Come hurricane or high water

Open Ocean Robotics is leaving no ocean unmapped.

This is part 4, the final part of our series on BC-based aquatech companies for World Oceans Day. Read part 3: Poseidon Ocean Systems wants fish to breathe better

If you drive south from the northern tip of Vancouver Island via Highway 19, the road merges into Highway 1. Drive for, roughly, an hour and a half and you’ll reach Victoria, the home of the contemporary take on the Mom-and-Pop business: Open Ocean Robotics. Founded by the husband and wife team of Julie and Colin Angus, Open Ocean Robotics crafts solar-powered autonomous boats that are decked out with data collection instruments and hardware to keep them afloat. “Ocean drones,” Julie said in an early pitch deck. Their offering allows Open Ocean Robotics’ client base to collect data on aquaculture or climate change and police illegal fishing. 

“For example, when it comes to illegal fishing, our customers would be mostly governments or NGOs, because they're the ones who have the power to operate on that water. They're the ones who have the duty to guard it,” operations lead Carmela Gonzales told me, before also pointing out applications for aquaculture or companies who use the ocean floor logistically. “If you need to lay cables for the Internet or you need to look at the ocean resources within an area. If you're looking for marine mammals, we can tow microphones—called hydrophones because they’re underwater microphones—to tell you if there are whales in the water. Some people who want to monitor aquaculture are raising fish. You could hire us to have a boat out there to monitor that.”

Like Heather Clarke, who featured in part 3 of this series, Gonzales grew up in Toronto. In a further similarity to Clarke, Gonzales swapped a career in finance for a BC-based aquatech company. But even before embarking on that career path, she had her eyes on yet another vocation. “It goes all the way back to high school. It sounds so corny but I wanted to be an English teacher. Then, I watched a documentary called Sharkwater by Rob Stewart. That completely changed my mind because I found out about shark finning. Watching that, I thought ‘this isn't right,’” Gonzales recalled. She briefly put this passion on the backburner after being recruited into the finance industry. When it became too strong to ignore, Gonzales left her job and spent a month in Indonesia researching and diving with sharks. She then returned to school to study marine science. 

“From there I got recruited into a consulting firm in London that was working on ocean plastics. Then I got an offer to work on a project with the United Nations Environment Programme, working with them on—again—ocean plastics, at the University of Leeds. And then that contract ended. And then Brexit happened. I also knew that I didn't want to keep writing reports. I wanted to actually create an impactful thing, I wanted to bring a solution to market. And that's when I found Open Ocean Robotics,” Gonzales shared.

At the company, she is able to act on those passions through the uniqueness of the task at hand. “One of the biggest challenges in the industry is that the ocean is so vast and at this point in time, you cannot—rather—it's very difficult to monitor the ocean at all times,” Gonzales pointed out. “So we create this thing that you can use to measure data or take photos or take video evidence of the ocean. There's no greenhouse gas emissions because it's completely solar-powered and completely electric.” Further still, a distinct red roll bar prevents the craft from tipping over in stormy seas while improving visibility amongst whitecaps or the rich blue hue of an open ocean.

The natural next step in my conversation with Gonzales was to ponder the longevity of World Oceans Day. 

“I think part one, something that also relates to Open Ocean Robotics, is being able to be with the ocean every day. We are starting to get to where we can watch the ocean every day and understand what's going on. Because out of sight, out of mind,” Gonzales noted, the opening salvo of a three-pronged reply. Continuing, she addressed the rising temperatures of the oceans caused by greenhouse gas emissions and electricity usage. To action that, Gonzales called on us to “be mindful of your lights, be mindful of how often you're charging your phone or your electronics, anything like that. If you can afford it, rely on renewable energy.” 

Lastly, she pointed to shopping carts. “Try to purchase food that's local. When you go to the grocery store, you can get a set of canned tuna and it costs $5. But it comes from way out in the ocean. You have to ask yourself what is allowing that to be that low. So definitely be mindful of what seafood you're purchasing and where it's coming from and what the backstory of that is, because there's a lot of crime that goes behind it. And so you have to just be mindful of that. And, of course, try tapping into the plastic problem, try to be mindful of your waste. Try to be as renewable or as non-man made as possible. Try buying paper over plastic and things like that,” Gonzales suggested.

