Feature Article on Pam Birley,

From:  TheThunderbird.ca News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

B.C. wildlife webcam protects ecosystem, entertains daily British watcher

Visit Pamela Birley in her Leicester, England, home, and you’ll likely see sea lions hauling themselves onto Great Race Rock – an island in B.C., eight time zones away.

Surrounded by tidal races, open to wind and waves, and dwarfed by views of the Olympic Mountains, the treeless rock off the southern tip of Vancouver Island is a magnet for marine life in the area.

A young elephant seal saunters towards the sea.
Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

Birley, 86, has been watching the wildlife on Great Race Rock, the exposed peak of the seamount comprising the Race Rocks marine ecological reserve, for the past 14 years.

The webcams have performed a unique function since they were installed in 2000 by drawing in visitors from around the world and keeping the public from overwhelming the ecosystem. Birley is a daily watcher.

“It’s the variety of wildlife out there,” she said. “You’re never too sure what you’re going to see, and sometimes you see unusual things.”

Hotspot for biodiversity

Home to millions of plankton, thousands of nesting seabirds, and hundreds of sea lions, the reserve in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is rich in marine life. It’s this diversity that motivated Garry Fletcher, a marine biologist, to push for the area’s protection in the 1970s.

“It’s at the confluence of upwelling from deeper ocean and the fresh water spilling out of the Georgia Basin, so it creates a very unique ecosystem,” Fletcher said. “It’s a real hotspot of biodiversity.”

Fletcher’s efforts paid off. In 1980, the B.C. government designated Race Rocks and surrounding seamount as a provincial marine protected area. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans subsequently closed the reserve to commercial and ground fishing in 1991 and has designated it an area of interest, slated to become a marine protected area. Spanning 226 hectares, the reserve is managed under lease by the nearby college where Fletcher taught until retirement, Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific.

However, most of those 226 hectares are submerged. Great Race Rock, at merely two hectares, is the only habitable part of the reserve.

Easily crossed on foot in less than 10 minutes, the island has no safe harbour and is cut off from Vancouver Island for days during spells of bad weather. For the island’s resident eco-guardian, Laas Parnell, the island’s size and isolation are impossible to ignore.

Originally from Haida Gwaii, Parnell has lived in isolated, coastal places most of her life. Yet Race Rocks stole her heart when she first visited during a marine-science class in 2011.

“I love it here,” she said of her home of the past year. “I’m not claustrophobic. I keep pretty busy, cooking, cleaning. I spend a lot of time just walking around.”

Still, the island’s tininess can be humbling.

“It reminds me that I’m the only one out there. Alone.” she said.

Light keepers lived on Race Rocks until the beacon was automated in 1997. Their houses, the jetty, and the lighthouse outbuildings remain to house the eco-guardian, researchers, and students. Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

It’s an aspect of the island Birley hadn’t noticed through the webcam.

“It surprised me how compact it was when we actually visited,” she said, reminiscing on the first time she set foot on the island in 2007. “I find it hard to get my bearings on the webcam in relation to what’s near what.”

“Parks end up getting loved to death sometimes”

It was the island’s size that motivated Fletcher to install the webcams. Covered in resting sea lions or seabird nests most of the year, the island can’t handle many visitors. He worried about the impact tourism could have had on the area.

The island is isolated during the winter months by gales and tidal races, but calm seas in the summer make it within easy reach for boats leaving Victoria and other harbours along southern Vancouver Island.

“It’s a bird colony and marine mammal haul-out area,” said Fletcher. “It was just too sensitive to have people coming and going in hordes. You would have every whale-watching boat stop there and disgorge its passengers. Parks end up getting loved to death sometimes.”

To prevent over-visitation, BC Parks mandates that visitors to the island must obtain an education or research permit.

Gulls depend on Great Race Rock as a nesting site and a place to rest.
Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

However, Fletcher wanted to make the reserve’s unique biodiversity and natural beauty publicly available. At the time, webcams offered a novel solution.

Webcams connect wildlife lovers

In 2000, most Canadians relied on dial-up internet, Mark Zuckerberg was 16, and YouTube wouldn’t exist for another five years. Broadcasting online, live from Race Rocks, was a moment Fletcher won’t forget.

