In December 2015, my wife May and I flew to beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, over Christmas to visit our daughter Sheila, who was living and working there. Our son David also joined us from Toronto, Ontario.

The last time we were in Vancouver together was when we crossed Canada by train from Ottawa, Ontario, in April 2004. This time we celebrated Christmas, visited the Vancouver Aquarium, and watched a Canucks hockey game (versus the Edmonton Oilers). As expected, the weather was mostly mild with some rain.

A river bordered by buildings, with mountains in the distance.
A beautiful view of Vancouver with False Creek, from our hotel on West Broadway. Images: Joe Holmes © Joe Holmes

Diatom Sampling and Research
The trip was also an opportunity for me, as a Canadian Museum of Nature volunteer for researcher Paul Hamilton in the museum’s diatom lab, to collect “urban” freshwater samples from the bottom of lakes, rivers and ponds in the Vancouver area.

Diatoms are microscopic one-celled algae that have a silica shell. They are found in an array of shapes and sizes, from about 5 to 100 microns (1 micron equals one millionth of a metre). Diatoms are present in all bodies of water, from the tropics to polar regions. They are at the bottom of the food web, converting sunlight into energy and CO2 into oxygen.

Having this energy in their bodies, they become a prime food source for small creatures, which are eaten in turn by larger ones, and so on through the food web.

Diatoms are very important for scientists in studying climate change, evolution, water quality and the environment. The museum has a vast collection of many species from around the world. Paul was particularly interested in hunting down a Western Canadian S-shaped Gyrosigma diatom, among other species.

I was successful, managing to collect 20 samples from the Vancouver area, a couple of which included the prized Gyrosigma. They were all gathered using a turkey baster to extract mud containing diatoms. Back in the lab, these samples were processed into slides, and then photographed, analyzed and added to the museum’s collection.

A room with worktables, shelves and equipment.
The Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA lab, where diatoms are analyzed. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

For future research, we would like to return to B.C. to obtain live samples for DNA analysis. The museum has an entire lab for DNA studies. When collected, live samples have a shelf life of only 3 to 7 days. For a one-week-or-longer trip, they would need to be couriered back to Paul’s diatom farm at the museum. There, they can be kept alive longer.

Because many diatoms around the world are similar, it would also be interesting to see how these B.C. species compared with other parts of North America and the world, including Ireland, where I collected diatom samples last September. (See my article My Irish Diatom Adventure in this blog).

Our kids enthusiastically assisted me in obtaining diatom samples in the Vancouver area. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Sheila drove David and me around in her car to various locations for samples: the Fraser River, Vancouver’s West Side, Stanley Park and West Vancouver. We all really enjoyed the experience. They were eager to assist, especially when they thought I might fall in when trying to get a sample.

The following are some examples of interesting sampling locations in the Vancouver area with examples of what we found.

Fraser River
For our first samples, we collected two from the river at Fraser River Park. Here, the river is a distributary branch of the Fraser River delta with a mix of fresh water and marine (salt) water. Diatoms were very interesting, but essentially marine.

Some marine Gyrosigma were found in these samples. For 100% fresh water, it is necessary to follow the Fraser to Mission, but because of time, we decided to leave this for a future trip.

Collage: A man stands beside a river, and a diatom.
Joe Holmes at the Fraser River in Fraser River Park. Here, the river delta is a freshwater-marine mix. Although we were primarily interested in fresh water, this marine diatom, Stephanopyxis corona (size: 32 μm), was very interesting, having a honeycomb structure similar to a fly’s eye. Images: Sheila Holmes © Joe Holmes; Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Vancouver’s West Side
In the West Side area, we collected from the lake in Jericho Beach Park. On another day, I took samples from ponds along the Island Park Walk by False Creek. Photos of ponds and diatoms are pictured below from Vanier Park and a pond called The Lagoons. Samples were also taken from Charleson and Sutcliffe Park ponds. All the diatoms collected were freshwater.

Collage: Ducks on a lake and a diatom.
Lake in Jericho Beach Park. The diatom found here is a Nitzschia brevissima (size: 32 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature
Collage: A river and a diatom.
Near the Vancouver Maritime Museum, a tranquil view of the pond in Vanier Park, with the Gate to the Northwest Passage sculpture in the distance. A large diatom, Pinnularia neomajor (size: 170 μm), was found here. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum
Collage: A lagoon surrounded by buildings and a diatom.
Along False Creek, The Lagoons Pond and public bench near Granville Island. A sample taken beside the bench yielded some interesting diatoms, such as this Epithemia adnata (size: 90 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature