There are two main threats to the over 20,000 breeding pairs of rhinoceros auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata) on Lucy Island, according to a report written in the mid-eighties: recreational boaters and oil spills. The island, or group of small islands, is about 21 km west of Prince Rupert and sits in Chatham Sound at the east end of Dixon Entrance. Its sandy beaches are protected and low tidal mudflats connect the islands one to another. It’s too far for rats and raccoons to cross and demolish the colony. The eagles and crows are fat though, and grey feathers litter the forest floor.
A boardwalk has been built to cross from the anchorage to the now unmanned lighthouse. Our walk showed little sign of anyone tramping through the hundreds of burrows at the roots of Sitka spruce and hemlock and in the tussocks of grass on the steep cliffs. The campers mostly stick to the beaches, building fires from driftwood, making sweats with heated rocks and even swimming in the chilly water.
Depending on the route tankers might take, Lucy is one of the hundreds of small island clusters in Hecate Strait that could be affected by a spill. It also happens to be home to over five percent of the world’s population of rhinoceros auklets. It is loved by sea-faring residents of the north coast. It is a crumpled heap of rock, sand, and just enough soil to grow huge trees and a carpet of Maianthemum bifolium or May lily. The inter-tidal zone is crammed full of life – seaweeds, barnacles, mussels, octopi, crabs, starfish, limpets, moon snails, and all the phytoplanktons that thrive in the temperate marine soup pot, sucking up carbon and producing oxygen for all of us. Trying to clean up a crude oil spill here would be futile.
Swells rise out of apparent flatness, gather themselves and crash against rocks, the lines of foam forming and reforming as the water recedes from the surge and leaves seaweed all shades of green, brown, purple , red, and gold dripping, coating the barnacles. Starfish, orange and purple, deep in crevices.
Seals haul out glistening in heaps on a rock above the suck and crash of water, the smell of salt and seaweed, the smells of heat: a neoprene spray skirt, sunscreen. The water rippling, flattening, boiling and the great strands of kelp – they grow three feet a day – their odd bobbing heads nodding, nodding, they hold back their long rippling skirts in this curious dance, a macabre ritual that ends in death at low tide, children swinging them around and around, running down the long strand of sand screaming their pleasure at the power of centrifugal force whirling above their heads. But now, the kayak hulls rumble thunk thunk thunk over them, over the sudden rocks taking shape beneath the surface, the scrape of barnacles breaking open the reflection of the sky.
Lined up on a log on the low tide beach, the great gawky young eagles, brown and speckled and fat with auklets, barely able to lift off as we approach. Otters bob just offshore; an eagle flies overhead dangling something from its talons, its reverberating screech and chitter unsettling.
In the distance, the deepening shades of blue as the islands recede and blur into Tugwell, into Pike, into Digby, into the Tree Nobs, into Melville, into Rachel, into Stephens.
Up close, on the beach, each receding wave leaves a trace, a fragmented line of Sitka spruce and hemlock needles, shell fragments, salt foam, a ragged message, an exhalation of the ocean on sand and even the sand is not really sand but a melee of pulverized rock, shells, bones, wood and old glass. It comes here and it goes from here. The shifting face where land and sky and water intersect, where each solid particle creates a place for something to take hold, where each piling of one particle upon another creates altitude, creates land, and the water rushes in and out. Each particle its own universe, each shift its own quake, each trickle its own ocean, all, at this moment, becoming this place we call beach, we call island, we call Lucy.