• A drone shot of the barge loaded after Expedition 2. (Photo: Jeff Reynolds)

Major expeditions normally require months, or even years, of planning.

However, most of us on the recent six-week Marine Debris Removal Initiative expedition — hashtagged as the #BCCoastalCleanup — had only a few weeks to prepare for it. In spite of not knowing exactly what I was signing up for, I eagerly leapt in.

Unusual expedition planning — but this is a very unusual year.

In normal times, Kevin Smith, CEO and co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures, runs ecotourism expeditions along the coastal waters of British Columbia and southern Alaska on his company’s three small ships.

This past spring, though, Smith realized that the coming summer’s tourism season would probably not be going ahead as usual. That’s when he came up with the idea for the marine debris removal expedition: an initiative that would keep his own and other small-ship tourism companies running, while providing employment for guides and other on-board staff who had had their summer contracts cancelled (like myself).At the same time they’d be giving back to the First Nations communities in whose territories these companies operate, by cleaning up a portion of British Columbia’s wild coastlines.

Smith pitched the idea to a few fellow business-owners, then spent months writing proposals. By mid-summer, he succeeded at getting his project funded by the BC Government, through their new Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund.

However, it was late in the year to be planning a major expedition up BC’s north-central coast — hence the urgent call for participants.

I arrived in Port Hardy, the northernmost town on Vancouver Island, to join Maple Leaf’s catamaran Cascadia, for Expedition 2. The first three-week expedition — nine small ships — had collected and removed 51 tonnes of debris along BC’s central coast. Our goal was to collect at least as much again, if not more.

Along with the rest of the crew, I had been COVID-tested a few days before embarking. It was unlikely anyone had boarded with COVID, but even so, we had strict conditions for operating: an outbreak on any one of the ships would result in that crew turning around and leaving the expedition.

For the first 14 days, mask-wearing inside was mandatory except during meals. Public areas on the vessels were wiped down or disinfected with a fogger several times a day. Ships carried only half of their capacity, to allow for appropriate physical distancing. Cascadia, the largest ship in our fleet of nine and with a capacity for 34 crew and passengers, carried only fifteen. We wore our masks outdoors too: in the skiffs, as well as any time we were working close to one another on the ship’s deck or on shore.

Departing Cascadia on a skiff one morning to work on shore. (Photo: Jacqueline Windh)

Our first two days were travelling, sailing through the areas already worked on Expedition 1, to continue the cleanup northward. Expedition 2 focused on the wild outer coasts of Price and Aristazabal Islands, within the territories of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Heiltsuk and Gitga’at First Nations.

One of the main challenges of our route — especially this late in the season — was rounding aptly named Cape Caution. This exposed section of B.C.’s mainland coast is unprotected by outer islands: it lies north of Vancouver Island, but still south of the sheltered Inside Passage.

On the mid-September day we sailed through however, we were fortunate. The autumn sun glinted off a low glassy swell. Smith used our travel time to gather the crew in the big salon to explain the plan, presenting maps on the big screen normally used for naturalist presentations. I tried to focus on his maps, but it was hard to keep my eyes off the dozens of humpback whales feeding and blowing along the shorelines.

Sailing around the aptly-named Cape Caution. (Photo: Jacqueline Windh)

On the afternoon of my third day on board, we arrived at our starting point for shore work. In conversations this had often been referred to as a “beach” clean-up, but I quickly found out that these were beaches in only the extremely loosest sense of the word! In reality, they were rugged rocky shorelines at the back of coves or bays that presented natural gathering places for wind and waves to focus any floating debris, and stacked with tumbled piles of unstable driftwood logs.

We accessed the wave-washed shores by skiff. The driver carefully positioned the boat bow-in while keeping an eye on the swell. This was the most dangerous part of our operation. One at a time, each of us picked our moment to step — or sometimes leap — from the bow on to irregular rocks, slippery with seaweed and encrusted with spiky white barnacles, quickly helping one another move gear upward and out of reach of the waves. 

The terrain we worked on ranged from rugged angular outcrops that required both hands and feet to traverse, to slippery boulder beaches, to stacks of loose wave-tossed driftwood. I set foot on actual sand only once during my three weeks.

We worked in teams of three or four, piling the debris into huge white lift-bags which we left along the shoreline, affectionately referring to them as marshmallows. Each bag had to come in under 320 kg, the maximum the helicopter would be able to safely lift, so every item going into a bag was weighed and the total was marked on the bag.

The debris we encountered astonished me — both for its quantity and its composition. Many of us had embarked on the expedition calling this a “garbage clean-up,” but it was not garbage at all: debris is the appropriate word.

I had expected lots of plastic bottles and other plastic containers, and we did find thousands of those. But the bulk of what we encountered — some 70 to 80 per cent of it — was debris lost by the international fishing industry.

Giant nets lay wrapped around driftwood logs or lodged up in the forest or half-buried under decaying cedar fronds and overgrown by salal. Huge styrofoam floats gleamed white on top of the logs, where they slowly fragmented and shedded bits and pieces across the shorelines. Big plastic dragger balls, used to float fishing nets, were encountered by the dozen - on the rocks, under the logs, tossed up into the forest.

And ropes as thick as my arm wound around and under the logs, like a puzzle for us to solve. Where does this rope go? Can we lever up that log? How can we maximize the amount of rope we remove while minimizing how many places we need to cut it?

