Maritime traffic control based in North Saanich

Saanich Peninsula chamber of Commerce Tour of Industry series continues.

Jamie Cook

If boat owners have ever strayed into commercial shipping lanes off Vancouver or the Whisky Gulf naval training area near Nanoose Bay, they may have heard a voice on their radio, helping them correct their course.

Those voices are from the people working at Victoria Marine Communication and Traffic Services (MCTS) in North Saanich.

The Jan. 23 Tour of Industry, held by the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, stopped at the Institute of Ocean Sciences on West Saanich Road. The first stop was MCTS.

Manager Eric Van Rooyen says their control room is essentially the 911 service for the Straight of Georgia — between the Juan de Fuca Straight to the south and Ballenas Island in the north. The division of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard has monitored maritime traffic since the 1970s. They moved to their Patricia Bay station in 1999.

In a nutshell, Van Rooyen says commercial vessels are required to call in — especially in the event of ship course conflicts — a requirement under Transport Canada rules. They also respond to emergency calls on channel 16 — and relay them to the Victoria Joint Rescue Centre, based at CFB Esquimalt.

In addition to radar coverage, the station monitors maritime communications.

With radar stations in four strategic locations, Van Rooyen says  their equipment picks up and displays real time maritime activity in Canadian and American waters.

“We monitor some areas on behalf of the United States. It’s rare for them to give up their sovereignty in any way like that.”

In a single year, the station will monitor around 200,000 vessels and respond to around 1,500 emergency calls. Yet, ideally, Van Rooyen says the public shouldn’t know they exist.

“That means we are doing our jobs.”

MCTS officer Jamie Cook showed the tour his set of seven computer screens, each showing a different part of the region they cover. A former commercial pilot, Cook says he works 12-hour shifts. Watching him flash through different screen sizes, locations and ship identification numbers and one gets the impression he knew what he was doing.

Boat traffic around Vancouver Island must be safe, he notes, and their equipment can tell them if a vessel is nearing shallow water. That would mean a quick call to that vessel to help steer them clear.

“One of our jobs is to mitigate the impact of all the traffic,” Cook said.


The tide is high

Included in the tour at the Institute of Ocean Sciences were brief stops into where DFO staff prepare for seasonal mapping surveys.

These are trips designed to map the sea floor and coast line, to help in the drawing up of updated charts.

Michael Breton, a hydrographer with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, showed some of their maps, charts and books — which always require updating. As changes are made to navigation on the coast, he says information goes out in a few different ways.

Critical information (that which could impact maritime traffic right now) goes out first, to reach vessel operators in the most timely methods.

Non-critical information goes into updated publications, both paper form and electronic.

Breton says they have around 350 charts for the west coast of B.C., which are updated as soon as surveyors return with new data.

This month, the surveyors with the Canadian Hydrographic Service plan to visit Harmac and Duke Point near Nanaimo. They plan to map the area to ensure potential tanker traffic can pass safely.

Desolation Sound and Jervis Inlet — small vessel destinations — are next on the list. Their summer survey plans will take crews to the central coast.

In recent years, the Kitimat area was surveyed in advance of Liquefied Natural Gas projects reaching development stage. It’s work, says spokesperson Dave Prince, to make sure vessels going in and out of the area can do so safely.

The last stop on the tour of the facility was the tsunami centre — or small offices that monitor wave action 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The data they collect on the number and strength of earthquakes and tsunamis is used for marine navigation, spill response and ocean modeling.