SOOKE, B.C. - Diane Bernard's knee-high rubber boots squeaked and slurped as she walked across seaweed beds on a rocky spit on Vancouver Island's southern coast. Behind her, Washington's Olympic Mountains rose above a band of mist and an incoming tide surged through the Juan de Fuca Strait.
Bernard, known locally as the Seaweed Lady, hand-harvests seaweed for a living along this temperate coast, and sells her catch to more than 200 spas and restaurants across Canada and 30 spas in the United States. As founder of Outer Coast Seaweeds, she also runs Wild Seaweed Tours in the sleepy, coastal town of Sooke, teaching people about this ecologically diverse region and the value of these often misunderstood sea vegetables.
"Poor seaweeds have gotten a bad rap," said Bernard, 56, a third-generation seaweed harvester. "I just want to dispel the myths that they're ooey, gooey, sloppy, and slimy, and no good for anything but fertilizer."
More than 600 types of seaweed grow along the coast from Washington to Alaska, with 250 species found in British Columbia. Southern Vancouver Island has a particularly wide variety of healthy seaweed, thanks to the deep and fasting-moving Juan de Fuca Strait, the body of water between the Canadian island and Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
"Seaweeds are an excellent barometer of the health of the ocean because they completely absorb what's around them," Bernard explained, as she led four of us across Whiffen Spit during a two-hour seaweed tour. "The Juan de Fuca Strait can really cook through here, so the water is fantastically clean. The highly oxygenated water combined with the continental shelf combined with the cold water really makes things thrive."
Bernard's seaweed tours started serendipitously in 2001. Guests staying at the Sooke Harbour House, a charming seaside inn that overlooks the spit, could see Bernard wandering along the shore and foraging for seaweeds. They would often lean over their balconies and say, "What are you doing?" or "Can we come?"
Bernard welcomed anyone interested in learning about the seaweeds and her passion for them. She now runs tours for up to 10 people at a time from late May to mid-September, based on the low tides. Bernard provides visitors with rubber boots and hiking sticks and takes them on a short walk along the intertidal zone, stopping often to sample seaweed, identify the species, and talk about their importance and benefits.