Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Friday, March 19, 2010



One day in 1954, atop the highest point of land on Marble Island, northwest Hudson Bay, I was observing angles with a theodolite when two Inuit, passing by in a Peterhead boat, came onshore and climbed up the steep hillside to visit me. One was quite young and spoke good English but the other man was very old and could only communicate with me through his younger companion. The old chap was still very spry but was obviously well more than 80 years old.
During the course of our conservation the young lad told me that he had been to school in Frobisher Bay. At the mention of that place the old man took a few paces away from where we were standing and laid his ancient, long-barrelled rifle down on the flat rock face with elaborate care. I asked the young fellow what the old man was doing and was told that his old uncle was pointing his gun in the direction of Frobisher Bay—more than 700 miles away.
Intrigued by the confident manner in which the old chap had adjusted the pointing of his rifle so precisely I had him use instead a 16-foot-long piece of straight two by four that my survey team had left nearby when building a triangulation beacon. I got the old fellow to put one end of the two by four on the small bronze survey marker I had set into the hilltop rock face and point the other end at Frobisher Bay way over the curved edge of the world’s horizon. Then I took a reading with the theodolite cross-hairs centred on the far end of the straight two by four. After that I got the old man to point the stick towards what he considered to be the direction of Cape Dorset, Churchill, Chesterfield Bay, Povungnituk and Pelly Bay. And each time he did so I precisely measured the angle of the two by four with the theodolite.
But when I asked him to point the 2” x 4” to Moosenee or Pangnirtung he refused. When asked why, he said simply that he had never been to those places. But he would point to any place he had ever been to in his life. Months later, back in Ottawa I calculated the true bearing of each of those places from the geodetic plug I had installed on Marble Island that day. Every one agreed within two or three degrees of the old Eskimo's two by four pointings.
He was a human GPS system long before the modern electronic one came along.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Man’s Meat is another Man’s Poisson:

Seals, Codfish and Me — an Understandable Trinity

Stashed several dozen stories back, somewhere amid the rambling, kilometers-long, undisciplined hodgepodge stuffing of this, my meandering blog, and under the title of SABLE ISLAND, I have recounted the true story of my most intimate and personal social encounter with a convention of seals in an amazingly improbable yet formal group situation. In all modesty I believe that the extraordinary social experience that took place that magical day between myself and several hundred seals was unique — as well as a cherished personal happening. But that happy event was far different from my first close encounter with these absorbing aquatic mammals. (Though I do have a hazy memory of eating seal-flipper soup during the long ago weeks I spent working around the Newfoundland coasts). But my first real-seal encounter occurred, now pungently remembered, was when our ship stopped in at Diana Bay, near Ungava Bay. An Eskimo gentleman (Inuits were still unknown as such to we southerners back in 1954) came into my cabin and offered me a seal skin as trade for a little tobacco. I readily gave him some tobacco but indicated that he could keep the seal skin. But he was adamant. The seal skin was mine. Several days later it was my shipmates in adjoining cabins who were adamant. Either the smelly sealskin went over the side or I did. Thus, my first brief encounter with seals was over. In truth I was just as pleased as were all other hands. On other occasions I have leaned over from my sounding launch to hold one-sided conversations with the odd overly-curious seal or sat quietly near small groups of them on rocky foreshores. I can remember visiting the University of Guelph’s seal study department for some reason decades ago — probably I was with the National Film Board at the time. Also, many of the Maritimers who manned our hydrographic launches during our six-month-long Arctic summer seasons spent their spring times as seal hunters out on the sea ice off Canada’s east coast. So, naturally, in the close confines of a 30-foot sounding launch, during fourteen-hour-long northern workdays running mile-upon-mile of echo-sounding lines, I often listened first hand to their lengthy, sober, love-hate stories of the exhausting weary weeks they spent during the cruel and bloody hunt. Tellingly, my crew, who were also fishermen at other times of the year, never quoted what nowadays is posed as a prime reason for the hunt: that the ravenous seals constantly gobble up all the cod to the brink of extinction, and so they have to be slaughtered to save the fish stocks. That desparately-manufactured placatory theory only became the plaintive cry of seal-hunt defenders after one cuddly species, represented by Brigitte Bardot, took the part of another cuddly species—the innocent little white-coat baby seals, whose pristine snow-white appearance was depicted in such sharp relief and deadly contrast when the brilliant crimson of their blood was splattered around the ice upon which their poor little battered bodies were depicted. That particular aspect of the hunt was later curbed by new regulations proscribing such bludgeoning of white-coat puppies. Though whether their protective mother seals still had to suffer business-as-usual skull smashing I don’t know. But I suppose it was meant well. But yet, I have a question — never answered: Why is it that hundreds of years ago, long before Europeans arrived and began commercial seal hunting, at a time when the unmolested seal populations must have been thriving enormously, how was it that the codfish, even more markedly, at that same time were inexplicably reported to have been so legendarily superabundant? Back in the 1950s I jigged many a big codfish for dinner. From Nova Scotia to Baffin Bay. Rankin Inlet, northwest Hudson Bay, was completely unpopulated then, not a single Eskimo to be seen. Nearby coastal waters were devoid of native fishermen and hunters for scores, 
hundreds, of miles. There were lots of seals around, though. Also the cod were wonderfully prolific. As were Arctic char. There’s a very big difference between native inhabitants hunting their traditional vital food source, as is their perfect and natural right, and the often insensitive and wasteful hunting by commercial interests.

