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A Walk on BC’s Wild Side

REGION/COUNTRY: Westcoast, British Columbia, Canada
COMMENT: BC is supernatural, see and read yourself


The waters off B.C. are renowned for orcas. Around Vancouver Island alone, 530 of them have been individually identified. Orca Whales, British Columbia. Canadian Tourism Commission CTC
The waters off B.C. are renowned for orcas. Around Vancouver Island alone, 530 of them have been individually identified. Orca Whales, British Columbia. Canadian Tourism Commission CTC

by Sue Kernaghan

Every year, the villagers of Tofino and Ucluelet, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, enjoy front row seats for one of the world’s great animal migrations. In spring, more than 20,000 grey whales cruise by on their way from their winter calving lagoons in Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.  En route, they pass so close to Vancouver Island they can be spotted from shore with binoculars. Most people, though, prefer to join a whale watching tour to get a closer look at these magnificent animals.


Close but not too close: keeping a safe distance is the guiding mantra of wildlife watching in BC. With access to the greatest number of species in Canada, including several varieties of bears and whales, BC’s guides are careful to balance the thrill of sightings with respect for the creatures’ habitats.


And those habitats are closer than you may think. Grey whales can be seen off Vancouver Island’s west coast anytime between February and October, while about 300 resident Orcas, or killer whales, reside off the Island’s east coast. 


And, while it’s not uncommon for a BC Ferries captain to announce: “Attention passengers: there’s a pod of Orcas off the starboard bow,” your best chance for sightings is on a dedicated whale watching trip. 


Half-day boat tours leave throughout the summer from Victoria, Sidney, and Sooke on Vancouver Island, and from Steveston Village, south of Vancouver. If you’re pressed for time, check out the Ocean Magic II. Run by the Victoria-based Prince of Whales, this 74-passenger cruiser combines four hours of whale watching with a trip from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria.

Black bear near Campbell River Photo: Tourism BC / Tom RyanWhat a catch, Salmon fishing near Prince Rupert Photo: Tourism BC/JF
Black bear near Campbell River Photo: Tourism BC / Tom RyanWhat a catch, Salmon fishing near Prince Rupert Photo: Tourism BC/JF

BC’s richest Orca habitat is actually a few hours north, in Johnstone Strait off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. About 200 individuals reside here, in and around the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. Unique among Orca populations, they like to rub their bodies on the Island’s smooth underwater stone beaches.


Whale watching trips, leaving from Port McNeill, Alert Bay, and from the historic fishing village of Telegraph Cove, also offer a chance to see the Minke and humpback whales, porpoises, harbour seals, and sea lions that populate the waters here.


Johnstone Strait is also the most popular place to meet a five ton whale at eye-level, from the seat of a kayak. Several companies offer day and multi-day kayaking with Orca trips; some are suitable for beginners, all are unforgettable, And as much as the Orcas (which, by the way, are actually large dolphins) enjoy the spa-like effects of rubbing their bellies on the strait’s pebbly beaches; they’re really here for the salmon.  And they’re not alone: black and grizzly bears also gather to feed on the area’s rich salmon runs, making BC’s central coast prime bear country.


This rich coastal bear habitat extends all the way from Knight Inlet north to Prince Rupert. Known internationally as the Great Bear Rainforest, this fjord-cut wilderness is said to be the largest tract of intact coastal temperate rainforest left in the world. While marine and land animals, including whales, dolphins, seals, bears, wolves and about 200 species of native birds all thrive here, the area is also home to the rare white Kermode, or spirit, bear, a subspecies of black bear found nowhere else in the world.


Several Vancouver Island companies, including the Telegraph Cove-based Tide Rip Tours and Campbell River’s Aboriginal Journeys, offer day trips to bear habitats on the mainland (the latter also offers whale watching tours). Travelling by boat, which is the only option besides float planes in this roadless wilderness, helps keep a safe distance between the bears and their human visitors.


The Great Bear Rainforest is also home to several remote, floating eco-lodges. Accessible only by sea or air, they offer comfortable -- in some cases, rather luxurious -- bases for wildlife watching, kayaking, and hiking adventures. 