“My best memory is when we achieved getting the first video signals off the island, back in 2000,” said Fletcher. “That was quite an accomplishment and represented participation and co-operation from a lot of players.”

For Birley, the introduction of webcams like the ones at Race Rocks were an opportunity to explore the world. She watches four cams daily, including Race Rocks.

“I don’t get out a great deal now,” she said. “But my life is full: I get out in the garden and I do a lot of knitting. I knit birds, just little standing shelf sitters. I can knit while I watch the webcams, so it’s productive.”

Birley’s best-selling knit bird: a peregrine falcon. Photo: Pamela Birley/Etsy

Birley’s knitted birds are popular: she’s sold hundreds in her Etsy shop to buyers far and wide.

Webcams have also fostered international friendships for Birley. Fletcher is one of her regular correspondents, and she’s made friends in Victoria and Seattle through webcams.

It is the animals, however, that keep Birley watching Race Rocks. She documents Race Rocks wildlife extensively through webcam screenshots and turns them into albums on Flickr.

Birley sees some animals regularly, like the gulls and sea lions, but her dedication to the webcam has paid off with an amazing sighting—a snowy owl.

“It was pouring rain, I had the camera on, and I was probably knitting,” she recalls.

“I looked up and thought I saw a funny looking seagull by the rock. I zoomed in and there it was: a snowy owl sitting there, just swivelling its head around from time to time. I’ve only ever seen the one, and that was quite exciting!”

Seeing a snowy owl was a highlight of Birley’s webcam sightings.
Photo: Pamela Birley/Race Rocks

Dr. Anita Brinkmann-Voss…. In Memoriam

Dr. Anita Brinckmann-Voss passed away on December 12 at her home in Sooke BC. Anita had been a long time friend of Lester B. Pearson College. From 1986, to 2005,  Dr. Anita Brinckmann-Voss  BC assisted the students and faculty of Lester Pearson College with her understanding of marine invertebrate ecology and her expertise in the taxonomy of hydroids and other invertebrates. Anita was one of the very few remaining taxonomists in the world who worked at such depth with this group of organisms.  She assisted many students with their work in biology and marine science and worked closely with several divers at the college who collected specimens for her.  Anita also was a regular donor to the Race Rocks program at the college.

Dr. Dale Calder, a colleague of Anita who works with the Royal Ontario Museum wrote the following about Anita:

“I knew of Dr. Anita Brinckmann-Voss and her research on hydrozoans from my days as a graduate student in Virginia during the 1960s. Her work at the famous Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy, was already widely known and respected.
Most noteworthy, however, was a landmark publication to come: her monumental monograph on hydrozoans of the Gulf of Naples, published in 1970. It highlighted studies on hydrozoan life cycles and was accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations of these marine animals that have ever been created. See the complete copy with color plates here:  Brinckmann70:


It was not until 1974, and the Third International Conference on Coelenterate Biology in Victoria, British Columbia (BC), Canada, that I met her for the first time. We discovered having common scientific interests and saw absolutely eye-to-eye on most issues. It was the beginning of a scientific collaboration and friendship that would last a lifetime. I always greatly valued her scientific insights, but I also appreciated her humility, good nature, and keen sense of humour.

In having moved from Europe to Canada, first to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and later to Toronto, Ontario, Anita’s research shifted from Mediterranean species to those of Canadian waters and especially British Columbia. Her professional base became the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto, but it was far from the ocean. She soon acquired a residence in Sooke, BC, conveniently located on the beautiful Pacific coast. Life cycle research was now possible on Canadian species, and at times several hundred cultures of hydrozoans were being maintained by her. One final move was made, from Ontario to permanent residence at her cottage in Sooke. From there she kept marine research underway the rest of her life. A focus became Race Rocks and the rich hydrozoan fauna inhabiting the site.

Anita altered the direction of my career in a most positive way. It was largely thanks to her that I moved from employment as a benthic ecologist in South Carolina to a curatorial position at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1981. It was the best career move of my life. Thank you, Anita!

