Conservation group dives deep to examine unique Strait of Georgia reefs


October 15, 2013

Conservation group dives deep to examine unique Strait of Georgia reefs

VANCOUVER – Today a team of scientists begins two days of submarine dives in Howe Sound to examine the state of ancient and mysterious glass sponge reefs discovered just 12 years ago in this area. The expeditions are being organized by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) in partnership with Nuytco Research, and led by CPAWS Oceans Program Director Sabine Jessen.

In addition to the science team, Ms Jessen will be joined by the Honourable Andrew Wilkinson, B.C.’s Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services; Dan Mangan, Juno award winner; and Bruce Kirkby, global explorer. One lucky member of the public, the winner of a recent contest, will also join these adventurers. 

“Our priority is to assess the health of the Howe Sound reefs, and ensure that protection measures are put in place for them quickly.  Other glass sponge reefs further north in Hecate Strait were discovered in 1987, and protection measures for them are expected to be finalized next year, but so far these reefs right on Vancouver’s doorstep have no protection,” says Jessen.

“We know from previous research that glass sponge reefs are very vulnerable to damage from activities like bottom fishing and dredging. The heavy gear just crushes the fragile sponges. We’re not sure what we’ll find when we dive down in Howe Sound. This expedition will provide really important information, and there is always the chance we will find something completely new and surprising, it’s a very exciting opportunity,” says Jessen.

“Until the reefs in B.C. waters were first discovered in 1987, they were thought to have gone extinct over 40 million years ago. Their discovery was like finding a herd of dinosaurs on land,” says Dr. Manfred Krautter, a world-renowned paleobiologist from the University of Stuttgart who has spent decades studying the fossilized reefs found throughout Europe.

Scientists already know that glass sponge reefs now found only off the B.C. coast, are important nursery grounds for fish, including endangered “old growth” rockfish, and are incredibly important as natural water filters. CPAWS-BC is calling for immediate fishing closures and future Marine Protected Areas in the Strait of Georgia to protect the Glass Sponge Reefs.

“Glass sponges feed on bacteria, and a single reef can filter the equivalent of one Olympic swimming pool of water every 40 seconds. That’s about four times faster than any other filter feeder studied to date,” says University of Alberta Professor Sally Leys, one of the team members participating in the submarine dive event. 

“In an enclosed body of water as heavily developed as the Strait of Georgia the reefs could be of great importance both environmentally and economically, but we just don’t know enough yet about the state of their health in Howe Sound,” says Jessen.

As Nuytco’s submarines can go much deeper than a scuba diver, this expedition will allow scientists to examine areas of glass sponge reef that have not been studied for four years and visit never-before seen sections of reef.  “It is very important that the glass sponge reefs are protected, and my team and I are very pleased to assist in CPAWS’ efforts to protect them,” says Phil Nuytten, owner of Nuytco Research Ltd, which is providing the submersibles for the expedition.

Team members will be live tweeting throughout the day. You can follow the conversation on our Twitter account (@CPAWSbc) and with the hashtag #seaofglass.


For more information: Sabine Jessen, Oceans Program Director. 604-657-2813

For further background on the reefs and expedition team members, see

CPAWS is Canada’s voice for wilderness. Since 1963 CPAWS has led in protecting a half a million square kilometers of land and oceans. Our vision is that Canada will protect at least half of our public land and water. As a national charity with 13 chapters, 65,000 supporters and hundreds of volunteers, CPAWS works collaboratively with governments, local communities, industry and indigenous peoples to protect our country’s amazing natural places.