The Environmental Impacts of Sea Kayakers

A starfish in an intertidal pool, Nuchatlitz Inlet BC. photo by Dave Barnes

A starfish in an intertidal pool, Nuchatlitz Inlet BC.
photo by Dave Barnes

The hot ticket environmental issue on the BC coast centers around pipelines and oil tanker traffic in the often unpredictable waters of the Inside Passage.  In my opinion the very real potential for environmental disaster resulting in devastation to a delicate coastline lasting months, years or perhaps even decades if the Exxon Valdez episode can be used as example out weighs any, if any monetary benefits. I can’t even imagine the fallout from an event such as this on my beloved wild shores. As a sea kayaker of many years this haunts me as the age-old fight between our need for earthly resources and the rainforests, mountains, lakes, rivers and oceans wages on. The worst case scenario is obvious and would  press greatly on sea kayaking and on Beautiful British Columbia tourism in general, and tourism dollars are nothing to be shrugged off lightly.

That argument aside, shall I flip the coin and suggest that we, the humble paddlers all can impact the eco-systems of our local waters and shoreline in proportionally equality to that of a super tanker cracking open spilling crude all over seals and seagulls. We are not as low-impact as we would like to  believe.  An addition to my ‘everything bag’ that I have in the cockpit of my kayak at all times contains among other necessary objects such as camera, safety stuff is a magnifying glass. Not for aid in fire starting, though it would come in handy for such a use. No, it is there to examine the miniature world of the intertidal zone that we kayakers use without much thought to who we may be trampling when we land at the ‘perfect’ camping spot.

As a wilderness camper and kayaker this comes to the forefront of my paddling experience. Although, my kayaking trips may begin at designated launch sites such as public docks or boat ramps the landings are in the wilds on far-flung beaches or nooks in the world of the coastal shoreline. Anyone that has been in this situation will know the pitfalls of such a landing and the questions that come along for the ride. Is there surf? Which way is the tide flowing? Are there rocks ahead? But do we ever ask on the ride in on that last wave of the day, are there any indigenous life forms in my path? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t beat yourself up just yet, if you are like me this question never popped up before.

I am not suggesting we avoid veering away from the beaten path. That would defeat the entire purpose of this type of kayaking. However, I am suggesting a recognition that we the kayaker (patting on the back thinking of ourselves as environmentally low-impact) are only relatively low-impact ,and by landing on far-flung beaches we do a certain amount of harm. With the bow of my kayak pointed to shore I now scan for a space of beach for safe landings. If at all possible I do this with respect to those living lives in and under the rocks and grasses. I attempt to land my kayak with as much care as I take with selecting a spot for my tent that will not crush, bend, or squash plants while considering my requirements for safety, shade and seclusion from the elements.

Yes, okay I know this sounds like performing the impossible, but again I am not suggesting that we never come ashore like paddling Flying Dutchmen. We can keep on doing what we are doing out there but think about where we are. Ask these questions instead. Is it nesting time? Observable impact can be seen when landing and launching in estuaries, mudflats and shallow coves. The intertidal zone is something we trample without much thought. I have heard too many crunches under my sandals over the years and though there are thousands of small snails wandering about, I know I took out a few. Drop a tree on your back and you will understand the starfish point of view when the bow of a kayak or canoe lands on them. The shallows of sandbars covered in inches of water, enough for our kayaks to skim across, but each paddle stroke of push-off on the sand tears up eel grasses, and can impact again on shell fish etc, and we can be noisy. Seals and other sea life are rather skittish .Imagine how you feel with a bucket of cold water tossed on you while sun bathing. A seal lazing on a rock is spooked, stressed and suddenly back in the cold ocean as we approach too closely.

By comparison our kayaks to the scale and point of view of the average beach crab, snail, or nesting shore bird is the same as the average tanker. Do no harm, leave no trace, and take only pictures. Sounds trite but it is true. It is a delicate balance living with wild things in our fragile little world and without knowing it we do a fair measure of harm. We kayakers are relatively low-impact players in the game and my encounters with fellow members of the paddling community declares our care and respect for where we go. All I ask is that we ask a few more questions as we paddle to shore. Does not landing that beached starfish make a difference? It does to the starfish!


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  1. #1 by thewhaleweeps on February 9, 2014 - 12:35 am

    What a thoughtful post. It’s interesting that the things that we do to be out in nature usually have negative impacts on it. I guess we need to evaluate our footprints no matter what we are doing. For the sake of the starfish. 🙂

    • #2 by paddlinboy on February 9, 2014 - 12:45 am

      Thank you! I am a firm believer of ‘no trace’ outdoors ethics and from my privileged point of view from the seat of a kayak the big footprints are all too visible and real out here on the coast. We will leave our footprints whether hiking or paddling and it is all a matter of scale. There is always something bigger than us. Alas, such is the life of a starfish!

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