Over the decades we collaborated in research, shared our libraries, and jointly authored several scientific papers. Outside a professional association, we were close friends. My wife and I often visited Anita at her homes, first in Pickering, Ontario, near Toronto, and later in Sooke. In return, she often visited us in Toronto after moving west. It is an understatement to say she will be sorely missed.”
-(Quote from Dr. Dale Calder, ROM, 2018)

Links to her work with the college:

Other references: http://www.racerocks.ca/tag/anita-brinckmann-voss/



DND Blast and a Surprise Audience


  • Visibility: 15 Miles
  • Wind: 12-16 NE throughout the day
  • Sky: sunny, very few clouds
  • Water: mostly calm, a bit choppy


  • Had one large eco tour boat full of passengers sneak up on me and yell “Hello” as a group. That was fun (:
  • lots of large shipping vessels passing by including two huge logging barges


  • still a decent amount of sea lions around
  • there is another, smaller harbour seal pup hanging out now too
  • Bernard (the elephant seal) is back!
  • haven’t seen any canadian geese in a few days


  • had more large DND blasts go off from Rocky Point that shook the house and startled birds today.

First Week as Ecoguardian


  • Visibility: Very foggy early morning but cleared right up by 8:30am
  • Wind: 11-16 NE throughout the day
  • Sky: sunny with cloudy periods
  • Water: mostly calm, a bit choppy


  • Had about 7 boats cruise by in the last week
  • had a small tour come ashore last saturday morning of pearson college students


  • had a young harbour seal that was on the island for a few days but is gone now
  • there are a pair of eagles hanging around for the last week
  • large male elephant seal was here for 6 days and left last night
  • caught a quick glimpse of what looked like a small sea otter running by the jetty yesterday morning


  • had a very large blast go off from Rocky Point that shook the house and startled birds.


  • enjoyed my first week here at Race Rocks!

First Glaucous-winged-gull chicks hatch


We have mainly low winds except on the Monday 26th where we got to 40knots from West otherwise it has been between 5knots to 15knots


I spotted the 2 first gull chicks and they were  4/5days old …there are for sure more than 2 and the adults gulls are getting aggressive. I saw a river otter and 2 young ones under the crane like usual.7 Elephant seals are steady on the rocks( moulting time). No Sea lions at all.The eagles get motivated and 2 attacked at the same time!


I could count 80 fishing boats but not closed, ecotourism vessels full as usual.


Usual chores ..the solar panels got pretty dirty and needs attention. I transferred the last 240 liter of oil in the main house tank

All kinds of weather today


  • Visibility: 15 Miles
  • Wind: 20-25 SW in the early morning came down to nothing around noon and then picked up to 25 in the evening
  • Sky: Cloudy, rained a little bit but was also very sunny at times
  • Water: waves in the morning and then calm waters and then back up in the evening


  • a few ecotours while the weather was nice this afternoon


  • the 10 elephant seals I counted stayed scattered around the pathways and not just in front of the house

Flo Anderson : In Memoriam

ANDERSON, Florence (Zita) Belle On March 30, 2017 Florence (Zita) Belle Anderson, quietly slipped away at home, while laying next to her beloved husband of seventy-three years, Trevor. Born December 30th, 1924 in Victoria at the family home on Midgard Ave., Flo went to Mount View high school and then onto Victoria College in the historic Craigdarroch Castle. She fondly remembered daydreaming about the formal dances held at the castle. After completion of her college exams, she married Trev (May 20th, 1944, Grace Lutheran Church) on his return from serving in the Canadian Airforce, World War II, North Africa. The newlyweds moved to Boundary Bay where they had their first son Garry. Back and forth across Canada four times, the Anderson family moved to different Airforce stations and radar bases adding Stan, Beth and Adrienne to the family along the way. After Trev left the Airforce in 1960, they lived at Miracle Beach for several years. Then the family moved on to their next adventure – twenty years on five West Coast Lighthouses. Flo’s ingenuity led her to achieve any task that she set her mind to and thrive in new situations. During their last seven years on the lighthouse, she and Trev took on a massive undertaking; building their fifty-six foot sailboat Wawa the Wayward Goose. They launched the two-masted ketch from Race Rocks, February 7th, 1982 and headed off for thirteen years of sailing trips. First they sailed locally amongst the Gulf Islands. Then they circumnavigated Vancouver Island. In July 1985, they headed offshore to Hawaii and onto New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fanning Islands, Pago Pago, returning to Victoria July 1987. Florence had prepared herself by completing a Celestial Navigation course, getting her HAM radio license and joining the Blue Water Cruising Association. They sold Wawa in 1995 settling in Sidney and then in her parents last house in James Bay. Travel has always been a part of Flo’s life. On holidays away from the lighthouse, she and the family travelled on many road trips across North America and an excursion to Portugal and Spain. Flo’s artistic skills started early. She learned to sew, leather work, crochet, tat, spin wool, knit, quilt, draw and paint. While on the lighthouses she taught herself to oil paint and created realistically beautiful wave seascapes. At age seventy, she taught herself to use the computer, wrote a book (Lighthouse Chronicles), found a publisher and went on a book tour around BC. She is predeceased by her parents, Bert and Ida Drader (Victoria), her sisters Nellie Marshall (Niagara Falls, ON) and Eileen Odowichuk (Campbell River) and her brother Bill Drader (Edmonton, AB). She is survived by her husband Trev, sister Julia Guilbault (Victoria), her children Garry Anderson (Phyllis), Stan Anderson (Janet), Beth Cruise, Adrienne Lowden (Jeff); six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, one great-great-grandchild and two dear life-long friends Kay Johnson and Arlene Bryan We would like to send a heartfelt thank you to Flo’s Caregivers extraordinaire, Lesley, Joanne, Hughette, Michelle and Wendy. And a special thank you to Dr. Rosenberg and Associates for their compasionate and excellent care. There will be a Celebration of Life June 30th , 1:00 – 3:00 pm at 576 Niagara Street. Flo will be dearly missed by all

