- BC Games
Nurse gets to the bottom of rare sponge grove
Duncan nurse Debbie Heys knew nothing about the coast's ancient, threatened, glass-sponge.
That will change today during her first submarine ride to what experts believe are the world's only glass-sponge reefs.
The North Cowichanian is happy to learn about, and raise preservation awareness of, the sponge reef off Passage Island off West Vancouver.
"I feel incredibly lucky for this once-in-a-lifetime experience," said licensed practical nurse Heys, picked from some 1,000 contestants for the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society's dive.
"This pushes the envelope for me as far as things I'd normally not do in my life," the water lover said.
"I'd never even heard of these reefs before so this will expand my awareness about our delicate systems out there; we all need to be more aware of what's out there and our need to protect it."
A pilot with Nuytco Research Ltd. will dunk Heys and fellow passenger/Juno-winning musician Dan Mangan 300 feet to the beds that are part of a system, including reefs in Hecate Strait.
The closest beds to Cowichan sit off Galiano and Mayne islands," explained the society's Sabine Jessen.
The society's two days of dives in Howe Sound will also see global explorer Bruce Kirkby, and B.C.'s Minister of Technology Andrew Wilkinson, take the sponge plunge.
"Ive been working to protect these reefs since about 2001," Jessen said of the sponge beds said to be about 9,000 years old.
The society's goal is have the fragile reefs protected — from bottom-trawling fishing boats, prawn traps and other threats — by having them included in planned marine-protected areas.
"The sponges are extremely brittle, delicate and fragile," Jessen said. "Even a long line, or something heavy that touches them, will damage them.
"There was some research done on them three years ago and we want to check on them; the area still isn't closed to fishing."
She hoped having Liberal Cabinet minister Wilkinson, and a federal agent, visit the reefs will help prod sponge protection by Victoria and Ottawa under a draft strategy for a coast-wide network of marine protected areas.
"I think we'll get fishing closures on the Strait of Georgia next year — the marine protected areas will take longer," said Jessen.
She foresaw marine protection for sponge reefs in Hecate Straight (between the island and Haida Gwaii) next year.
"By calling attention to (the rare reefs), we hope the pressure gets this done."
So does Dr. Manfred Krautter.
“Until the reefs in B.C. waters were first discovered in 1987, they were thought to have gone extinct over 40 million years ago," says a release quoting the paleobiologist from the University of Stuttgart, who has spent decades studying the fossilized reefs in Europe. "Their discovery was like finding a herd of dinosaurs on land."
The brittle, meringue-like, white or yellow sponges sport finger-like protrusions resembling tubes, Jessen explained.
"They can form a reef to the height of five-story building in the Strait of Georgia — new sponges build on top of older ones."
Why do the reefs — that started forming after the last ice age — live here?
"We don't have a complete answer to that," she replied. "They're glass, so they build their skeletons from dissolved silica in the water. Our mountains and rocks erode and there's lots of silica in our rocks in B.C."
Human activity isn't their only enemy.
"Sedimentation is also a threat because they're filter feeders, so if there's too much silt, they die," she said.
"They eat bacteria out of the water, and filter huge amounts of Strait of Georgia water."
Meanwhile, Heys was stoked about lying in the sub for a look, through big windows, at the glass sponge beds.
"Who knows? Maybe I'll be more determined to try snorkeling, and to explore our coastline."