Most drivers in Greater Victoria know to be vigilant of weather conditions and the odd deer, but perhaps few stop to think about what hazards ferry pilots have to look out for.
Captain Jan Brockhausen is the BC Ferries’ Marine Superintendent South Coast, of Operational Fleets and Captains. In layman’s terms, he is someone who has been a BC Ferries captain for 10 years and who now oversees the two key routes coming out of Tsawwassen – to Nanaimo and Swartz Bay.
Passengers sitting in their plush seats charging their phones or eating at one of the canteens might not be aware that the stately pace often belies a ship wrestling the weather and dodging whales.
“In the summer time it’s pretty frequent to see a pod of whales every couple of days,” says Brockhausen.
“Southern Resident Killer Whales are what we see the majority of. Quite a few humpbacks in the summer and of course porpoises.”
On a Spirit class ship there are 13 crew members operating the vessel; the captain, four officers and nine deck hands. When entering or exiting port the ship is said to be in maneuvering mode or the red zone. All five officers are expected on the bridge and this number drops to three when the ship enters open water, known as the green zone. One crew member who doesn’t leave their post is the look-out, whose job is to scan for danger, such as small boats, commercial ships, deadheads (floating logs) and marine wildlife.
“We encourage our navigators to do what it takes to limit our impact on their environment. As a general rule we try to stay half a mile, if not a mile, away from them,” says Brockhausen.
BC Ferries have strict procedures in place when encountering whales and a new training program instructs navigators to limit the ships’ impact on whales, which can be difficult in constricted bodies of water.
”Our first strategy is to give them some room, second strategy is to slow down and create more room for them,” explains Brockhausen.
To assist the captain and crew, technology is being utilized in the form of the Whale Report Alert System, managed by Oceanwise at the Vancouver Aquarium. Reports from sailors of whale sightings are added into a data-bank and messages sent via app to all navigators within a 10 mile radius of the sighting.
“It’s worked pretty good. It gives us all a heads-up,” said Brockhausen.
BC Ferries confirmed that they are unaware of a whale ever dying by being struck by one of their ships.
“There are challenging experiences that happen all the time,” explains Brockhausen. “We’ve had some very strong weather days for ships that need to get back home. The process of getting a 167 metre ship into Tsawwassen when winds are upwards of 40-50 knots is ‘exciting’ to say the least. We do this very successfully and have many skills within our team.”
Environmental campaigners believe marine traffic is likely to increase in future and they are concerned ferry and commercial ship use will further disrupt marine wildlife.
In response, BC Ferries recently launched their Underwater Radiated Noise Mitigation Plan, saying “Our environmental, social and economic impacts are central to our business decisions.”