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Swimmers plunge into rescuing Cortes Island lakes

The normally pristine lakes of Cortes Island suddenly started changing colour and giving off a potent, unpleasant stench

When the normally pristine lakes of Cortes Island suddenly started changing colour and giving off a potent, unpleasant stench earlier this year, some of the Island’s residents were understandably concerned.

Local “citizen scientists” put some of the lake water under their microscopes, according to Leah Seltzer, executive director of the Friends of Cortes Island Society (FCIS), and found that the region’s lakes were undergoing an algae bloom.

Typically, Seltzer said, these blooms are caused by an excess of nitrates and phosphates, substances that are generally produced by agricultural fertilizers and human waste, so the first thing that needs to be done is to analyze the lakes themselves so that they can confirm the causes of the issue before any definitive action can be taken.

If it’s a man-made problem, for example, such as septic systems leaking, steps can be taken to mitigate that.

“We can’t take for granted that these lakes are just always going to be there,” she said. “Even in a place like Cortes Island, people need to be aware of their impact on the ecosystem.”

After speaking with local residents – some who have been living in the area of these lakes for more than 40 years and have never seen blooms like this before – Seltzer and the FCIS decided that this was likely not a cyclical situation that would sort itself out over time. There needed to be official testing done under Environment Canada protocols, but they ran into funding issues when they realized the expense of sending samples to Environment Canada, and the cost of the tests themselves.

The FCIS applied for and received a grant from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which will cover the initial cost of the upcoming test of the lake water’s present state and create a “lake profile,” but Seltzer said that they need to raise another approximately $12,000 for continued monitoring and analysis, as well as to put some funds away for restoration costs once the causes and their ecological impacts are assessed.

“To do any kind of meaningful testing of these lakes, it needs to happen for an extended period,” she said, because not only do they need to find out about seasonal changes, but also monitor whether any actions taken are having any effect.

That’s where Carrie Saxifrage, Andrew Smyth, Mark Braaten and Bianka Sawicz come in. They are the four swimmers who will be attempting to swim all nine freshwater lakes on Cortes in one day in a challenge aptly named the Nine Lake Swim.

Beginning at 5 a.m. on Aug. 24, the swimmers will swim, boat, and hike their way around Cortes Island (with a few short car rides), completing a route that totals approximately 10 km of swimming over 14 hours to raise money for the research and restoration of these ecologically sensitive lakes and streams.

According to Seltzer, if blooms like this year’s happen with any frequency, eventually the lakes will become deoxygenated and won’t be able to support the life that depends on freshwater in the area, so it’s important to be proactive and find the cause or causes of this issue. A response after the lakes are dead doesn’t do any good.

If you’d like to help, go to the Nine Lake Swim link on the right side of, search for the donation page, or contact the FCIS at