Science Doesn’t Hibernate
What it’s like to do winter fieldwork on Calvert Island.
It’s a typical blustery February morning in Port Hardy on the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Ten intrepid Hakai Institute staff members and scientists load gear onto a 9.7-meter water taxi and hunker down. We’re in for a bumpy, 100-kilometer boat ride up to Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Field Station. Our captain, George Burroughs, goes through the safety briefing, including tips on what to do if your breakfast decides to resurface.
On a good day, the trip can take as little as two hours—the rough weather “record” is seven hours. Hakai videographer Grant Callegari and I have come to film what it’s like to do winter fieldwork on British Columbia’s Central Coast. Nature doesn’t take a break in the wintertime, so scientists don’t either.
Scientists could miss key coastal events if their data collection was restricted to just the summer months. The slow dissipation of the infamous warm-water “Blob” was only detected through year-round oceanographic monitoring. Some fish only spawn in the winter months. Predators tuck into sheltered habitats during storms, changing their food preferences. All of these important observations would be missed without winter fieldwork.
There are a total of 19 people at the field station on this trip—a mix of scientists, invaluable support staff, and two media tag-alongs. Some had already been up there for three weeks. You have to be nimble in the winter. Winter weather is ambivalent to the best-laid daily research plans.
Callegari and I join Erin Rechsteiner and the sea otter research team the next morning as they debate the day’s plans. It’s the best weather forecast the research team has seen in weeks, and they’re anxious to use the window of favorable conditions to survey for sea otters on the outer coast of Calvert Island.
Alas, we are forced to turn back halfway through the survey due to massive swell and rising winds. In the five days the 19 of us are at the station, we see everything from flat-calm water to 50-knot winds, and from glorious sunshine to pouring rain.
While this was a busier-than-normal winter trip, the station sometimes bustles with over 100 people in the summer. From mid-March to the end of September, the Calvert Island Field Station is a hive of activity. Researchers stream in and out of the remote, off-grid research station like clockwork. One group after another.
Winter is much quieter. Regular storms mean that travel to and from the research station is quite the endeavor, and you have to be prepared to get “stuck” out in the field for a few extra days.
We manage to sneak out just before another major storm hits the coast. The boat ride out is even rougher than the ride in. Messy three-meter waves build up around Cape Caution—a notorious point of land whose moniker is well-earned. Captain George deftly maneuvers the boat through the washing machine, and just over four hours later we disembark on Vancouver Island. Winter fieldwork is not for the faint of heart. But nature doesn’t hibernate.