brickbats and plaudits to:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Playing my liquid part in the Cold War of the 1950s

Impatiently eager to empty all bottles

In the springtime, when sailing up the Labrador Coast in the 1950s aboard the ice-strengthened sealing vessel MV Theron, on charter to the Canadian government, our primary objective was to reach Hudson Strait from where we could head west to the unmapped and uncharted regions of northwest Hudson Bay, the area of our main operations.
But our immediate intention was to reach the northern part of the Labrador coast. There we would carry out offshore charting while awaiting improving ice conditions to allow us to make our northing.
When on passage we stopped the ship at intervals, day and night, to allow us to take samples of
sea water and temperatures at various depths. These oceanographic observations, apart from gaining general scientific knowledge for studying fish populations and other subjects, were important for antisubmarine warfare purposes. It was suspected that if unfriendly submarines had seasonal charts depicting temperature and salinity gradients. it could assist them in navigating more accurately.
Our observations were made by lowering a string of reversing water bottles down into the depths. The bottles were made of heavy metal and each one had a special reversing thermometer attached. Also they had spring-loaded watertight snap lids at each end which could be activated to shut closed when triggered.
If for example the ship was stopped in 600 feet of water the end of the wire which was lowered into the water by winch would first of all have a
bathythermograph attached to the end. As this instrument descended a compact stylus drew a line on a small piece of smoked glass about one-and-a half-inches square. It actually inscribed a miniature graph of the temperature gradient from surface to the lowest depth it reached. Just above this gadget the first, or in fact what was the last, or deepest, water bottle would be attached with its end lids open. The wire would then be lowered 25 feet, or whatever interval of observation had been decided upon, and the next water bottle would be attached to the wire.
Hanging to the bottom of this bottle’s end cap we would attach a brass weight called a messenger. This heavy messenger was wrapped securely but loosely around the wire so that when released it would slide freely down the wire under its own weight. One such weight was attached by a ring to each bottle in such a way that when that bottle was activated from above, the messenger underneath would be released and fall down the wire to hit the bottle below and activate that bottle in turn.
The wire would now be lowered another twenty five feet and another bottle together with another brass messenger attached to the wire. Eventually, a string of water bottles, all in an upright position and at regular intervals would reach from the surface of the ocean down to just above the sea floor. When all was ready the hydrographer would attach a starter messenger to the wire and give it a push down the wire to activate the first water bottle just under the surface of the water. By keeping a bare, ungloved, handhold around the wire one could at once feel the shock and vibration as the messenger hit the top of the first water bottle. At the same moment the water bottle fell into its upside-down position, thereby locking the mercury in its thermometer to record an exact reading for that particular depth. Simultaneously, both of its end caps snapped shut trapping a sample of the water at that depth, and allowing its own attached messenger to be released and fall free down the wire to the next lower bottle. Then within a few seconds one would feel another tremor and vibration as the second water bottle was activated. Then, hoping that bottle’s messenger had also been released, an inordinate amount of time would seem to pass before another, but fainter vibration of the wire was detected. As the lower bottles in the denser layers of ocean were activated at much longer intervals of time the vibrations would become fainter and fainter. The messengers, each released in turn from the deeper bottles far down in the dark depths, and each one travelling more slowly than the one before because of entering higher density ocean depths, seemed to take an eternity to slide down the wire and reach the next bottle. Until with only one to go, that last most important one, and still with a cold, wet, bare hand wrapped lightly around the taut wet wire, one would become convinced that the last messenger had not been released as it should have been, and become ever more convinced that those long minutes spent leaning over the wallowing ship’s heaving side in the midnight darkness, with an icy wind blowing, and peering down into the roiling water to where the wire disappeared into the dark water below, all this had been nothing but a miserable waste of time.
One might as well forget thoughts of soon returning to the nice warm bunk waiting in the snug cabin and admit failure as regards the activation of the last bottle. We would have to bring all the long wire back up, empty and reset every bottle again, just for that one cursed lowest bottle causing a required repeat of the whole lengthy task.
And then just as all hope had drained away and a signal to the seaman at the electric winch was about to be reluctantly given, the faintest of telltale tremors, no more pronounced that a humming bird’s passing, an autumn leaf touching down upon the forest floor, a snowflake alighting on an outstretched hand, there would be felt, amid the turmoil of the heaving water and the odd piece of sea-ice bumping against the ship’s steel hull, the long-awaited message from the deep down brass messenger as it activated the last bottle.
Then one could happily give the signal to hoist up the long string of wire and as the winch whined away and each water bottle arrived at breast height, it could be grasped firmly as soon as it swung within reach by the rolling of the stopped ship, and released from the wire. Then its sea water sample would be poured into a numbered jar and its thermometer reading recorded. Then the next deepest water bottle would be brought up, and then the next, and the next until all were safely aboard and stowed away in their compartmented box, and finally one could go back into a warm bed for two or three hours until the whole business of recording basic marine data would be repeated in another more northerly part of the deep black secret ocean.


