A sailing tour of the Broughton Archipelago offers eco-tourism at it’s finest, with experts on board, clear, salty air and a region that’s literally teeming with wildlife, from whales to grizzles.
By CINDA CHAVICH
(Vancouver Island, BC) - After several days sailing through the narrow channels of the remote Broughton Archipelago, my hearing is acutely attuned to the deep huff of a surfacing whale.
Even in the distance, I hear them blow before I see the misty plume of their fishy breath rising against the deep blue water and densely-forested shores. My shipmates, clustered across the bow, swivel in unison, like a flock of wheeling seabirds, scanning the horizon each time the low whoosh of a whale rising reaches our ears. Which is often.
It’s all part of an average day on our marine safari aboard the Bluewater Adventures’ Island Roamer, a comfortable 68-foot vessel that sails British Columbia’s coastline. This is eco-tourism at it’s finest, in a spot that’s literally teeming with life both under the sea, in the clear salty air, and on the shore of the many small islands and inlets we explore during our week out on the water.
There’s a talented cook and an experienced naturalist along to make our downtime as memorable as the nonstop nature show here in the upper reaches of the Salish Sea. But it’s the whales – both resident orcas and the healthy population of local humpbacks – that are the star attractions for this curious group of international explorers.
On day one, before Annie Strucel even has time to lay out her first lunch of hearty chickpea, beet and quinoa salad with tahini dressing, we’ve already spied a Dall’s Porpoise, a group of rhinoceros auklets and a rare minke whale.
If it’s not the sound of orcas squealing underwater, chatting while they hunt for salmon, it’s the sound of adults shrieking with delight as they watch a flotilla of black fins slicing the water or a whiskered sea otter rolling on its back in the blue waves. It might be the sight of a grizzly cub bounding behind its big mamma, or a humpback drawing its dinner into a circle of bubbles before lunging up for a big gulp.
They’re all here in late August and, like the First Nations who have inhabited the Salish Sea for millennia, it’s all because of the wild Pacific salmon, the species that feeds the entire ecosystem.
Watching this wild kingdom unfold here each day, it’s hard not to think about our impact upon it – especially when we encounter dozens of salmon farms in the hidden coves along our route from Port McNeill into the deep coastal fjord of Knight Inlet.
I notice the Sea Shepherd (SS) Martin Sheen docked in Alert Bay as we zodiac into this island community to visit the spectacular U’Mista Cultural Centre and learn about the art and traditions of the local Kwakwaka’wakw people. The SS Conservation Society is here to support the First Nation leaders who are demanding that the salmon farms be removed from their territory, a last ditch effort to save the seven species of wild salmon that run deep through their waters and their culture. With local scientist Alexandra Morton, they’ve documented the pollution and diseases they say these fish feedlots are spreading through the marine environment, contributing to the steep decline in the wild salmon populations.
Salmon is a keystone species, explains our ship’s naturalist Rob Butler as we gather after another fine dinner to recap our day of discoveries. Without wild salmon, the coastal ecosystem breaks down, and with it go the fishing communities and the wildlife that draws visitors from around the world, like the Australians, Americans and Brit in our small group of travelers.
The resident Orca whales eat salmon exclusively. Grizzly bears depend on salmon, too. It’s why both are here in sufficient numbers that we can still come out to watch them.
Salmon also feed both the lush coastal forests and the streams where they return to spawn and die, becoming fertilizer for the plankton their offspring will eat to survive.
Coastal indigenous people, their art and culture, thrived here because of the salmon as well. We stop to see the last standing remnants of a big house at ‘Mimquimlees’ on Village Island, an abandoned community where 16 such houses once stood. It was a winter home for First Nations families who, like us, traveled deep into coastal inlets in summer to follow the runs of sockeye, pink, coho and Chinook salmon.
It takes nearly five hours to motor from Village Island to Glendale Cove, the mid-point of Knight Inlet, where we drop anchor for the night in the emerald-green waters. We head out in the zodiacs to look for grizzlies in the early evening, and its not long before we spot the first of a dozen magnificent brown beasts we will encounter over the next 24 hours.
They’re grazing belly-deep in the late summer sedge at the edge of the tidal flats, and wandering the rocky shoreline, turning over seaweed-encrusted boulders in search of shellfish and crabs. And though we’re not able to access the narrow channels reserved for paying guests flying in daily into nearby Knight Inlet Lodge, its apparent that, at least here, there are no salmon running for the great bears.
Still, they appear healthy, with their thick honey and chocolate brown coats and massive paws, oblivious to our curious gaze and clicking shutters.
Our final evening on the Island Roamer finds us back in the Inside Passage, anchored in a sheltered bay off Swanson Island, enjoying a feast of juicy lingcod with a tangle of tender leeks and a scoop of creamy polenta. As night falls and darkness envelops the landscape I can hear the laughter of kayak campers on the nearby shore.
But then the magic starts again – that familiar huff of orcas surfacing, blowing so close and in such numbers that we all stop and stare into the inky night.
Captain Luke Hyatt drops the hydrophone into the sea and we hear the whales calling back and forth beneath the waves – wee-ya, wee, wee, wee-ya – the blows and squeals of orcas continue for more than 30 minutes, and we stand silent, listening to their whale music fade off into Blackfish Sound.
It’s hard to convey the wonder of this experience, a week of living in the moment, immersed in nature.
Like the whales and dolphins that flash briefly by before diving out of sight, it’s a fleeting glimpse of what Butler calls “the perfect state”, and a reminder that most of us only ever see a fraction of nature’s complex connections.
But I’ll be more mindful about the kind of salmon I buy in the future, with a deeper understanding of the coastal culture that depends on it.
IF YOU GO:
Vancouver-based Bluewater Adventures runs wildlife watching tours on its small, well-eqipped sailing vessels along the British Columbia coast, from the Gulf Islands to Haida Gwaii. There are three tours each summer through the Broughton Archipelago region of northern Vancouver Island, leaving from the community of Port McNeill. A sustainable eco-tourism leader, Bluewater Adventures has won several awards for its green initiatives and is a member of 1% for the Planet, with one percent of all fees paid by travelers going to environmental organizations.
For details and pricing for this all-inclusive vacation, visit their website at bluewateradventures.ca
Copyright Cinda Chavich