Hakai Institute

Hakai Institute

Weather conditions on Quadra and Clavert Island

Main Navigation

Mobile Navigation

Behind Hakai: Ondine Pontier - Hakai Institute

Behind Hakai: Ondine Pontier

A blog series highlighting the people who play an integral role behind the scenes to ensure the data keeps flowing and the Hakai Institute keeps running.

Ondine Pontier spends her days literally and figuratively diving into the beauty and complexity of kelp ecosystems on the British Columbia coast.

Started at Hakai



Kelp researcher and scientific diver

Home Base

Quadra Island, BC

Photo by Kristina Blanchflower

What do you do at the Hakai Institute?

I lead all the subtidal kelp-related work. My work goes from looking at kelp to the communities associated with kelp forests. A lot of fish and invertebrate surveys!

What got you into this kind of work?

I was always close to water. I did my undergrad in marine biology at the University of British Columbia and through that I did a lot of dive courses. I became a dive instructor and got my scientific diving, and I did the fall program at Bamfield where we did a lot of fieldwork as well as diving. That’s the path that led me to seek out Hakai. 

“I’ve gotten to dive [for work] in Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, in the Broughtons, and around Quadra Island and the Central Coast, even in California,” says Ondine Pontier. Photo by Kristina Blanchflower on a dive off Quadra Island

What’s your favorite component of your job?

I like the diversity. It changes a lot, and I get to work in different systems and with different people, and look at different aspects of even the same system. We have these core monitoring projects but then also all these smaller associated projects. With long-term monitoring, it takes so much time before you can see patterns, so we make it more rich by doing all these smaller experiments.

What’s a skill that you’ve gained from diving?

You only have such a short window to do your work, based on the air that you have left, so you have to prioritize like crazy. It teaches you to be so efficient with time and to prioritize both your time and the questions you want to ask. Which is hard sometimes to get the big picture because you want to look at it all, but you only have so much time.

Do you have a favorite spot to dive?

The Central Coast is by far my favorite, but I love that I get to dive in different places, especially through a lot of this collaborative work with different First Nations and partners. When you’re working from a system point of view—and kelp systems are spread out throughout the entire coast—it’s really cool how it changes based on where you are. It’s very similar in some aspects but also very different. We have such an interesting coastline, it makes it really rich from a diver’s perspective.

What’s a unique challenge you deal with that people outside your role might not think of?

As a diver, you’re constantly battling with so much less gravity underwater, and buoyancy. Very simple things end up taking a lot longer. Even a task as small as opening a ziplock bag becomes challenging! There are micro bubbles in the ziplock bag, and when it’s closed, it wants to shoot up to the surface and you have to find ways to maintain it underwater.

You want [eDNA collection bags] to stay sterile, so you close them then bring them underwater. Because of the pressure, they get so tightly sucked to themselves that they’re very hard to open, and then it’s not a material that stays open—it just flops. As soon as you hold it, it goes back to being a bag, neither empty nor full. And you definitely want it full!

Visibility is something that, unless you spend a lot of time in fog, you don’t really think about that much. Divers talk about visibility in terms of particles in the water but there’s also vegetation. In the kelp and seagrass, a blade comes in front of your vision and goes with the swell, so you go between being able to see and not. You have to take your hand away from work to clear whatever is in front of you, but you can’t really clear it because it’s just going to keep waving around!

Ondine Pontier surveys sea urchins next to a kelp bed off Quadra Island, British Columbia. “As soon as you see how the light penetrates the kelp–it’s so beautiful and it shines on everything,” she says about the draw of kelp forests. “You have all the pinks from the coralline algae, all these fish. If people could just see it, they would understand.” Photo by Grant Callegari

What’s the most memorable wildlife experience you’ve had underwater?

We were going to these sites over and over again, many times a month, and these seals got really accustomed to us being there and acted like puppies around us. I had this pom-pom of ziplock bags to collect seaweeds attached to my belt, and the seal would snag one off and swim a few meters away and drop it. It was like a typical puppy—it would turn and look, like, What are you going to do about it, are you going to come and pick it up? It was both pretty cute and pretty annoying because now your sampling was at the will of the seal.

What are you excited about in the next few months?

Hakai does a lot of collaborative work—that’s one aspect of my job that I really love. For this new project with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, we will be tagging urchins with acoustic tags to track their movements underwater. These tags are pill-sized and tie on to the urchin tests and emit a sound every so often. Acoustic transmitters positioned underwater pick up that sound, and you can triangulate the tag’s position. It’s a cross-Canada project, so we’re focusing on green sea urchins to compare apples to apples—there are no red urchins in the Atlantic Ocean. We’d also like to do this with red sea urchins if we can, because there are so many here, and they’re kind of what’s driving these kelp-urchin systems.

What’s one aspect of the job you could do without?

Things that you deal with on a regular basis, like weather, and for me as a diver a big one is cold. I could definitely do without being cold all the time!

Watch Ondine Pontier practice scientific diving skills—like working with ziplock bags—in the video below, and catch her at work in kelp forests in CBC’s The Nature of Things episode “Ice and Fire: Tracking Canada’s Climate Crisis.”

*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.