(some) Lumberjacks in British Columbia do it underwater

by Yule Heibel on January 5, 2005

There’s a nifty local company in Victoria called Triton Logging. It’s a fabulous project — a marriage of lumberjacking and advanced marine technology. The company harvests trees submerged decades ago during hydroelectric dam construction. According to Triton Logging, there are twenty million standing trees submerged under water in British Columbia alone, and countless more submerged elsewhere in Canada, Russia, Brazil and Malaysia. That’s a lot of lumber to harvest, and it represents a lot of old growth that can be saved from cutting:

Triton Logging spent over three years developing a patented underwater tree harvesting system called the Sawfish, which is a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) feller buncher platform traditionally used in offshore oil & gas and telecom applications that was launched in August 2003. The Sawfish is powered by a 40hp electric motor and uses a vegetable oil based hydraulic system, and includes a 5’ grapple, a 55″ chain saw, and 37 airbags. The Sawfish is operated from the surface by an operator, called a pilot, who’s in a control room on a barge on the surface. “The Sawfish is tethered to umbilical cords that supply power and air to the airbag systems,” explains Godsall. “It’s basically an underwater feller buncher with cameras and a sonar that allows the operator to see the underwater forest.” When the Sawfish is ‘flying’ into the forest, the grapple clasps the base of a tree, and an airbag is secured and inflated. The chainsaw then cuts the tree above the grapple, and the airbags lift the tree to the surface, where a service collection team takes over, remove the airbags and tow them to a dewatering site before being inventoried” In a single dive of about three hours, the Sawfish can cut 37 trees. [More…]

Yes, today, Monty Python’s BC Lumberjack would have to be an engineer and would probably have to know how to swim.

Triton’s chief pilot for the Sawfish, the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) that cuts the trees underwater, is Chris Elder, whose “background includes many years of instrumentation development for oceanography, with the last seven years specializing in ROVs for several research institutions. He has done work for the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the National Geographic Society, as well as several universities. These projects focused primarily on exploring underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents in water of depths from 1,500-5,000 metres. [More…]”

The Sawfish has barely touched the surface in terms of harvesting the 80 year-old second growth—mostly Douglas fir in Lois Lake—which has gone to various markets. So far, they have only harvested a small section of the lake. But the major overall goal of the company, and its engineering division, is to get to the point where they are turning out Sawfish equipment in a production mode, to help other logging companies tap the huge potential for harvesting sunken wood. Fraser cites estimates of upwards of $50 billion worth of submerged, preserved wood in reservoirs, worldwide.

Canada accounts for about five per cent, or $2.5 billion, of that. Fraser points out that one lake in the BC Interior, Ootsa Lake, has enough submerged timber to support 30 Sawfish units. And while a small amount of timber has been harvested using arm-mounted cutting equipment, 85 per cent of the wood in Ootsa Lake is below 60 feet, ideal depths for the Sawfish. And with estimates of upwards of 10 million cubic metres of wood in the lake, there’s enough timber to keep a school of Sawfish busy for years. [More…]

And the timber? It’s not just eco-friendly and saves live trees from being cut, but apparently it’s also very sought-after: “Craftsmen especially crave this vintage wood, most of which is between 100 and 500 years old, because it is essentially the same age and color and has the same grain as that used by artisans in earlier centuries to create pieces we consider fine antiques today. [More…]”

So…. if the Sawfish succeeds to bring up all that classy wood in mega-quantities, will we see mass-produced fine antique-looking furniture at Ikea soon?


Kate S. January 8, 2005 at 3:17 pm

What a great idea! I love this! You know, Canada has some of the best ecological groups in the world. I am so proud of their work. Makes me consider relocating…briefly.

Yule Heibel January 10, 2005 at 8:37 pm

Triton is a business company, albeit with an ecologically interesting bent. The link I have to the Certification Watch article also discusses a Wisconsin-based company endeavouring to do the same thing (harvest underwater logs). And in the interest of full disclosure, I know about Triton because one of their angel-investors is a personal friend here in Victoria, and he’s now also on the Company’s board. But he, too, is A-1 re. ecological and sustainability issues, which made Triton a really nice “fit” for him.

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