Whaletrip: British Columbia

ORCAS IN THE MIST

Wild forests, rugged coastlines, endless beaches, bears and orcas everywhere: Why we always come back to Vancouver Island.

ORCAS IN THE MIST

Wild forests, rugged coastlines, endless beaches: Why we always come back to Vancouver Island.

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Early morning between Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove: spyhopping Orcas.

Whaletrip: VANCOUVER ISLAND

The plane is not much bigger than a shoe box, our captain is pilot and flight attendant in one. He wishes us a good flight. If anything is wrong, we should see him in the cockpit, the door is open.

We’re on our way to Vancouver Island. Again. I’m usually not a friend of visiting places over and over again. There are just too many interesting places in the world. And too little time to visit them all. With Vancouver Island, however, we made an exception for years.

We’ve been there three times so far, but this won’t be enough. With each visit I plan the next one, the route for trip #4 is already set. Vancouver Island is the best island in the world. Although I haven’t seen all the other islands in the world yet, I’m still happy to commit myself in this respect.

So, the best island in the world is located in the very west of Canada, directly off Vancouver. It is the largest island of the North American Pacific coast, 450 kilometers long, 100 kilometers wide. Densely wooded, thinly populated – and in terms of landscape and wildlife an utter sensation.

Everything here is rough and harsh, the Pacific crashes with full force onto the rugged coast, on the endless beaches the driftwood piles up meters high. The primeval rainforests are among the largest and wildest of their kind, with bears, wolves, cougars, moose and eagles living in them. The Pacific Rim National Park offers the West Coast Trail, one of Canada’s most exciting and difficult hiking trails, and the Broughton Archipelago, with its thousands of densely forested islands and islets, is one of the most beautiful marine parks in the world. The sea is home to seals, sea lions, gray whales, orcas and humpback whales. And all over the island the culture of the First Nations is alive, totem poles, colorful painted house walls, mystical signs, an insane variety in the smallest of spaces, embedded in a unique and grotesquely beautiful landscape. That is, in a nutshell, Vancouver Island.

It’s such a fantastic place to explore on a number of trips. I’ve tried to pack our three recent visits into one single posting – tough job!

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A local from the city of Ucluelet checking us out.

Vancouver Island: UCLUELET

To the west lies Ucluelet, right in the heart of the Pacific Rim National Park. Here the deer roam all over the town, sometimes also bears and cougars. And from the beach you can see gray whales.

Tofino and Ucluelet are two small sleepy places in the middle of the Pacific Rim National Park. There are about 2,000 people and probably the same number of deer living here. In Ucluelet they walk around in the middle of the village all day long. In the evenings, you hear the seals roaring at the small harbor.

Both places have a long whale-watching tradition. Especially gray whales can be observed here quite early in the year on their annual migration between Mexico and Alaska. In March they are traditionally welcomed with a festival. Many stay the whole summer.

Gray whales are not necessarily the most beautiful whales. They are covered with barnacles, scars, stains and all kinds of sea creatures that spread on them without permission.

But they are the ones to blame for this situation, as they have made their search for food a little too lazy: gray whales simply dig around in the shallow seabed and eat everything they find there, especially mussels and crabs.

When digging in the sand, however, the gray whale skin is scratched, and all kinds of creatures and organisms migrate from the seabed to the whale. And since gray whales are not the fastest swimmers, it’s hard for them to get rid of their parasites. This is why they have such a rough appearance.

But when it comes to behavior, gray whales are absolutely exemplary: they are curious, open-minded and friendly. In the shallow waters of Mexico, they even like to be touched and petted by the enthusiastic whale watchers. Here in the north, however, they are quite busy looking for food, so there is little time for other things.

At the beach of Long Beach we met several gray whales. One of them came close to the boat again and again and finally even dived directly under us. We just missed the High Five with its fluke.

In Tofino and Ucluelet it only takes a few steps, and you are right in the middle of a primeval, archaic jungle: enchanted trees, proliferating mosses and lichens, everything completely overgrown with no getting through beside the paths. Every hike costs me a good deal of courage. These forests are a different world, you never know what the next bend will bring. So beautiful, so scary, not only because of the animals roaming around here in the undergrowth.

Only a few steps, and you are right in the middle of a primeval, archaic jungle. So beautiful, so scary. Every hike costs me a good deal of courage.

