My Journey to the Sea of Glass

by Sabine Jessen, National Director, Oceans Program



I remember sitting in the Marine Ecology Center in Cowichan Bay, sometime in the late 1990s, peering at grainy video footage taken from a submarine. The director of the center, Dr. Bill Austin was excitedly telling me about the incredible new discovery of glass sponge reefs on the B.C. coast.  The footage showed these alien structures seemingly sprouting out of the seafloor. Bill was very excited about the discovery but I have to admit that at the time I didn’t really see the significance of this find and therefore had yet to understand the need to protect these exquisite and fragile creatures that build their skeletons out of silica or glass. Nevertheless I was captivated by this discovery, and Bill’s excitement was contagious, so we began work to raise awareness of these mysterious and remarkable creatures.

Glass sponges by Neil McDaniel

When Dr. Manfred Krautter, a paleontologist from Germany who had studied fossilized glass sponge reefs, learned about the B.C. reefs, he says it was like a herd of dinosaurs had suddenly come to life! Until then everyone thought that they had gone extinct in the Jurassic era. Now we know that the reefs have been growing on the seafloor in BC for over 9000 years. As interest has increased, more has been learned since that first encounter with these unique reefs found nowhere else in the world. We know that in northern B.C. waters, the sponge reefs cover over 1000 sq km of the sea floor and that they can grow to the height of an 8-storey building! We also know from work by Dr. Sally Leys, that as the reefs feed on bacteria, they filter enormous amounts of sea water every minute.

CPAWS-BC has been working to protect B.C.’s glass sponge reefs since 2001. With time the grainy image of the glass sponge reefs has become clearer, as each new study provides a new lens, a new level of understanding. Since those first, grainy images of the fragile ivory-coloured sponge reefs, the need for protection has also become clearer. Early surveys found evidence of damage by bottom trawlers, with large areas of reef completely destroyed.  More recent research has found that glass sponges also need to be protected from sedimentation, which can choke and smother the reefs. Our focus at CPAWS has been to raise public awareness and get the reefs protected, as they are the only ones we have.

Armed with photos, videos, and Mr. Stinky our mascot (a glass sponge from the McCall Bank sponge reef kindly donated by scientists), CPAWS-BC has worked non-stop to bring this research and these strange deep-sea creatures to life for the public and decision makers alike. We have published reports and media articles, organized speaking tours and presentations, visited classrooms and even taken Mr. Stinky to Parliament Hill!

Mr Stinky in Ottawa with Sabine and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea

Interest in the glass sponge reefs has grown as a result of our outreach. But while efforts were being made to protect the reefs, we knew more was needed.  We wanted to capture the public imagination and bring these mysterious, ancient, deep-sea creatures to life in real time so that their long-term protection would bea priority for decision makers. Since we can’t bring the sponge reefs to the people, we decided to take the people to the sponges. This was no easy task considering some reefs are over 200 feet deep, much further than scuba divers can safely go. So for the past 2 years, we have been working with Nuytco Research Ltd in North Vancouver to plan a series of submarine dives to the sponge reefs on Vancouver’s doorstep.

Sabine and Global BC News Anchor in Nuytco's Aquarius Submarine

Over two gorgeous days in October, within view of the city of Vancouver, we dove to the bottom of Howe Sound, and discovered a world of amazing creatures growing on the sea floor. As the sub descended into the darkness, at 250 feet below the surface, the white, yellow and orange tubes of the glass sponges came into view, Among the sponges were brightly coloured rockfish, as well as lingcod, prawns, and crabs. Joining us on the dives to help us raise awareness of these amazing reefs were VIPs and media, and we were excited to see the glass sponges take the spotlight on Global BC evening news with Chris Gailus, National Geographic’s Daily News, The Vancouver Sun and CBC to name just a few. 

After so many years of talking about the glass sponge reefs, and asking the federal government to protect them from destructive activities like bottom trawling and prawn traps, it was amazing to finally see them with my own eyes. It was like discovering ancient temples hidden in tropical rainforests.

Finally seeing the sponge reefs with my own eyes, amazing! (Photo courtesy Bruce Kirkby)

Our ongoing efforts to raise awareness about the need to protect the glass sponge reefs are paying off. Fishing closures were put in place for the large reefs in Hecate Strait in 2002, and CPAWS has been working to establish a marine protected area for these reefs, in time for Oceans Day 2014. For the past 4 years, we have been urging the federal government to put fishing closures in place to protect the glass sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia, and our understanding is that these should also be in place next year.

But the job isn’t done, and we will remain vigilant until it is. We hope you will continue to support us in these efforts. Almost 15 years after we first saw that grainy video footage in Bill’s lab we now have a much clearer picture of how fragile and how precious BC’s glass sponge reefs are. We need your help to get this deep-sea treasure protected so please visit our action page and speak up for B.C.’s glass sponge reefs and watch and share our Sea of Glass expedition films