to be on a boat in the water, you are stuck having to schedule your days around them. I’ve encountered these intense tides during some of my field work experiences on two of Canada’s coastlines.

Fun(dy) tides on the east coast

I took a field course titled “Marine Mammals and Seabirds”, based out of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. The field station we were staying at was in a cove just off of the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. Tides there can range over 14 m! If the title of the course gives anything away, it is that we needed to be out on the water to have a good view of our study species. Due to the great tides, our boat would move up and down substantially when tied to the dock. In order to get into the boat safely when the water level was not too low, we either had to leave very early (before the sunrise) or we would have to wait until closer to lunch time. You can probably imagine how hard it would be to get 20 undergraduate students up before the sun every day, but somehow we managed to do it (even if we had to climb down a little farther to our boat)! On days when the tide was too low, at least we got to explore the intertidal zone that is normally underwater (but that warrants a whole new post, or check out last week’s guest post The Sea).

low tide at the dock

Low tide at the docks in St. Andrews, New Brunswick

Rocky west coast

One day when I was doing seabird fieldwork on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, we had to travel from the east coast of the south island to the west coast of the north island. We had two choices: we could either sail around the northern or southern tips of the archipelago (would take days to arrive) or we could travel between the two islands through a channel called the “East Narrows”. As you can guess by the name, it was very narrow, with towering cliffs and trees on either side of the channel. The tides were very evident in this channel, ranging from 0.1 m to 4 m over the course of a day. Therefore, we had to plan our voyage perfectly so that we would have enough time to make it to the other side of the archipelago before the water level got too low. If the water got low enough, there was a chance we would hit the bottom of the channel and we would be stranded in the middle of the two islands, possibly damaging our boat. Luckily, we had experienced sailors with us who had timed and completed the trip successfully many times!

Intertidal zone, water, mountains in the background

Intertidal zone on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

When we arrived at the northern island, we anchored the sail boat and the captain brought us in a small dingy to the different islands we were surveying that day. One morning, it was low tide and the wind had picked up. As a result, the waves were larger than usual. We headed out to the island and one by one we had to jump out of the dingy onto the rocks.

Low tide exposing the slippery rocks.

Slippery rocks to jump on at low tide.

The rocks on the edge were very slippery as the low tide left the algae covered rocks exposed. One member of our field crew went to jump off, slipped on the rocks, and fell into the cool water! Luckily she was able to climb out, dry off, and warm up before continuing with the day.

 

In the end, the tide may be low, but I will still be holding on!