The planets had clearly aligned (or something) because Johnstone Strait was sunny and flat this year as we emerged from Sunderland Channel and ran the two slow hours (at six knots) past Port Neville and Port Harvey to turn into Havannah Channel with relief. The strait has a spin drier reputation (all spin and no dry) and we were pleased to get into the calm waters of Chatham Channel, Lagoon Cove and beyond. After a week of chugging north, we were finally in our favourite cruising grounds and ready to stop and enjoy.
Anchored in Potts Lagoon on West Cracroft Island, we launched kayaks in the early morning calm, paddled round a curve and there, on the beach just a few lengths away was a grizzly turning over stones and chomping on little crabs. With casual ease, the bear’s powerful forearm flipped rocks the size of truck tires.
Downwind and silent in our boats, we crept as close as we dared to watch it feeding for half an hour. Despite our being in bright kayaks, the bruin ignored us utterly and got on with his task. When the wind finally shifted, it sniffed the air and then moved slowly off the beach. Only later, when showing the photos and videos to local experts did the discussion start—was it a common grizzly, or the more rare cinnamon bear? You decide.
A day or two later, approaching Waddington Bay’s anchorage, we were treated to a sight we’d seen only once before, and with a different outcome. A bald eagle attacked a flock of California gulls and singled out its prey. The rest of the birds scattered, leaving the target alone in an empty sky. The eagle swooped in for the kill. Time and again the gull, unable to fly as fast as the eagle, dodged and weaved, gradually losing height until, on a close pass, it hit the sea with a splash.
The eagle swept past but turned quickly, lunged again, missed and wheeled. On every pass the gull disappeared momentarily below the surface to avoid the raking talons, but each time it had to surface and get airborne, an exhausting effort. After numerous passes, it was noticeably slower, and each time the raptor came back on it before it had flown far. Then the inevitable—the gull ducked to the surface too late, the talons struck and locked, and the eagle flew off with its prize.
Watching the whole event, which must have lasted only a few minutes, it seemed to have a certain terrible predictability. Not that the gull didn’t have a chance. Watching a similar event in the Gulf Islands, the eagle somehow grabbed a gull by its feet. The prey, hanging upside down, still had plenty of fight left, and extended its wings and began flapping wildly. The eagle stalled.
There followed a classic battle of aerodynamics—the eagle generating maximum lift, the gull generating maximum drag. After half a minute of this mid-air struggle, the eagle dropped the gull to adjust the payload. The gull, seemingly unhurt (except perhaps its feet), swooped rapidly away and vanished into the surrounding flock that was circling the whole affair in great agitation. The eagle, no doubt tired and possibly confused, headed for a cedar snag to reconsider its game plan.
Such is nature in the raw, and birds are an important part of the mix. A day or two later we stopped our kayaks near Knight Inlet amid a flock of feeding gulls, rhino auklets and harlequin ducks. Each species has its own method of preying on a baitfish ball just below the surface. The larger California gulls sat on the surface and, with each head jab, brought up multiple tiny fish to gulp down in a flash. Bonaparte’s gulls, small and delicate, hovered above the water; dropping and partly submerging before bobbing back up like corks, their beaks grasping a single fish. The auklets and harlequins dove under the bait ball, coming up with speed, snapping as they came, and appearing on the surface with beaks filled to capacity.
Then a loud exhale caught our attention as the first of two humpback whales joined the event, breaking the sea surface with those 12 to 15-metre-long backs that seem to be moving so slowly. Up close it’s a different story. Their bodies curved above the surface at the speed of a freight train, before disappearing in a swirl of eddies. Thirty tons just disappeared, before their next breath farther off.
I’ve said this before in this magazine, but it bears repeating—rowing a dinghy or paddling a kayak allows you to witness so much more of what’s going on around you. With an outboard there’s the noise, smell and the inevitable concern about the prop hitting something. A dinghy or kayak slips silently into inlets and crannies that are simply inaccessible to a motorized craft.
Tucked into McIntosh Bay at the top of Simoom Sound, we paddled into a narrow bay at low tide and sat transfixed as a black bear and two very young cubs fed at the water’s edge on a low tide. Behind us, and within earshot, voices carried from an anchored sailboat. No doubt the mother bear could hear them too, but she seemed unconcerned as she went about her business of rolling rocks and snacking crabs.
Then the wind took our scent to them. Instantly, the cubs ran to a tree and shinnied up it better than any logger in spikes. There they quickly became bored and began cuffing each other in the upper branches; the adult kept feeding, but with half an eye on us. After some minutes she must have given them a signal because all at once they descended, as quickly as firemen down a pole, and were back romping on the beach in short order. We were entranced, sitting just 30 metres away, but with a healthy amount of water between us.
Sure, bears swim. We’ve clocked a black bear from island to island, and by timing its entry and exit, and measuring the distance on the chart, determined it swam at about one knot. Our kayaks can do three knots easily, and a lot more if pursued by a bear! During that one low tide in Simoom Sound, we saw and watched six black bears foraging along the beach. Truly, “when the tide is out, the table is set”, and bear watching is at its best.
When a tender chugged past, the bears melted into the forest and we were left feeling as though something had been lost. And we suggested to the owners of the tender it might be prudent to walk their dog on one of the offshore islets, rather than on the beach.
