Vancouver Island's Dark Ocean

Marine Detective Studies Vancouver Island’s Dark Ocean

North Island Gazette, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Jackie Hildering is a self-described “marine detective” on northern Vancouver Island. She’s a humpback whale researcher, biologist and co-founder of Marine Education and Research Society.

World Ocean’s Day

This week for World Ocean’s Day, she gave an online video presentation to students about the life in the dark oceans, about which much remains unknown. A few hundred students tuned in, from as far away as Bangkok, and as close as Tri-Port elementary schools.

Through her research, diving and photography, Hildering’s goal is to engage curiosity and wonder about what’s going on in the ocean. She starts with showcasing creatures living in B.C. waters, that even the most ocean-loving people may not be aware of.

Three Miles Below The Surface

Take the alabaster nudibranch — basically a whispy white slug — for example. Hildering took the above photo at the Bear Cove boat launch in Port Hardy, about three metres below the surface.

A few kilometres south in Port McNeill, she found a new species of jelly fish, that hasn’t yet been named by scientists. “Oh my god, that thing is beautiful, what the hell is that?”

Vancouver Island's Dark Ocean
An as yet unnamed species stalked jelly, living just three metres below the surface in Port McNeill. (Jackie Hildering)

Via its beautiful and strange ‘pom-poms,’ the jelly collects crustaceans to eat. It also uses the little tufts as tentacles to hold on to the eelgrass, where it prefers to live — very different behaviour from its floating jellyfish cousins. But yes, it’s still a stinger.

Hildering is passionate about the dark ocean: diving in it, photographing it, teaching about it and learning about it. She’s been diving around the north Island for 21 years, and has come to know individual fish as her neighbours.

There’s a general human bias against dark, cloudy oceans, she says.

“The problem with adults, is that we think it’s better in Hawaii,” she joked to the students in the virtual presentation.

Vancouver Island’s Dark Ocean

The perception comes largely from the types of resources that are available for educators. It’s easier to dive and film in clear water, so documentaries – even children’s books – tend to focus on tropical places rather than B.C.’s bountiful, plankton-laden cold water seas.

“Ocean blindness” comes as the result of a tendency to teach about oceans far away. It reinforces an assumption that there is more and better life in warm water.

And that’s absolutely wrong, Hindering says.

“If you can see through the water, there’s no food there.”

Dark, sometimes murky waters are rich with plankton food for the entire oceanic food web, which starts microscopically small until it explodes into view with the giants we know: big salmon, huge halibut, humpback and orcas.

How Little We Know The Ocean

Vancouver Island's Dark Ocean
Our colourful neighbours: a candy-stripe shrimp on a crimson anemone in Telegraph Cove (Jackie Hildering)

 “Nobody on Earth knows how baleen whales like humpbacks find their food. That’s how little we know about the ocean. Nobody has figured that out.

“We underestimate how diverse marine life is here [in B.C.] There are animals in the shallows that haven’t even been given a name by science.

“How can we be the teachers, parents and voters we need to be if we have no idea of the incredible life at our doorstep?”

You can find more of HIldering’s dark ocean findings at her blog:

Top photo credit: An alabaster nudibranch, living three metres below the surface in Bear Cove, Port Hardy. – courtesy Jackie Hildering