A blue heron enjoys the Salish Sea.

In the Gulf Islands, the sea is a big part of our lives, but what lies underneath the waves is largely unknown. While paddling a kayak and logging GPS coordinates along the east coast of Pender Island, I realized citizen scientists are helping shed light on this mystery. I was part of a dozen volunteers measuring the extent of kelp forests. Along with fellow “scientists” on Mayne, Saturna and Galiano Islands, we were helping determine the health of the Salish Sea, a productive ecosystem rich with marine life.

Citizen science — the term was only coined in the mid-1990s — allows scientists to greatly expand their shrinking budgets, and also makes science

Mapping bull kelp off Pender Island

accessible to the public. Ubiquitous cell phones with their wide range of apps can be powerful tools in the hands of ordinary citizens. For example, database apps such as iNaturalist and Zooniverse allow a wide range of observations to be recorded and shared. It’s easy to become a volunteer, and it’s great to feel like a scientist!

The Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society (SIMRES), led by Martin Wale, uses four hydrophones to monitor whales and link into BC’s coastal network as well as attracting university researchers. Mapping of kelp beds and other projects are also conducted. It’s rewarding to attend SEATALKS (Saturna Environmental Awareness Talks) where experts make first-class presentations about the marine environment.

Andrew Simon points at three-ranked knob moss on Galiano Island.

On Galiano Island, Andrew Simon, an expert on lichens and mosses, is the driving force behind Biodiversity Galiano, which started in 2016 with more than 200 contributors combing the island to list every living species. By 2020, more than 3,500 had been recorded. Andrew pointed to tiny three-ranked knob moss at Bluff Park, the only spot in Canada where this species is found. Galiano also boasts a huge ecopark, the Millard Learning Centre with 188 acres bordering the ocean. The Park, run by the Galiano Conservancy Association has hiking trails, an organic garden, solar panels and more.

Rob Underhill is the lead for citizen science on Mayne Island.

Martin Wale and UBC researcher observe marine life at East Point, Saturna Island.

Sophisticated eel grass studies have been conducted since 2009. Underhill also coordinates the bull kelp mapping around Mayne and neighbouring islands. Both eel grass and bull kelp are major habitats for marine life. The Mayne Island Conservancy conducts bat surveys, habitat restoration and more.

In June 2017, Pender Island was abuzz with a BioBlitz, a one-day nature extravaganza. Scientists, Parks Canada interpreters and the public worked together to spot as many species as possible. People scooped in the lake with nets. Divers roamed underwater bringing back sea stars, sculpins, gunnels and sea cucumbers. People crowded around information stations with displays and microscopes. The night

Young “scientist” and divers at BioBlitz, Pender Island.

expedition showed glorious bioluminescence in the sea. Young people — and even older folk — enjoyed learning about the fascinating complexity of nature.