The Pacific Northwest is rich in marine life. There are over 8,000 invertebrates alone, but seeing them isn’t easy unless you’re into tanks, wetsuits and weight belts. As a poor alternative, take a tour during any low tide that’s within half a metre of a zero tide (low water). Choose a north-facing cliff (marine critters seem to favour the cold walls). Drift along the slope in a dinghy and marvel at what’s to be seen.
Choose a narrows that has a strong current for part of the tidal cycle. Take a camera and capture what you see on film. Back on the boat, pull out a reference book, and be amazed. Sure, Hawaii’s coral reefs have lots of colour, but the diversity along our northwest coast is unbeatable. On that subject, we saw an encouraging sign—the sea stars are returning in greater numbers. Plenty of ochre and purple stars, but also mottled and even a few small sunstars, all of which used to be everywhere until the die off about six years ago.
What also used to be everywhere were sea otters, and they, too, are making a comeback. Around Hope and Nigei islands at the top of Vancouver Island we saw plenty, but there were sightings farther south too. A year ago we saw one off Parksville, and another off Victoria. Hopefully these playful mammals will be a regular sight again in the Salish Sea, as they are down the California coast.
There were also so many humpback whales this past year. On one crossing of Blackfish Sound we counted nine, where a few years ago we’d have been happy to see one or two. Let’s hope this is another positive sign. And we spotted a minke whale. Despite never having seen one before, identifying it was surprisingly easy. It was noticeably smaller than a humpback (10 tons versus 25 to 30 tons), gray rather than black, had a scimitar-like dorsal fin like a white-sided dolphin, and a curious ridge down the centre of its head, which made it look like it was made of two halves stuck together. The clincher would have been to see the white bands on its shorter-than-humpback pectoral fins, but they never broke the surface.
There are two sub-species of minke, one in northern waters and the other in Antarctica. As the second smallest of the baleen whales, males seldom exceed nine to 10 metres, females 10 to 11 metres. They are, by the way, the only baleen whale supposedly named after a person—a Norwegian novice whaling spotter named Captain Meincke, who had the habit of exaggerating the size of his catch.
Other marine mammals that appeared were harbour porpoises, usually seen alone or in pairs, and Pacific white-sided dolphins which are usually seen in schools of up to several hundred. The latter are the ones that ride your bow wave, their tails barely moving as they streak ahead of the boat, turning sideways to look up at you hanging over the rails, and making you laugh until your eyes water. There’s something wonderful about relating to an intelligent mammal (that we don’t eat).
The word porpoise, by the way, comes from the medieval Latin word porcopiscus, which is a combination of porcus a pig and piscus a fish, a ‘pig-fish.’ In Newfoundland even today, fishermen refer to them as ‘puffing pigs’.
There were Dall’s porpoise sightings too. They are the largest of the porpoise family and like the white-sided dolphin, are found only in the Pacific Northwest. Chunky like a wrestler, with no beak, a thick neck and a dark skin, there’s usually a gray or white flash on the dorsal fin. When surfacing they leave a spray track as the fins cut the water. Dall’s can weigh up to 200 kilograms, Pacific white-sided a bit less. Harbour porpoises are a lot smaller, usually around 60 to 70 kilograms.
On a memorable evening up Wells Passage we watched a group of about 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins hunting. They formed a line abreast, each separated by about a body length, and then with coordinated precision raced into a narrow bay, driving some unseen prey ahead of them. Close to the cliff wall that blocked the end, their fins vanished as the sea churned to a fierce chop. A minute later they’d reappear out in the open channel (we were watching from our kayaks), where they’d form a line again, and repeat the exercise.
It was well orchestrated, but they took time off for fun. As they passed us on the outward passage, I slapped my paddle on the water to see what would happen, and three of them leapt into the air, as if showing off. Minutes later when they passed again at the end of a sweep, I repeated the action, and the three leapt again. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. It was a rare form of inter-species communication, and the interaction made our day.
That said, I was grateful I was a fellow mammal and not a fish. We never did see what they were hunting. Despite the feeding frenzy at the wall, not a single prey jumped into the air, perhaps because under more usual circumstances, when marine mammals hunt a fish ball there are birds hovering, ready to snap up anything that gets too close to the surface.
Crossing Knight Inlet in early August, the sea was covered in hundreds of tiny black and white birds, their long necks bobbing, needle-thin bills stabbing at the surface. They were red-necked phalaropes on their way south after nesting on the Arctic tundra. Less than eight inches long and weighing little more than an ounce, these amazing birds will fly 6,000 kilometres to winter in tropical seas, before reversing the process next year.
At dusk we kayaked in an area where they’d been feeding—they were long gone by then—and found, on the surface, tens of thousands of dead tiny flies. This was their energy supply. Timing their voyage to coincide with food sources at various stages, especially when weighing less than 40 grams and unable to carry a lot of baggage, must require some skill. Small wonder they were feeding so frantically, and then on again.
And so our summer in the Broughton Archipelago passed; gunkholing and serendipity, never sure from one day to the next where we’d end up and, more importantly, what we’d encounter on our way there. And isn’t that what cruising is all about?