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I spent a lot of time sawing, with a little serrated kitchen knife, at nets and ropes too tangled in the driftwood to remove the whole thing. We got as much as we can - but this winter’s storms will shift those logs, and by next summer more net and rope will have surfaced.

Our first two weeks were spent cleaning the shorelines as best we could, loading up our marshmallows and leaving them as high up above the tide mark as the terrain would permit.

Loading a "marshmallow." (Photo: Jacqueline Windh)

Some days, focussing with my own small team on just the three or four “beaches” we managed to clean up that day, our progress seemed insignificant compared to the scale of the problem. It was heartening, though, in the evenings to be motored the few kilometres back to Cascadia and to see dozens of ‘marshmallows’ wedged up by the high-tide mark all along the shorelines: the cumulative daily accomplishment of so many teams.

Our final week was the helicopter work — removing the lift-bags and dropping them onto a barge operated by one of our project partners, the Heiltsuk First Nation. As the largest ship in the fleet, Cascadia was the centre of heli-ops.

Expedition 1 had collected over 60 tonnes of debris, but they had been forced to leave 11 tonnes of that on shore when the helicopter was shut down due to fog. This time, Smith contracted the helicopter and barge for an extra day, hoping that we would manage to collect all of our own marshmallows, as well as those leftover from Expedition 1.

Two weeks into the expedition, our fleet of nine anchored in a sheltered cove for the night to await tomorrow’s arrival of the helicopter. However, the weather did not work in our favour. The morning dawned dark and grey and foggy, conditions stayed that way all day, and the sky remained quiet. 

Although this was a welcome down-day for our crews — we were physically exhausted — it raised the question of whether we would be able to collect all of our lift-bags. Our time window was closing, and so was our weather window: a big coastal storm was now in the long-range forecast.

If we ran out of time, any lift-bags left behind would be ripped open by the first winter storm. All of the debris in them would be re-scattered up and down the coast.

Assistant expedition leader Mike Jackson used this down-day to catch up on data collection: He paddled around the bay in a kayak, visiting ship after ship, with his laptop on his knees. Social-distancing between the ship crews was still in force, so Mike drifted a few metres away, exchanging geographic data and site locations wirelessly, to help speed up work with the helicopter pilot once he arrived.

The helicopter made it late the next morning. The crew from Airspan Helicopters gave us a quick training session on how to safely work below the helicopter to attach the lift-bags to the sling, and then we got to work.

We all felt the pressure now. Any more fog, or too much wind, would keep the helicopter from flying. If the swell came up, it would prevent us, the ground crews, from getting to shore to work the lifts.

And that storm was getting closer.

The helicopter lifting operation was a combination of high-speed and high-stress action spattered with a fair bit of “hurry-up-and-wait.”

Since the helicopter was the most expensive part of the operation, everything we did was aimed at minimizing flight time. The tug and barge chugged their way down the coast, as each ship dropped crews of two to the lift-bag sites alongside, the helicopter buzzing back from shore to barge every few minutes — everything strategically coordinated by Smith and Jackson working three or more radio channels at once from Cascadia’s bridge.

One of the most impressive coordination efforts took place on the final day loading our own expedition’s lift-bags to the barge. We needed to sail southward through the night if we were to have any chance of retrieving the leftover bags from Expedition 1 the following day.

The helicopter flies back and forth to load the barge. (Photo: Jacqueline Windh)

The helicopter pushed the flying until dusk. But as darkness fell, there were still about a dozen lift-bags remaining on shore.

One of the waiting ground crews got on the radio. “I think we can load our bag into the zodiac.” 

And suddenly the other crews joined in, unpacking their lift-bags — some weighing hundreds of kilos — and carting the materials piece by piece down to the steep and slippery shores to reload the bags into the tenders. Cascadia was the only ship large enough to safely transport that much weight, so we undertook a late-night loading operation, craning up the bags from the zodiacs on to our deck for the helicopter to transport to the barge later.

Shortly before midnight, the fleet set sail to the south.

Our ship’s motto became “No bag left behind!” We had managed to remove all of the Expedition 2 bags, and then those from Expedition 1 as well. When the final lift-bags were slung from Cascadia’s deck to the barge a few days later, it was emotional for all of us. Between the two expeditions, we had cleaned up around 900 km of coastline, for a total of some 700 helicopter lift-bags and 127 tonnes of debris — four times the amount that Kevin had estimated in his initial proposals!

Sadly, what we accomplished is still so small on the scale of what needs to be done.

My final helicopter lift was at a site that had been packed during Expedition 1, some three weeks earlier. Already there was new debris littered across the beach: another huge rope weighing some 60 kg wrapped around the driftwood, which my partner and I rapidly sawed into pieces and tied on to our bags as we awaited the helicopter, along with more styrofoam floats, many more water bottles, and a plastic toy airplane.

The sea of plastic out there seems endless. As Kevin once said to me, “It’s like a slow-moving oil spill,” and he is absolutely right.

Our society needs to stop using these plastics: stop using disposable items (whether recyclable or not), and stop supporting industries that don’t take responsibility for their actions. 

We accomplished so much out there. But in the long run, coastal clean-ups are not the answer. We need to cut off the source.