If you walk to the beach in Ucluelet, there is a sign less than ten meters behind the last house: a bear, a wolf and a cougar on it – and the plain hint that you are now in the territory of these animals and therefore please behave according to their rules.

These rules are simple: Always be loud when hiking, when encountering an animal make yourself as big as possible, keep eye contact, move back slowly, never run and always leave the animal an escape route. And if it comes to an attack: fight back with everything you have.

This is the basic feeling when hiking in these woods, I always had this sign in my head, and the darker the forest, the more present the sign. I tried to keep calm and keep the locals in mind. After all, they also keep calm.

All the people we meet here have a nice little bear or cougar story in store, mostly several. Sometimes the animals just hang around in their front gardens. These stories are told in an entertaining way, often almost lovingly, always with great respect, but also without fear. The people here are used to such encounters. They’ll get along. The animals were there first.

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Theresa hiking the rainforest. Good news: if encountering bears or cougars I know exactly what to do!

Vancouver Island: TELEGRAPH COVE

In the north of the island is Telegraph Cove. If you want to meet orcas, this is the place to be. Here they are strictly protected, the waters of the Broughton Archipelago are a true orca refuge.

Telegraph Cove consists of about twenty small houses and one large parking lot. A boardwalk leads around the small bay, in the harbor we find the Gikumi, one of the first commercial whale watching boats. Captain Jim Borrowman and his wife Mary have been offering tours of several days through the Johnston Strait and the Queen Charlotte Sound for years, now the boat is for sale, the two of them retire.

We do a tour with Stubbs. It’s one of the best we’ve ever done. It already starts with how the guests get on board. Often there is a crowd at the entrance, and everyone wants the best seats. At Stubbs the guests are called by name and asked on board personally by Captain Wayne. The ship is also built in such a way that there are enough best seats for everyone.

Underway Captain Wayne wants to know who is interested in birds. Nobody is. Wayne explains that every ambitious whale watcher urgently needs to be interested in birds. Because where there are birds, there is usually fish, and where there is fish, the whales are often not far away.

We spot a swarm of seagulls flapping around excitedly at some distance above the waves. A little later a mighty humpback whale with its mouth wide open shoots out of the water. From this moment on everyone on board is truly interested in birds.

Then the orcas arrive. It starts very slowly, a pointed fin appears somewhere, then a black back. A second fin, a second back, then the third, the fourth – and suddenly the whole area is full of orcas. A group of twenty, thirty animals, you can hear their blow all around the boat.

In between are a few smaller animals, also black and white, but much faster and more agile: Dall’s porpoises! They buzz around between the orcas. Are they hunted by them? Are they having fun with them? Hard to say, probably a bit of both.

Later we spot a second group of orcas. They appear right between a few kayakers. Such a kayak is probably nothing more than a small toy for an orca. You have to have faith.

A group of orcas emerges right between a few kayakers. Such a kayak is probably nothing more than a small toy fpr an orca. You have to have faith.

At the end of the tour, Captain Wayne heads the boat into a quiet bay. Our guide gives a talk about orcas, salmon, conservation, plastics, pollution, and it’s the best and most motivating talk we’ve ever heard from a guide. The relaxed atmosphere on board is the ideal setting, everyone can take something home from this day.

We do some more tours in the following days. On each of them we meet orcas. One morning there is dense fog, you can hardly see any colors, everything is grey, black or white. We meet a group of orcas who teach their offspring some hunting techniques. The seagulls sitting on the water serve as training objects: Again and again they are suddenly pulled down and released shortly afterwards. Outraged, they flap away.

We see spy hops, tail slaps, breaches, and two orcas even seem to be having some fun together. There is really a lot going on, I take a good thousand photos. Magical day.

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An Orca being fooled by some Dall’s Porpoises. Of course, he’s stronger – but they are much more agile.

Vancouver Island: ORCA RESEARCH

A little further east is the Robson Bight / Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve, a 1,200 hectare marine park where the orcas are strictly protected. No one is allowed in here.

Michael Bigg is the father of orca research, it all started with him. In the middle of the 70’s he had noticed that orcas all look similar – but with certain distinctions. The shape and size of the fin looks different with every animal, as do the bright patterns on the back. In combination, each individual can be clearly distinguished by these characteristics.

