Thursday, August 04, 2011

Waiatt Bay, Quadra Island

This summer, I got the chance to do something really special. As a volunteer assistant, I joined a biology project. A friend of mine in Straitwatch passed on an appeal from her friend Amy for volunteers to stay at an isolated campsite on Quadra Island, and take samples from beaches. Paddling skills would be an asset. I joined three other volunteers and Amy for five days on the shores of Waiatt Bay. All these photos were taken by Amy Groesbeck, earlier this summer at similar trips. You won't see any photos of me in this post. You wouldn't want to. The day before the trip, I went to the dermatologist and had eight pink fleshy moles burned off my face with liquid nitrogen. Yuck. A good week to be out in the middle of the woods and the sea, away from most people. It was a good time -- I got on the water every day in small boats, and paddled miles of unfamiliar shorelines.

There's an app for that
Our transportation from Heriot Bay to Waiatt Bay at the north end of Quadra Island was on a boat called the Gung Ho, skippered by Harper Graham. He has a sensible manner that makes passengers feel confident that he knows where he's going and what he's got to do to get there. Of course he knows! On the dashboard in his wheelhouse, next to the throttle controls for the boat's engine and a GPS locator, lies an iPhone in its rubbery case. Yup, an iPhone. He took a text message or two before we finished motoring out of Heriot Bay. He also opened up an app or two and swiped at the phone's screen as he approached the islets in the bay. Perfect navigation. There's an app for that, apparently. The bay is sheltered with several small islands that make up Octopus Islands Marine Park. Though it's only an hour away from Heriot Bay, Waiatt feels really isolated. That's partly because there's only one cabin visible along the shore, and partly because the second-growth timber has gotten pretty thick so the logging clear-cuts are all grown back in.
Here's a photo that Amy took of the place we camped, on the north shore of Waiatt Bay at the place the chart calls "Log Dump." This little cove has a stream running into the bay, and a midden where we camped, all thoroughly stomped on by the logging done here. Two old sheds and a camper are all falling to pieces in the trees. To see lots of photos of how Amy Groesbeck investigates clam gardens, go to her Flickr page and check out the right hand column of photo galleries. Some of them are labelled "Clam Garden 2011 - Trip 1" which took place in April 2011, through Trip 4 which took place in late June 2011. Those are the ones especially clam-appropriate.

All I have is a red canoe, three paddles and the truth(with apologies to U2 and Bono)
The skills to handle small boats are practical skills, with real-life applications for modern work in the sciences. One field that puts canoes and kayaks to serious use is... intertidal biology! At least, it does here on the wet coast.
We set out with two ancient canoes -- one green, one red -- and my five-year-old little inflatable kayak. The photo Amy took shows a dark green boat she used on an earlier trip this summer. The canoes were laden with highly technical scientific sampling equipment. That's 5-gallon plastic pails, garden trowels, rubber-palmed garden gloves, spiral-bound notebooks and Zip-Loc freezer bags. Okay, Amy had a transit of some kind with a laser level, too. And here's Amy holding some squares she made, 25 cm on a side made out of 1-inch PVC tubing, so we could dig holes exactly 25 cm across. We had to dig them 30 cm deep, which is exactly the length from my elbow to my knuckles. I love the precision of scientific work! In a few beaches, there were experiments placed where Amy buried hand-made mesh bags holding living clams.
Oh, and I was also trained in how to make a sampling device. A kitchen scrubber called a Tuffy was attached to a ten-inch piece of rebar with a cable tie. Easy as pie. After the rebar was pounded into a clam garden, the Tuffy would sit there for four days, collecting anonymous sludge and (with any luck) clam spat. Apparently, intertidal biologists have been trying to figure out how to collect clam spat, and inventing various devices. Someone lucked into using kitchen scrubbers, and found that the Tuffy brand was particularly effective. Did I mention that this project had some funding from grants? Your tax dollars at work, and very efficiently, too. Why waste a biologist's time hand-knitting spat collecting filters when an affordable commercial alternative is easily available. The fun part is pounding the rebar into the garden, when the pounding has to be done underwater. Smack! Smack! into the water. "Science! Doing it all for science!" Spit out muddy sea water. "I'm still having fun!"
Dunno what YOU did on your vacation, but I sat on muddy beaches, dug holes, and collected clam spat. I didn't even ask if spat was gametes or zygotes. I wasn't the one picking up the Tuffy scrubbers and putting them in Zip-Loc freezer bags, and I didn't really need to know. Nature's Art
On one island owned by a family that Amy knows, there's a cabin, hidden in the trees. It's decorated with all kinds of handmade art objects, made from wood and beach materials and boating materials. Visitors to the bay have been bringing their art objects here for years! When we got back to our camp at the log dump site, I took out my knitting and made a sweater. A little one, doll-size. The next day, we found a piece of driftwood and made a little person to put in the art cabin.