In 1952, while working for a firm of consulting civil engineers in northwest Scotland, I was teamed up with a very agreeable ex-Royal Engineers officer to measure the flow of the River Awe, a very fine salmon river with fast, clear, rich, peaty-brown water. The sort of water that makes a fly-fisherman’s heart beat faster.
We stretched a wire a foot or two above the running water from bank to bank. Then we hooked a small rowboat onto the wire which we had marked every five feet of its length. We had a compact chromium-plated current meter with which to measure the speed of the river’s flow at varying depths. By stopping every five feet and taking readings we would have the data to calculate the river’s rate of discharge.
Our little current meter had a propeller of about two-inches diameter which revolved in the current. An electrical wire from the current meter went to a pair of headphones. For every so many revolutions of the propeller the headphones would make a clicking noise. Counting the number of clicks in sixty seconds indicated the speed of the river at that particular depth and distance from the river bank.
All went well until we were about twenty feet from the bank. Then the clicking often stopped or came up very erratically. Time after time we pulled the instrument up to see what was wrong and to clear any debris that may have been caught in the propeller. But it was always clear and worked perfectly when we held it in the river just under the surface where we could see it. Yet directly we let it down again into the deeper peaty-brown-tinged waters we had the same trouble.
It was puzzling. Until we realized the obvious. A small, bright propeller revolving deep down in a
salmon river. Of course. The curious salmon were poking their noses into our little propeller.
We just had to carry on as best we could, taking all the readings several times and noting how many seconds of uninterrupted clicking we could count and then adjusting our calculations accordingly.
Another phenomena was when taking readings of the water level at both ends of Loch Awe we found what appeared to be a discrepancy: the water level appeared not to be level.
After much investigation and consideration of the wind velocity and direction over the past many days we decided it had piled the water up at the downwind end and reduced the level at the windward end. A week or two later the discrepancy disappeared. Loch Awe is very narrow and about 24 miles long and is oriented northeast to southwest.

At the top of the PERSIAN GULF

Up until a few weeks before making my varied roving observations when tramping across the Scottish Highlands, I had spent several years in charge of the Iraq Government hydrographic survey vessel, El Ghar. Manned by just a crew of 20 Iraqis and myself, we operated out of Fao, a tiny compound on the tidal banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, set among the narrow belt of date palm trees separating us from the wide desert wilderness, which stretched away for hundreds of miles.
Every day and every night I was metaphorically and literally immersed in the tides. Apart from the constant soundings I took of the shipping channels and their whole surrounding 500-square mile area, I recorded the directions and speeds at differing depths of the tidal currents. Also I studied and made approximations with simple instruments of the amount of suspended silt being carried down the river and estuary. So the tides ruled my life. Especially my wake-up time.
Because the global tidal wave is 50 minutes later each day the El Ghar would usually depart from Fao in cycles. If not spending the night at sea, one morning we would cast off with the first of the ebb at four o’clock, the next at five, then approximately six and so on until about 10 o’clock when we would jump back to about four o’clock again. This enabled us to leave with the ebb, work most of the day on the flood and chase slack water or slog back against the ebb, up the river and home to Fao. Then I would perhaps go to the office for an hour or plot my soundings on the bridge. But of course this routine was not routine. Weather, tankers aground, special assignments, religious observances, political disturbances, visiting VIPs and other visitors who wanted a trip down to salt water, assisting native ocean-going dhows hailing anywhere from Zanzibar to Burma —all these would make my days varied and unpredictable.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bomber Pilots and Wild West cowboys...

