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Let’s hear it for our unsung wonders


Not all of our natural treasures flaunt their beauty. These underwater wallflowers desperately need some attention.

Sabine Jessen
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun (link)
Saturday, August 18, 2007


When Vancouver Sun readers chose the top three natural wonders in British Columbia -- the Long Beach and Tofino area of Vancouver Island, the Rocky Mountains and the dense Haida Gwaii forests in the Queen Charlottes -- the downtown Vancouver office of one of Canada\'s oldest and largest environmental organizations paused. We paused.

We thought about the choices and, of course, agreed. These are wonder-filled, enchanting places that demand to be noticed. Huge mountain ranges, crashing surfs and ancient forests -- all of these places, pure poetry and geological genius; places that long ago touched human hearts, leading to their passionate protection for future generations.

But in B.C., we have three natural marine wonders that aren\'t as obvious, lonely wonders that need a little help touching human hearts. These wonders -- top of mind at this downtown office -- also need some newspaper ink and water cooler talk, so that British Columbians can boast a little about the less visible, more quietly profound places that still need our passionate protection.

Off our coast, we have four enormous reefs made of delicate glass sponges. In shades of white, they look like lovely underwater cauliflowers and odd-looking corals, resting on top of each other eight storeys high, far below the ocean surface. The living sponges build homes on their dead ancestors, continuously growing their massive communities. These are underwater civilizations known nowhere else in the world, staggering in scope and utterly odd.

But these ancient civilizations that started alongside the dinosaurs aren\'t visible like the Rocky Mountains or the Haida Gwaii forests. These wonders, deep under the sea, hide their fantasy and their secrets. B.C.\'s glass sponge reefs were voted No. 63 on The Vancouver Sun list.

While bottom-trawling vessels currently stay away from the area with temporary closures, these reefs need permanent protection. They are globally important phenomena suitable for World Heritage status, but after five years of negotiations with the Canadian government, long-term domestic protection is still just an idea.

No. 96 on The Sun\'s list is another pressing concern. The Scott Islands chain off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island is a global mecca for seabirds. It is B.C.\'s finest, feathered gathering, providing nesting rocks for 2.2 million seabirds. These are loud, raucous islands, with squawking, sneaky, fish-loving birds diving from tall rocks into the surrounding ocean and flying back with fish-stuffed bills to feed their young.

The Scott Islands chain is immeasurable in terms of marine ecology, and not just for birds. On the islands, 70 per cent of B.C.\'s stellar sea lion pups are born. These islands are protected ecological reserves, but only the land. Preserving the surrounding sea where the birds and sea lions catch fish is still a struggle. Talks of protecting these waters seem stalled. It is supposed to be Canada\'s first marine wildlife area, but that honour appears a long way off.

Further south, we worry about an area dubbed The Big Eddy. It was No. 98 on The Sun\'s list. It is a massively important, swirling body of water off the entrance to the Juan de Fuca Strait that supports countless migrating and permanent species -- from fish and whales, to marine plants and tiny organisms. This great ecological bounty has fed countless generations of Nuu-chah-nulth, wise in their choice of settlement. The Big Eddy is where Alaska currents, California currents and inside currents converge. The importance to B.C.\'s marine environment and fishing industries can\'t be overstated. The Americans have already protected these waters up to the Canadian border. Protecting the Canadian portion would create an international marine peace park -- the first in Canada -- but that beautiful idea needs great commitment on the Canadian side, a commitment that sadly appears lacking.

At our downtown Vancouver office, we hope to protect what we can of this swirling wonder. And soon.

How do you protect a wonder? Sometimes it\'s obvious, like the Rockies. But sometimes politicians need some convincing -- a little nudge, a little prompting, a little public guilt for dragging their feet. Scientific argument works, and we have plenty of that at our office. But public support can also speak volumes to politicians. We need urban imaginations to be swept away to the places in B.C. that hide themselves from humans. We need to create romance around an ancient, growing civilization of sponges; a chain of islands fiercely protected by distrustful seabirds and honking, heavy sea lions, and a swirling, massive body of water that provides nutrients and supports life in B.C.

These "wonders" may not shout their romance and shamelessly flaunt their beauty like The Sun\'s top picks, but they are just as unique and needy of the publicity. Our sincere gratitude to The Vancouver Sun for starting this conversation and allowing it to continue.

Sabine Jessen is conservation director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, B.C. Chapter.