The differentiation via fin and pattern made it possible to identify the animals on the basis of photos – photo identification was born! Until today photo ID is THE instrument to identify whales all over the world. While orcas are about fins, humpback whales are about flukes, blue whales are about patterns, each species has different characteristics.

Originally it was assumed that there are over a thousand orcas around Vancouver Island. However, research by Bigg and his colleagues has shown that there are almost half as many. They also made it clear that there are three completely separate groups of orcas that have nothing to do with each other.

For example, there are settled groups (Residents) who live in stable communities that are always led by the mother. These families stay together for the rest of their lives. Dialects and hunting techniques are passed on to the next generation. Residents feed only on fish and here they prefer salmon. Since salmon returns to spawn every year, the residents can reliably be found here.

There are also locally independent orcas (Transients). They undertake larger migrations and hunt in small groups. They feed exclusively on mammals such as seals, dolphins or smaller whales. They can also be found regularly around Vancouver Island, but are not very predictable. Transients are also called Bigg’s Killer Whales.

About the third group (Offshores) we know almost nothing: They live far away from the coast and are therefore difficult to observe.

Every family and every animal are well known. The research of Michael Bigg and his colleagues made it possible to create a complete orca family tree.

Based on Michael Bigg’s research, it has been possible to work out a complete family tree of the local orca populations. Every family and animal is well known, dead animals are mourned, newborns are welcomed euphorically. Probably nowhere else in the world you will find such a huge treasure of orca data as here. And Vancouver Island is still one of the most important places in the world for orca researchers.

Paul Spong for instance has been conducting orca research here since the end of the 70s. Almost within sight of the Ecological Reserve, he and his wife Helena run the Orca Lab on Hanson Island. Here, people mainly listen: a large part of the habitat of the Northern Residents is monitored via a broad network of hydrophones. The recordings are running since decades, Spong can recognize every family by their dialect.

The Orca Lab also has a live stream that allows you to listen to the orcas at any time. On one of our tours with Stubbs we got at least a little insight:

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Listening to the locals while being on board with Stubbs.

Those who are very lucky can also meet the orcas of Vancouver Island right by the beach. For unknown reasons, they occasionally come very close to the shore to rub against the pebbles in the shallow water. Nobody knows why they do this, there are a few scientific and spiritual approaches, but none is really convincing.

The Ecological Reserve of course is a taboo, but we hear about a beach on Malcolm Island where the orcas are supposed to rub as well. We go there.

At the beach we wait for several hours. We have experience in waiting, in Quebec the Belugas did an excellent job. In the distance a humpback blows, swimming parallel to the beach. A little later a second one. But no orcas. After four, five hours we give it up, at least for today.

On the next day the second attempt. At the beach we meet Kate, she is camping here every year from April to October. Because of the orcas. She also doesn’t know why they rub on the pebbles. But she knows they were here this very morning. She shows us a video: Orcas right on the beach, right here where we are standing.

Kate says the orcas don’t usually come twice in a day. Bad luck for us. So we go hiking. I feel a little more comfortable on the small islands, as bears and cougars only inhabit the main island and the mainland.

Later we hear that a grizzly was seen on one of the surrounding islets. He obviously swam over from the mainland and now does some island hopping here. I am quite glad that I only heard this after our island hike.

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After a while, the young grizzly seems to be bored of us. He enters the water, a few seconds later he’s gone.

Vancouver Island: THE BEARS

In Port Hardy we learn that not all bears are the same: When encountering a grizzly, you have to behave completely differently than with a black bear.

With grizzlies you have to make yourself small, be shy and reserved, walk away quietly and backwards, face down, no eye contact. Grizzlies are always the boss and want to be treated that way. Black bears, on the other hand, are much less self-confident, so you have to be more resolute with them.

It is therefore very important to be able to distinguish between black and brown bears. Mistakes can be fatal. Simple rule of thumb: don’t pay attention to the color, but to the shoulders: The color of both species can vary widely between gray, brown and black. Only grizzlies have this typical hump behind their shoulders. So, look out for the hump!

From Telegraph Cove we take a cruise to the mainland with TideRip. In the fjords of the Knight Inlet you can encounter a lot of grizzlies at this time of year. It’s a two hours drive, we see humpbacks and orcas, it never gets boring. At Knight Inlet we board a smaller boat. On the creek we head into the woods.

