This past summer my field work took me into the watery backyard of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (GHNMCA). Gwaii Haanas, a new Canadian NMCA founded in 2010, islocated in the southern portion of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago 130 km off the northwest coast of British Columbia. Its vast area encompasses some 5000 square kilometres including 1700 km of coastline. At the forefront of research requirements for the Park’s management plan is establishing an inventory of nearshore habitat in the shallow subtidal zone (0-20 m depth). However, the difficulties associated with mapping underwater habitat and the vast coastlines of the park pose a significant challenge for accomplishing this task.
Enter the intrepid Masters student. Working with Parks Canada, my MSc. involves using remote sensing technologies to map nearshore marine habitat, with a focus to map vegetated habitats, specifically eelgrass (Zostera marina). Briefly, remote sensing involves obtaining data about an object or feature indirectly. Two commons remote sensing technologies involve high resolution satellite imagery and single-beam acoustic mapping. Very simply, both technologies rely on discerning a spectral or acoustic signature, respectively, that can be related to a specific habitat. However, there are many factors that affect the quality of the signal to habitat relationship therefore georeferenced ground truth data are crucial to training and verifying remote sensing products (aka habitat maps).
For my research ground truth data involved towed underwater video for each of my study sites. Video was recorded concurrently with coordinates from a dGPS (which has low positional error, <1m). All my field work was conducted on a 22’ aluminum vessel, with two Parks Canada boat operators to help me conduct my research and for safety purposes. While in the field, we stayed at Huxley Hut, based on Huxley Island, with a not too shabby view. During a return visit I also stayed at the Bischoff float camp, a unique and marvelous experience.
While field work always presents the most exciting part of research, the hours spent preparing and organizing a single trip are enormous. However, this preparation ensures that the data collected are of high quality and caliber suitable for research and scientific publication. I cannot deny that there were trying moments where cables snapped, cannonball weights were lost, or inclement weather trapped me inside the cabin. There may have also been an incident involving being stuck knee deep in a muddy eelgrass meadow with a black bear having been sited not 5 minutes beforehand. It is through all of these experiences that I have learned that (1) is that it is crucial to be responsible for all aspects of your field work including being able to fix anything you have that may break (and also being able to fix your supervisor’s gear helps too) and (2) accept the inevitability that things will break and your plans will need to be changed. Be flexible!
Finally, in between my field trips, I had the opportunity to go on a one week self-guided seakayak trip throughout the park and explore mist-covered land of mountains, ancient rainforests and wild coasts that give Gwaii Haanas its otherworldly atmosphere. Highlights involved visiting the Haida Watchmen sites to see the ancient totem poles that are slowly decomposing and relaxing in the thermal hotpools on Hot Springs Island. I feel privileged to have been able to visit a National Park in Canada that only receives 2000 visitors a year and I hope to be able to return in the near future.