Hurricanes form when air, water and pressure combine in unusual circumstances. The changes in pressure and temperature cause wind and water to team up and spin violently. If the winds are 39 miles per hour to 74 miles per hour, the weather pattern is known as a mere “tropical storm.” If the speed surpasses that threshold, you have an official “tropical cyclone,” or hurricane, on your hands. The special ones receive a moniker. The hurricane that formed over the Atlantic Ocean in October of 2005 was dubbed Vince. There are a pair of things to note about Hurricane Vince. The first is that it was the most northeasterly Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. 

The second is that it blew directly into the path of a newly-engaged couple: Julie and Colin Angus. The pair were embarking on a tremendously treacherous journey, aiming to become the first to row across the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t even the only extreme weather they faced. “We got hit by two hurricanes and three tropical storms. At that point, it was the worst hurricane season in all of recorded history,” she stated. “So, there was no way to predict that it was going to be that bad. One was in an area that had never before seen a hurricane and the other one was after hurricane season had ended,” Julie highlighted.

“It took five months to row across the Atlantic from Portugal to Costa Rica. It was a hugely challenging journey and was very long. It's not that I was particularly slow,” she added as an unneeded disclaimer considering I am in no position to critique her rowing prowess, nor did I feel particularly compelled to. Even more impressive, the idea of Open Ocean Robotics came to her during that crossing. “One of the many things that journey made me recognize is really the vastness of the ocean and how nobody ever really sees what goes on in the middle of it. And that is a big problem.” I was curious how this came to be. 

“Ahh, how I went from rowboats to robot boats,” Julie said with an impressive ease, after I had asked how she went from pushing a human-powered boat off the coast of Portugal to an award winning entrepreneur building a company manufacturing autonomous boats in Vancouver Island’s largest city. “We saw plastic pollution out there. We saw decreased shark populations. We also saw the beauty of the ocean. So robot boats are a way to go out there and to understand the ocean and to start to change the fact that 80% of our oceans are unmapped, unexplored, and unobserved. I think [Open Ocean Robotics] will make a big impact in helping to protect our oceans, in helping us better understand our oceans and ensuring that industry can operate safely and sustainably in our oceans.”

With that Vancouver Island city in mind, it holds an important place in Julie’s story and, thus, the origin of her company. “My real interest in the ocean started when I moved to Victoria for my graduate degree. That was the first time I lived on the ocean. Before that, I'd say I had a very unathletic childhood. [Victoria] awakened the love of nature and the outdoors, both the mountains here and the ocean,” Julie recalled. “If you want to build an ocean tech company, this is one of the best places in the world to do it. We have the ocean all around us. We have areas with high currents, areas that are sheltered and areas that are exposed.”

The benefits of the city extend beyond its environmental makeup, too. “There's a lot of talent in Victoria: we have great academic institutions, we have Ocean Networks Canada, we have the Defense here, we have fisheries, we have the Institute of Ocean Sciences. I'd say that there's a really great ecosystem here. And we're continuing to grow that,” Julie shouted out. “I'm on the board of COAST, which is the Center for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies. We’re building an Innovation Hub and really a community for ocean and maritime companies in British Columbia, in Western Canada to help grow us locally and also globally. So I think we have a lot of great resources and we're going to continue to advance them.”

As the clocks were due to tick over to signal June 8, I felt compelled to ask Julie how we could make the celebration of World Oceans Day a daily occurrence. 

“We live on the coast so we see the ocean every day but a lot of people don't. We need everybody to realize the impact that the ocean has on our lives and our well being,” Julie cautioned. “90% of goods get transported on the ocean. Our communication all goes on the seafloor. It’s essential for our economy. No matter where you are, if you're on the coast or if you're inland, I think the thing is recognizing the importance of the oceans. And then the other thing is recognizing that they're not invincible. That's very important because it's easy to take something for granted. Then, when it's gone, you can't get it back anymore. We're still at that stage where we can—and we will—make a difference so that we can ensure that the oceans continue to play such a critical role in supporting humanity.”

This is part 4, the final part of our series on BC-based aquatech companies for World Oceans Day.