Our guide pulls the boat through the shallow water. Absolute silence, only the quiet gurgling of the river. Then a crack. Our guide holds his finger over his mouth. Nobody speaks. During the trip we learned that cracking is a good sign. Most animals try to be quiet. Not the grizzly. He is the boss, he makes noise.

For a while we stand still on the water. Nothing happens. False alarm? Our guide pulls us on. After a few meters another crack. Then a crackle and rustling. We stand still, all tense to the breaking point. Our guide stands in the water up to the navel, three meters to the shore.

Suddenly I see him, directly behind the guide, who has turned to us just now: The bear is directly in his back, well camouflaged by the undergrowth. Slightly frightened I point to the shore, the guide turns around, slowly raising his hand. Nobody is breathing. Dead silence.

The bear remains standing for a while, looking over at us. We wait. The guide right between us. At some point the bear decides that something has to happen. He steps out of the undergrowth. He could easily reach our guide (and us!) with just a single leap. Instead he strolls slowly along the shore.

The bear is in charge here, all alone, all we can do is wait and see. He strolls along the shore, insisting indifference. This young grizzly is a bad actor.

It’s a young grizzly, that’s obvious even without a lot of grizzly knowledge, less because of his size, more because of his appearance, he seems somehow inexperienced and bold at the same time. Our guide later estimates him to be three to four years, most likely being not too long without his mother. He’s a half-strong one, at least from a grizzly point of view.

However young he may be, the bear is in charge, all alone. He decides what will happen. We just try to breathe as little as possible. The bear strolls along the shore, acting indifferently, but he is not very convincing. Somehow he’s pretty interested. He looks over at us. What we’re doing. If we’re still watching. Then again he completely ignores us. This goes back and forth for a while. A penny for his thoughts!

The young grizzly is bad actor. But an incredibly impressive appearance. Everything here just follows his rules. We just stand and wait and watch. After a while, he seems to be bored. He enters the water, only a few meters in front of the boat, paddles calmly past the guide, shakes himself on the other shore, looks again – and disappears into the bush.

One second later nothing, but nothing at all, indicates that there was a grizzly just a moment ago. The dense jungle swallowed him completely. I try to not think about our next hike.

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The beautiful Patrica Lake in the Jasper area. According to the friendly boat lender it’s freaking cold.

British Columbia: CANADIAN ROCKIES

Our next hike takes place a good 800 kilometers to the east: If you are already in British Columbia, you can't miss the Canadian Rockies.

We take the classic route from Banff to Jasper and are very impressed all the way – Johnston Canyon, Castle Mountain, Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Icefields Parkway, Athabasca Glacier, Cirrus Mountain, Sunwapta Falls, Maligne Lake, Mount Robson: A week quickly feels like a whole month.

The woods here are not half as wild and scary as those on Vancouver Island. But they have more bears. Shortly behind Moraine Lake with its world famous Ten Peaks in the background we find a grizzly sign indicating that this really is bear country now: According to the sign it is not allowed to hike here alone or even in pairs. Groups of at least four people are recommended. Fair enough!

On our map the friendly Park Ranger marks a place where a grizzly was seen just yesterday. We're not sure if bears stick to the crosses on maps and decide to go hiking.

At the entrance of the Berg Lake Trail a friendly ranger from Mount Robson Provincial Park tells us the way. On the map she marks all the things we have to do and see. At one point she makes a big cross: »Here you have to watch out a bit, a grizzly was seen there just yesterday«. Then she wishes us all the best.

We’re not sure if the bears in the Canadian Rockies really stick to any signs or crosses on maps, but we just go hiking every day. At the end of the week we have seen seven grizzlies and six black bears, all totally peaceful.

More dangerous seemed to be Patricia Lake near Jasper, which is actually situated very peacefully. The simple idea was to take a canoe there in the evening. But instead of a paddle the friendly boat lender gave us two life jackets. Then a whistle and a buoy.

On our hint that we went canoeing before and only needed the paddles, he explained: »The water is extremely cold because of the glacier. If you capsize, you can’t move after a short time. Hence the life jacket. With the whistle you can call for help. And the buoy will make it easier to find you.«

I’m not sure if the friendly boat lender was just kidding. But instead of a canoe we took a regular rowing boat. Just to be sure. The trip was without any further complications.