This Obituary was published in Victoria Times Colonist from Apr. 22 to Apr. 23, 2017
View the Enhanced Obituary

Sunny Day


  • Visibility: 15+ miles, Mt. Baker visible in the late afternoon
  • Wind: 0-5 knots North, later up to 10-15 North
  • Sky: clear and sunny
  • Water: rippled


  • Still only the weaner on Great Race.
  • Very cute!


  • Cleaned the solar panels.
  • Various daily and bi-daily tasks.


  • At least 4 eco-tours came by today.
  • One of them was likely too close to the sea lions on the South Islands, as there was a stampede.
  • One boat was definitely fishing within the Rockfish Conservation Area, but I was unable to identify any numbers on the boat, and I suspect they were First Nations, which would make it none of my concern.
  • One sailboat wandered through in the early afternoon.

Guardian shift change

Guy left the station around 800 in the morning. We met around noon at the college and debriefed. I came out in the whaler and landed around 1400.  I will be here for the month of December.


  • There were 3 male elephant seals on Great Race when i arrived, 2 of them are adult including Chunk, the other appears to be adolescent.  There was another male elephant seal on West Rock.
  • There are more sealions in the reserve than I recall from previous years at this time and they are more present on Great Race as well,  including a persistent congregation on and around the jetty.


  •  3 ecotour boats after I arrived in the afternoon.  Two of them appeared to be within 100 m (DFO setback guideline) of sealions.

Sea Lions, Boats, & Other Stuff


  • Visibility: 15+ miles (Mt. Baker visible)
  • Wind: 5-10 knots West
  • Sky: overcast
  • Water: rippled


  • Census day!
  • Two California sea lions with neck rings. Poor guys.
  • Two sea lions with brands.
  • California: X168
  • Steller: 678
  • Saw a few California sea lions with head injuries, as well as one Steller.
  1. California Sea Lions: 678
  2. Northern (Steller) Sea Lions: 533
  3. Harbour Seals: 37
  4. Elephant Seals: 5 on Great Race
  5. Seagulls unspecified: 449
  6. Thayer’s Gulls: 235
  7. Glaucous-winged Gulls: 20
  8. Cormorants unspecified: 357
  9. Brandt’s Cormorants: 10
  10. Pelagic Cormorants: 6
  11. Double Crested Cormorants: 4
  12. Black Turnstones: 20
  13. Canada Geese: 5
  14. Dunlin: 1
  15. Savannah Sparrow: 1
  16. Bald Eagle: 1 adult


  • Ran the saltwater pump into the cistern for 5 and a quarter hours.


  • A handful of eco-tours came by today. At least 5.
  • One of the boats caused a minor sea lion stampede on the east part of Great Race.
  • My photos only show the tail end of the stampede.
  • Much more happened between the “pre stampede” photo and my end shots.