All in all they're just another rock in the wall
If you look over a clam garden at high tide, whether from a boat or from the shore, you probably wouldn't see anything to tell you that this is a place shaped by human gardeners.
When the tide is a little lower than full, you might guess at the shallows near shore, usually in a small bay or between two rocky points. But when the tide is low, approaching a zero tide, the clam garden is revealed.
From shore it looks like a flat, almost level shallow beach. It's mostly free of rocks bigger than your head. Most of the beach is sediments mixed with small stones and bits of broken clam shell. The clam shell hash was added deliberately, to change the local pH of the water and send chemical messages to floating clam spat that here was some good clam habitat to settle down and grow! At the edge of the garden is a rocky ledge. Most of these ledges don't stand up much higher than the level of the beach, maybe ankle-high. But if you look past the edge of the ledge, you can see that the sea bottom drops down suddenly. You're standing at the top of a wall made of rocks piled on rocks. One of these walls can be as high as three or four metres or more above its underwater base. Most of the visible rocks look small enough for one person to have rolled down the beach into place, about twenty to thirty centimetres across. The rocks at the bottom of the wall three or four metres or more underwater may be larger, maybe half a metre across or bigger. But that's really enough talking that I can do about clam gardens. To learn more about them, check out the totally awesome book Clam Garden by Judith Williams. You can read more about it at the publisher's website. There's a copy in the Greater Victoria Public Library!

A bird in the hand is worth a snake in the shallows
We got to see lots of wildlife, around the shores of Waiatt Bay. My little kayak is so quiet that I could sneak up on these animals, shyer than their city cousins in Cadboro Bay. A few seals swam by to check out our boats. Raccoons like clam gardens! A couple of times we saw two or three raccoons waddling over the flats at low tide, digging for clams and various invertebrates. A mink poked out its head from the shoreline bushes to look at the canoes that had just gone by, then stare at me and squeak "oh crap!" before darting away. And right in our camp, a little brown weasel came scampering by and glared at everyone. For birds, there were ravens watching our every move, as well as kingfishers and a hummingbird, and a large eagle. I'm sure that we all were very glad that no black bears or cougars came by for a visit.
The most striking animal sighting was when Sara squeaked while sitting on a rocky ledge one afternoon. "A snake!" she squawked. A garter snake was sunning itself on the ledge beside her. When it slithered into the lukewarm sea water, our overjoyed amateur naturalists joined the actual biologists. A snake that swam in sea water! oooOOOoo!

Well, maybe the most striking animal was the polychaete, a bristly marine worm that snaked out of a tunnel in the side of the sampling hole that Sara was digging. Another squawk announced her shock at the arrival of the sandworm. This probably wasn't the kind of polychaete that the Kayak Yak paddle group found in Portage Inlet, making jelly ball egg sacs. That worm, according to Dr Kelly Sendal, probably looks rather like a bratwurst. This one in Sara's gloved hands looked more like a giant pink earthworm with tiny millipede legs. She carefully put it aside and went back to digging. And found another one in her next hole. Only a tiny squawk that time. Tough gal!

I love your lab!
The first time we catalogued clams, both living clams and the shells of dead clams, our group gathered under the tarp over our kitchen area. Seated on five-gallon pails, we hunched over our shells. Annemarie sorted shells, Amy and Kim measured shells with calipers, Sarah and I recorded the measurements in Amy's notebooks. Plenty of banter. "Clam me," I said. "All Clams, All Dead." A rain squall fell around us, and we got chilled and stiff before we were done and dinner could be made. The second time was much more idyllic. That afternoon was sunny, so after lunch on a rocky slope below a midden across the bay from camp, we set up the calipers and notebooks. Each of us moved into the shade or sunshine at will by shifting a couple of feet on the moss. Our postures were not hunched this time, but varied from leaning on one elbow like a diner at a Roman feast to laying back against rocky slopes perfectly designed to support our backs and heads. More banter, as living clams were found among the dead samples and a dead clam among the living samples. Zombie clams don't groan "braiiinnzz", we decided, because they don't have brains. They call out for nerves.Looking out across the bay was wonderful. I'd always thought that doing science involved wearing lab coats, not bathing suits or my shortie wetsuit. This place was much nicer than a basement lab somewhere. "I love what you've done with your lab!"

In an Octopus's Garden
We came to a clam garden one day that had an unusual living thing at the edge of a particularly high wall. It looked rather like a dahlia flower made out of yellowish jellyfish. "What the heck is that?" Amy wondered out loud. "A squid's egg sac?"
"Or an octopus's egg sac?" I suggested. "There are supposedly a lot of octopus around here. This is Octopus Islands Marine Park, after all." That didn't seem likely. Octopus mothers usually put their egg sacs in sheltered places, and protect them till the little ones hatch. But I found photos online of octopus egg sacs that look pretty much like what we saw.
We got to work taking samples, and Amy wrote notes in her books. When she asked "What shall we call this beach?" there was really only one name to consider: Octopus's Garden.

Here Comes The Rain Again
The weather was almost perfect -- very little breeze on the water the second day, and a half-hour rain sqall were the only variations from sunny and mild. In this sheltered bay the ocean water gets about as warm as it does anywhere along the coast, so it felt much warmer than where I usually paddle near Victoria. There were some two dozen sailboats anchored in sheltered places around Waiatt Bay, the most crowded that Amy had ever seen this area. Nights were cool but not really cold. And just in case perfect was asking too much, an hour before the Gung Ho returned to take us back to Heriot Bay, the clouds opened up. All our tents were soaked as we stuffed them into their bags. But it was still fun! And I sure hope to do it again next year.


  1. very interesting post about your trip to the clam gardens.

  2. Glad you think so! This was a wonderful trip, and I wished every minute that Amy's batch of volunteers had been our paddle group. We would all have had a good time in this nice bay, and enjoyed helping her get her samples.

  3. Just read your blog. We were on our sailboat in Wiaitt Bay in July and loved being serenaded by the loons on the West side. Saw several eagles as well didn't know about the clams so thank you for that information. It's our favorite anchoring spot in all of BC where we've traveled.