Great Bear Nature Tours, for example, operates a wind and solar-powered floating lodge 50 air miles from Port Hardy. Despite being completely off the grid, the lodge is a leader in using technology to help people meet wildlife, safely. Motion-triggered infra-red cameras capture video and still images of such elusive nocturnal creatures as cougars and wolves while, in a bird watching platform overlooking the trees near the lodge, birdwatchers and biologists can refer to photos and birdsongs downloaded onto iPods to help identify individual species.


Fundamentally, though, it’s the grizzly bears, watched from boats in spring and blinds in summer and fall, that draw visitors.


Guides here, like their colleagues throughout the province, follow strict protocols so as not to disturb the bears. As co-owner and lead biologist Tom Rivest explains: “After the personal safety of our guests, protection of the bears is our first priority. We make sure that we are very predictable, so the bears can get used to us. And there are areas we don’t go into, so that those individuals who never got used to humans have somewhere to go where they know they won’t bump into us.”


Grizzly bear viewing is also the focus at the 12-room Knight Inlet Lodge, moored at Glendale Cove in Knight Inlet, one of BC’s densest grizzly habitats. In spring and summer, guides take guests by boat to see bears grazing in a nearby estuary. In fall, platforms provide safe spots from which to see the grizzlies chowing down on the fall salmon run.


Further north, but still within the Great Bear Rainforest, is Princess Royal Island, home to the rare white Kermode, or spirit, bear.  Two First Nations owned and operated companies, Spirit Bear Adventures (formerly Klemtu Tourism) and Gitga’at Tourism, based in the villages of Klemtu and Hartley Bay respectively, offer wildlife viewing and cultural tours of the area.


Another option is the luxurious King Pacific Lodge, moored each summer at Princess Royal Island. This eco-friendly floating lodge – the first in Canada to offer fully carbon neutral vacations – is a base for fishing, hiking, kayaking and, depending on the season, a chance to see Orcas, humpback whales, eagles, sea lions, otters, Dahl’s porpoises, grizzly bears, black bears and, possibly, Kermode bears.


An accessible base for wildlife viewing is Prince Rupert, the main city on BC’s north coast. Home to many of the same marine and land species as the Great Bear Rainforest, the region is a base for whale watching trips and for boat excursions to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, the only such sanctuary in the country. Accessible only by boat with a licensed operator, the site is home to about 50 individual bears. May to July, when the bears can be seen along the shore, is the best time to visit.


Grizzly bears aren’t limited to the coast.  BC’s newest wildlife-watching lodge, Grizzly Bear Ranch, is hundreds of kilometres inland, in a remote valley in the Selkirk Mountains. Here, grizzly bears gather each autumn to feed on spawning kokanee salmon. Grizzly viewing packages at the intimate seven-guest ranch include a rafting trip -- a novel way to views bears without disturbing them. Grizzly moms in the area have as many as three cubs, which is a good indication of the population’s health.


Bears are doing pretty well throughout the region, says Tom Rivest. “Right now, in BC, Alaska, and the Yukon, the bears are safe and healthy. A hundred years from now? I don’t know. I hope so. But right now, they look good.”


And that’s good news for everyone. 


For more information on wildlife viewing in BC, visit www.HelloBC.com/wildlife.  For more information on other British Columbia destinations and travel information, call 1-800 HELLO BC® (North America) or visit www.HelloBC.com.
Aboriginal Journeys: www.aboriginaljourneys.com; 888/455-8101
Gitga’at Tourism: www.gitgaat.net/tourism/experiences.html; 250/841-2602
Great Bear Nature Tours: www.greatbeartours.com; 888/221-8212
Grizzly Bear Ranch:  www.grizzlybearranch.ca; 250/275-4856                   
King Pacific Lodge: www.kingpacificlodge.com; 888/592-5464
Spirit Bear Adventures: www.spiritbearadventures.com; 877/644-2346
Knight Inlet Lodge: www.grizzlytours.com; 250/337-1953
Prince of Whales: www.princeofwhales.com; 888/383-4884
Tide Rip Adventures: www.tiderip.com; 888/643-9319

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