Mike Moore obviously has an intense passion for the ocean and for the waters around Cortes Island in particular. He has been working on the water or under it for more than 40 years, as a commercial halibut, crab and prawn fisherman, as a diver harvesting sea cucumbers, sea urchins, scallops and the giant pacific octopus, as a Navigation Officer with the Canadian Coast Guard for 11 years and finally, along with Samantha Statton, he was owner/ operator of Misty Isles Adventures, Cortes Island’s kayaking and passenger schooner tourism business, which was the vessel by which many tourists and locals got to appreciate Cortes as an island, seen from the water.
“Cortes is situated in the most diverse and dynamic area on the BC coast” says Mike. “We have the warm waters of Desolation Sound to the east. I don’t know of another place in the world where one can swim in water that warm under snow on the mountains that is that low. And that is pretty neat. But because this is an isolated pocket of water, the sea life that lives even as close as Campbell River might not live in Desolation Sound. In fact life in Desolation Sound is not very diverse with mostly mussels, oysters and barnacles dominating the intertidal cliff walls. But if you go deeper, say down to 20 meters below the surface, the water is frigid again and supports sea anemones, fish and boot sponges with their silicious skeletons.”
Just to the north are the deep mainland fjords of Toba and Bute Inlets, the water there is fresh and glacial green. “Bute Inlet juts 40 nautical miles into the BC coast, when you are at the head of the inlet, you are no longer in the maritime zone, you are in the BC interior. All 5 species of Pacific Salmon run up Bute Inlet but sockeye need a freshwater lake to spend at least their first year and there are no lakes in Bute Inlet’s Southgate and Homathko River systems. Instead, the sockeye fry spend their time in the fresh water that floats on top of the inlet”.
And a couple miles to the northwest of Cortes are the tidal rapids of the Discovery Islands, where cold nutrient and oxygen rich ocean water comes flooding down with the tide through Johnstone Strait to be squeezed through the labyrinth of narrow channels formed by the islands. The currents can reach up to 15 knots and support a rich and vibrant marine ecosystem. “Big kelp beds grow there and kelp is kind of like the rain forest of the ocean, it provides habitat and shelter for many other marine organisms. Interestingly, the oyster rafts in our local waters act much the same way as the kelp forest, providing substrate for creatures to grow on and structure for fish to swim through”.
Finally to the south of Cortes, Marina, Quadra, Hernando and Savary Islands are extensive glacial moraine reefs made up of boulders, cobble and sand. These rocks provide an intersticial area for various fish and other organisms including octopus to hide. Mike says that he “loves to go out to these reefs during the low tides in July. You can hear the midshipman grunt and hum. The eagles will sit on the rocks as the tide ebbs waiting to snatch up any stranded fish that is left exposed.”
“Where else on the coast can you find four such diverse ecosystems in such close proximity?”
How did this area form in the first place?
“One theory has the story starting 270 million years ago, when all of the continents were lumped together in a land mass called Pangea. About 10,000 km to the southwest in the South Pacific, a landmass called Wrangellia was being formed over a volcanic hotspot, much like the Hawaiian Islands are being formed now. Wrangellia began drifting north and east as Pangea was breaking up and the Atlantic Ocean was forming. It smashed into North America and smeared its way up the coast. Wrangellia had been tropical and the land was covered in ferns and trees and the oceans swam with creatures. The fossils from this life are encapsulated in Wrangellian rock and much of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and southeast Alaska are remnants of this land mass. But not only did Wrangellia smear its way up the coast, it also dove or subducted under the North American continental plate. As the material was forced down, it melted under pressure and friction, becoming molten rock that bubbled up under the overlying North American crust, forming volcanoes to vent the excess pressures and gasses but also solidifying under the crust in giant bubbles called granitic intrusions or plutons. Imagine a lava lamp that suddenly cooled with the coloured oil bubbles solidified within the clear liquid. Now look out and see the mountains and islands of Desolation Sound and imagine those bubbles. Over millions of years, the overlying crust has be eroded away by glaciation and erosion exposing the hard granitic intrusions and these have been further shaped and carved, culminating during the last pleistocene ice age when glaciers carved the mountains and the deep fjords. If you visit the Cortes Island Museum, on the front steps are buchia clam fossils. These buchia boulders occasionally are found on the shores of Cortes and the surrounding islands. Our local beaches are mostly made up of igneous rock but every once in a while, there will be a boulder that is made up of sedimentary mud stone, full of clams from 130 million years ago and a tropical sea. What a journey they have had! The fossils have survived the collision with North America, they did not get subducted, they were protected from millions of years of weathering and then they were carried by glaciers to be deposited on our beaches at current sea level. When you visit the boulders on the Museum steps, stop and think about that.”
What Changes Have You Seen In The Marine Environment?
“Most of us have heard about the sea star wasting syndrome. This seemed to affect different species of sea stars in different places at different times. I remember that there was much concern when the purple sea stars were literally falling apart and melting on the Cortes beaches. Yet over on Kinghorn Island I was seeing a healthy population on the steep cliff walls. This seemed to be the story for many species. As far as I know, no definitive causative agent was found but then again I am not a scientist, I am a naturalist who reads the reports. But one species that was decimated from Alaska to Mexico was the sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helioanthoides. This is the most voracious sea star in our waters, I’ve seen it digging for clams in 30 meters of water and hunting for invertebrates just below the water’s edge. They move fast for a sea star and are a top predator and I have been interested to see how the ecosystem changes with this influence gone. I certainly see more abalone then I used to.”
“15 years ago when I was diving on Hernando Island working moorings, when I dragged a mooring chain across the bottom, dungeness crabs would explode out of the sand. Last year I swam close to 3/4 of a mile over this same bottom and never saw a single crab. There has been both sport and commercial fishing pressure on them, but I can’t say as this has increased because there were always a lot of traps out there. But I was reading an article on how dungeness crabs are one of the creatures that are suffering due to the seawater being more acidic. The larval and small crabs are not able to accrete their calcium carbonate shell before it is dissolved by the more acidic water. Our oyster farmers were running in to the same problem when they could not get oyster seed from facilities in Puget Sound, the water is just too acidic to support their growth anymore. And now when I find an octopus den, there is hardly any crab shell litter like there used to be, they are eating more clams and moon snails now.”
“Speaking of octopus, the cement blocks that we now put out as anchors for docks and moorings have a plastic pipe running through them for the chain bridle to run through and small octopus have been moving in to those pipes! Last autumn I went to visit a couple of octopus dens just outside of Cortes Bay. I took a can of Seafin tuna with me, only the best quality for the octopus! When I opened the can for the first octopus, it was very curious and immediately reached out for the can as soon as the scent/ taste reached it. I passed tuna chunks to its tentacles and I could see the food being passed up the suction cups towards the mouth at the junction of the tentacles. When I went to a second nearby octopus, it reacted completely differently, it blew the tuna right back at me! It was way more interested in exploring me. I was diving bare handed 18 meters underwater in November so that the octopus could smell/ taste me with its tentacles, the suction cups left little hickeys on my hands and it reached for me way up my arms.”
Michael Moore spoke of the oceans’ and earth’s generosity and resilience in the face of human greed and stupidity. And that these days it is quiet and peaceful out on the water now. “This could be the reprieve that the environment needs to regain it’s vitality,” he says.