...and the Hard of Hearing

Strangely, despite passing the strict medical examinations they must have undergone by Luftwaffe doctors, some of the German bomber pilots who incessantly droned around the night skies of London while carrying out their intense air raids during the winter of 1940-1941, appeared to suffer from a serious hearing loss.
This often became a grave matter for many Londoners on the receiving end of the Nazi’s Blitz hardware. So they tried to assist them in following the rules of good conduct in such stressful times.
Usually this happened when, after a night of sporadic aerial interruptions to their night's sleep, the populace would finally see the first welcome light of dawn and sink thankfully into a deep slumber for a brief hour or so before having to get up to go to work.
It was then, as soon as the authorities were sure everybody had at last fallen soundly asleep, that they would order the sirens to wail the loud continuous note of the all-clear signal. And wake everybody up again.

Then maybe a few minutes after the unforgettable siren sound had finally moaned into silence, and a brief sleep was once again being sought, it was then that some foolish German airman would drop yet another bomb. Now, this was very annoying. Not only had the all-clear definitely already been sounded and woken everyone up, but here was some idiotic cloth-eared enemy airman who for some reason had not heard the all-clear and was still hanging about up there dropping noisy bombs instead of heading off back home for breakfast with the rest of his gang.

Understandably, it was at that time that many bedroom windows were flung open, angry heads thrust out, and irate shouts sent skyward telling the hard-of-hearing Jerry to kindly keep his ears open for the all-clear next time he was over and, for now, to go away home and learn the rules of civilized warfare.

But not all the hard-of-hearing during the Blitz were Luftwaffe personnel up in the sky. Some were out in the American Wild West — dressed as cowboys.
On the big screens of our cinemas.
During movie shows, if the street sirens sounded the very disconcerting up and down wailing of an air-raid warning the cinema management would flash a discreet message on the bottom of the screen. This informed the audience that an alert was now in effect and any patrons who wished to leave the show were at liberty to do so. Upon seeing this strange message, strange in that most everybody had heard the sirens anyway and who on earth needed permission to leave a cinema. Few ever did. There was seldom any point to do so. Especially, during the later blitzes when Londoners had become inured to such things.
In particular, there was one evening during a cowboy film when, after the wailing of the sirens sounded the alert, I did not see a single person leave the cinema. Not one solitary soul. The show inside the movie theatre was just too good to miss.
The scene on the screen:
Two stetson-hatted, Wild West characters, six-guns in hand, are holed up inside a cabin. Some distance off from outside the cinema a bomb falls and the dull reverberation is distinctly felt by the audience.
"Listen," whispers the first screen cowboy. "I think I heard something outside."
"You're imagining things," replies his hearing-impaired partner.
Several loud voices from the cinema audience: "Of course, he is. There's nothing out there. Just some old Jerry bomber. That's all!"
"No!" whispers the first cowboy again. "Be quiet. There is something out there."
Another bomb drops, a little nearer this time.
"Did you hear it that time?" asks the lead guy. "There really is something out there."
"Maybe you're right," says the second cowboy tensely. "Look out the window and see if you can see anything."
Cinema audience: "There aren't any windows in here, stupid."
First cowboy: "Yeah! I can see something out there — I think."
Partner: "How many of them are there, out there?"
Audience: "It's no good asking him. Ask Goering."
By now the crump of a closer bomb and the crash of antiaircraft guns is loud outside the movie theatre. But inside everyone is having a wonderful time. Shouted witticisms from the audience, unbeknownst drollery by the cowboys on the screen and noises off from outside, all combined for the biggest laugh-and-sound show ever held in the REGAL CINEMA, High Road, Ilford, northeast London, that early evening in 1941.
Hollywood, unwittingly, had never before been so good.