One of the more popular stops on many of our whale watching tours from Victoria is Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, a grouping of nine small islets located 16 km to the west of Victoria.
Race Rocks has many claims to fame. It’s the most southerly part of Canada’s west coast. It holds a very special place in Indigenous and marine history. It’s home to the second oldest lighthouse in BC—activated in 1860. It’s the site of more than 100 historical shipwrecks.
And it’s known for its rich marine life, thanks to the strong tidal currents for which it’s named. For marine educators and researchers, Race Rocks is a model for the transition zone between inner coastal waters and the open Pacific. That’s why, even though the light was automated in 1997, there’s still a human presence on the main island in the form of an “ecoguardian.”
What’s it like living and working as the ecoguardian at Race Rocks? We have the inside scoop, thanks to our very own Captain Rod, who was just finishing up his first shift as the Race Rocks ecoguardian when we interviewed him in April. He has many stories to tell from his nine weeks at the light. Here are a few of them, in his own words.
What does the ecoguardian do?
The reserve involves a lot of different players. BC Parks administers the reserve and leases it to nearby Pearson College UWC and partners to run as a research and education site. All the structures on the main island are managed by Pearson except for the Light itself which is leased to the Canadian Coast Guard. The ecoguardian is hired by Pearson to maintain the premises, host marine science and other college students on field trips, keep an eye on the wildlife that’s coming and going (including injured animals), and report infractions in the reserve by boaters.
What’s involved in maintaining the premises?
The power sources here are battery, solar and diesel engines, so I have to keep them operational. I make sure the web cameras are clean. The Light is automated, but the ecoguardian maintains the equipment and machinery for the Coast Guard. The University of Victoria also has a presence out here with a CODAR radar system and other monitoring equipment. Calls are constantly coming in asking me to check on this and that.
What skills do you need to become an ecoguardian?
Besides several basic marine certifications, including seamanship and boat-handling, you really need to know engines. You’re starting generators and things like that so you have to have an idea of electrical current and how it works, and how to maintain batteries and solar panels. You also have to be very aware of tidal flow and things like that, especially when boats are coming and going.
How do you keep track of the wildlife?
I make a list of things I see on a daily basis. If I see a new species I get a photo of it and put it into the Race Rocks Log. We also do a census every week so I go to the top of the Light and count everything, including all the birds, using a little counting clicker. Whenever we get new arrivals of elephant seals I write that down too.
What’s a typical day for an ecoguardian?
We monitor the batteries all the time. At nighttime, we look to see how much the solar panels have charged the batteries. If it’s low, we start the generator to recharge the batteries. There’s a list of things we check daily—the fuel and water pumps for example. We make sure everything is clean, especially the windows. Every day, we take water samples to measure temperature and salinity. We collect rainwater in catchment buckets placed all over the island. And there are composting toilet systems on the island, which come with their own special adventures [laughs].
What’s it like sharing your workspace with the wildlife?
Everything you do here you have to plan. If you want to run your fuel in a cart to the other side of the island there are going to be a few obstacles along the way—adult elephant seals, elephant seal pups, sea lions, geese who are laying their eggs right now. Everything you do you think “Oh no, I can’t do that right now because the animals are there” or “No, I can’t do that today because I don’t have rainwater.”
Can you give an example?
The other day I needed to get into a building for supplies but there was a massive female elephant seal laying across the entrance. So I’m like “Er, Asia, can you move?” She just looks at me and puts her big nose against the door. And I’m like “Okay, where can I get another tool?”
So there’s a lot of creative thinking in this job?
Big time. There’s no hardware store out here. I’ve created many different tools already. I stuck a hand scraper on an extension pole with a little hook on it so we could scrape the green lichen off the side of the buildings. I built my own scaffold. And I use a lot of duct tape. The key is to be safe and always have a backup plan because you don’t want to get injured out here.
You also watch for mariners in trouble?
That’s part of the job. Plus, it’s an ecological reserve so we want to make sure that anyone coming in is doing the proper thing. It’s a go-slow zone and no fishing is allowed. One morning I was just about to make coffee and heard someone banging on my door screaming for help. He and his buddy had been illegally fishing from kayaks in the reserve and got caught in the strong tidal current. His buddy was on his way to the open Pacific. I ended up calling the Coast Guard who pulled them out and I’m sure had a chat with them about fishing illegally. [See more details on the incident in the April 11 log.]
What is nighttime like there?
It goes in stages. When I first got here the male elephant seal was very active. Mating was going on all night long. Loud calls, lots of chasing. Crazy sounds. It was like out of a horror movie to be honest [laughs]. When that stage passed the male was tired and sleeping more. As soon as he left everything quietened down. Next came the Canada geese and they honked all night long as they squabbled for nesting space. Now we’re in the gull stage. Like clockwork every night at dusk, a bald eagle shows up, causes a commotion and usually kills a bird. After that everyone settles down. We hear sea lions barking and roaring whenever there’s a disturbance, but mainly everyone goes to sleep. Until dawn. Then it starts all over. It’s amazing.
Tell us about the weather conditions you’ve experienced
Everything from hail to blazing hot sunshine to winds approaching 50 knots (over 90 kph). Every window you look out there’s white water rolling past you, water spraying over tops of rocks. It’s visually unbelievable. And those gulls—they’re master flyers even in strong winds. You’ll see one on one side of the island flying into the wind, then it’ll do a bank turn and zooooom, it’s instantly on the other side of the island! It’s pretty cool to watch.
Did you have any trouble with power outages?
When one of the big winds came through we had power surges. All of a sudden everything went black in the house and I had to redo all the breakers in the middle of the night—in another building. We have a flashlight on the corner of every door so I grabbed one of those and headed out. Imagine, it’s pitch black and blowing 40 knots and raining. I start walking on the uneven ground, trying not to slip on the seal and bird poop which is everywhere, and then there’s this 5,000-lb. elephant seal in my path. You really have to watch your back and be aware of where you’re going! [Laughs]
What’s your favourite part of the job?
The animals, by far. We’ve named the four elephant seal pups—Gummer, Rudy, Sharpei and Tuffy. We’ve enjoyed watching their progress, seeing them go down to the water for the first time and getting braver every day. We cheer them on. We’ve had seven female elephant seals here too, all moulting. They’d gather into a cuddle puddle every night. What amazes me is the dexterity of their flippers. One time I was sitting with Rudy and he just reaches up with the tip of his flipper and gently scratches the inside corner of his eye. It’s such a privilege to be here and see them do little things like that.
What’s your least favourite part of the job?
The frustration that you just cleaned that window and you come back minutes later and it’s like someone just took a shotgun of bird poop to the side of the house. And you just used your last little drip of water [Laughs].
Have you enjoyed it?
Immensely. Working at a historical lighthouse is very humbling—to be part of a team working so hard to protect this place and the animals in it. I’m proud of many things I’ve done here, especially the main house decks we built. Being here has affected me deeply. The rock stands still but everything on, above and around it keeps moving. Your senses are on overdrive, day and night. You watch the sun go down, you watch the sun come up. You’re so in touch with nature. It’s been the experience of a lifetime!
Join us on one of our tours to learn more about Race Rocks and perhaps see it for yourself. Give us a call or book online!
Blog prepared by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist, Eagle Wing Tours
Published April 29, 2021