THE BLOG

Journey to the Great Bear (Night 3) -- Rough Waters and Risky Business

10/11/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

We've had another reminder that we are only part of this place tonight. As I write this, our ship is rolling side to side, even though we are anchored facing the wind in a protected bay tucked into Meyers Passage.

The weather called for yesterday has started to arrive, and it's stronger than predicted. It's now storm force winds, with hurricane force possible in the south Hecate Strait, with seas at eight metres, possibly up to ten. Neil says that when the tides turns, the waves will be even higher, and the conditions exiting into the Hecate Strait treacherous. Neil should know -- he is a specialist in search and rescue and now trains other captains on search and rescue techniques.

Why does this matter? The Hecate Strait is one of the most dangerous places to navigate in the world. This is where Canada is seriously proposing to run upwards of 220 tankers each year, carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic diluted bitumen.

No matter what precautions are taken, there is a very real risk that weather, human error, or mechanical failure could cause an oil spill. It's happened before - not too far from here, when the Exxon Valdez foundered and sank in 1989.

While knowledge has improved, nothing can completely eliminate risk. And if a spill happens in these circumstances, we know two things for certain: rescue would be virtually impossible in these weather conditions, and clean up impossible.

By the time the storm abated, the diluted bitumen (known as dilbit in the oil industry) carried by these tankers would spread a very long way around the Great Bear Sea. Dilbit probably will sink, making it even harder to clean up. Even if the risk of any particular taker running into trouble is small, the chance for catastrophe is significant.

As the wind gets stronger and stronger tonight, that risk seems all too real.