Spending the day at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Sierra Leone isn’t something you might expect to do in the Royal Canadian Navy.
But that’s exactly where Cmdr. Daniel Rice and some of his crew found themselves earlier this month.
“It was one of those unique experiences,” Rice said when reached by satellite phone on HMCS Goose Bay off the coast of Nigeria.
The crew of the coastal defence vessel are truly living out the old adage “Join the Navy, see the world,” Rice said.
“It’s a bit unusual for us, we’re often supporting local schoolchildren,” he said, usually by repairing buildings or making donations of needed supplies.
Rice said part of the navy’s role in this three-month tour of West Africa is to reinforce diplomatic relations with the nations it visits, supporting the work of Global Affairs Canada.
Known as Operation Projection, the crews of HMCS Goose Bay and HMCS Moncton were invited to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
At least, the visit on Valentine’s Day started as just an invitation, but Rice said staff at the sanctuary had a followup question.
“You must have rope that isn’t of any use?”
The sanctuary is home to hundreds of chimpanzees, Sierra Leone’s national animal, and the play area for the most recent residents was in need of some TLC.
“As you can imagine, chimps can be pretty rough on things,” Rice said.
As it happened, HMCS Oriole, a sailing vessel used for training that operates out of Halifax, the home port for both HMCS Goose Bay and HMCS Moncton, had just replaced all its rigging.
“So we were able to bring more than 350 feet of rope with us to Sierra Leone,” Rice said.
The chance to visit the sanctuary was popular with his crew, but with strict COVID-19 protocols in place, the sanctuary could only allow 10 crew members to take part to protect the staff and the chimpanzees from illness.
“When we arrived we all had to do a rapid test and our temperature was taken,” Rice said, adding that all crew on board are fully vaccinated.
Beyond the challenges of COVID-19, a crew that is used to Atlantic Canadian weather also had to deal with the heat of Africa in February.
“Lots of water, lots of sunscreen, lots of bug spray,” Rice said, admitting there aren’t many complaints about 30 C temperatures this time of year.
It took a little over two hours for the crew and sanctuary staff to replace poles and string the new ropes, while the chimpanzees watched from nearby enclosures.
“They knew something was up.”
The Canadians got to see the reaction when the chimps were allowed into the new play area, and based on the hoots and screeches, they seem to appreciate the effort.
“One came over and gave us what looked like a thumbs up,” Rice said.
“It was really interesting to get a closeup look at our closest relatives.”
The crews also took part in a more traditional aspect of the Navy’s charitable efforts, delivering 2,500 sanitary napkins to local schools for girls, a project supported by Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Fatima Bio.
Rice said many young women in the country can miss 25 per cent of the school year simply because they don’t have access to menstrual products.
This three-month deployment has already taken the ships to Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
They also have scheduled stops in Ghana and Senegal before returning home to Halifax in mid-April.
“We spent last August and September in the Arctic,” Rice said, “So the joke on board is, ‘We had winter in summer so now we’re having summer in winter’.
“Hopefully, when we get back home in April, the snow will be gone.”