Canada’s Vancouver Island, just off the coast of British Columbia, is one of the best places in the world to see wild orcas.
You can sign up for a kayaking trip out of Telegraph Cove or opt for a boat ride along the Johnstone Strait where pods of orcas spend their summer.
Mr. M & I were visiting British Columbia as one final Ode to Vacation before I started veterinary school, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see real, live orcas in the wild.
Days #8,485-6: Even the trip out to Telegraph Cove was a bit of an adventure.
From Vancouver, we took a pleasant two hour ferry across the strait to Victoria Island and the town of Nanaimo (incidentally- or, rather, importantly for sugar-lovers like me- the namesake of the famous Canadian dessert, the Nanaimo Bar!). Then it was another four and a half hours drive up the gorgeously rugged coast.
As we wound our way further and further north, dense fog and conifer trees crowded the highway as if threatening to swallow up all signs of civilization.
Even though Port McNeill is the hub of Northern Vancouver Island, I remember getting out of the car and feeling like I’d reached the very end of the earth.
The air was heavy and dense with the brine of the coast and that wet-earth smell of thick, spongy trees. Silent except for the clapping noise of smooth stones tumbling over one another as the tide pulled them in and out. It was a quiet, understated beauty. Not dramatic or showy… the sort of deep, matter-of-fact natural beauty that doesn’t care whether humans appreciate it or not.
Mr. M & I were so intrigued by the sun staying out until almost 11pm (it was practice for our trip to Iceland, where we never once saw darkness) that we left the curtains in our motel room wide open and fell asleep to the dreamy, perpetual sunset.
The next morning we woke early to finish the half-hour journey to Telegraph Cove via unpaved logging road.
While we waited for our morning boat to depart, Mr. M & I got hot chocolates from the town coffee stand and walked the old boardwalks of what was once a cannery and sawmill community.
I didn’t want to get my hopes of seeing orcas too high, but I was SO.FLIPPIN’.EXCITED getting on our boat and heading out into the water.
Johnstone Strait is home to both resident and transient orca populations; these two groups differ both in the foods they eat (residents are generally pescetarians, and transients eat seals and other marine mammals) and in the way they hunt. I was keeping my fingers crossed that a few representatives were willing to make an appearance.
An hour or so into the journey, we’d already seen Bald Eagles, Minke Whales, and Pacific White-Sided Dolphins… it seemed selfish to ask for anything more.
I didn’t take a whole lot of great pictures, partly because my pre-Soviet-era camera was unfamiliar with the term “zoom,” and mostly because I couldn’t take my eyes off the animals for even a few seconds to look through a viewfinder.
Seeing these giant animals swimming through the inky waters at the edge of civilization had my eyes welling up with tears.
Seeing the orcas off Vancouver Island, I understood that I had never honestly seen one before. Sure, I’d visited Sea World and Six Flags… but the animals performing in those shows bore no semblance to the orcas I was watching swim free.
Having worked in a few zoos myself, I do believe that there are some species that we can maintain in captivity with a good quality of life (that’s the most important part!)… and that a huge amount of good is done for conservation efforts when well-run zoos forge connections with a public that might not otherwise consider global ecology.
But in some species, I think maintaining this quality of life is, as yet, impossible.
I wonder if we do both animals and humans a disservice by showcasing otherwise powerful creatures as a mere diversion over which we hold absolute control.
Watching the orcas glide through the water and breach the water’s surface to expel misty breath recalled the same beauty that Mr. M & I had been in awe of the night before.
Pure, capable wildness that requires nothing more than for us humans to stay out of the way.
You Can Do It, Too!
I booked a 3.5 hour boat tour with Stubbs Island Whale Watching and thought they did a fantastic job educating us about both the animals and the environment. Make sure to wear warm layers of clothing, even if you’re taking a summer trip and even if you think “How cold can it really be?” Even with hot cocoa and a puffer vest in July, that boat ride was COLD.
Getting to Telegraph Cove: BC Ferries operates the ferry from Horseshoe Bay, just north of Vancouver, to Nanaimo. If you’ll be taking a car from the mainland, you can reserve your auto a spot on the ferry online; we found that to be cheaper than renting a car in Nanaimo. If you don’t feel like enjoying all the gorgeous woodland scenery on the 4+ hour drive up, there are light aircraft flights into Port Hardy (1hr drive north) and Campbell River (2hrs drive south)… but the roadtrip was one of our highlights!
Because Telegraph Cove doesn’t offer a lot of accommodation, it’s easiest to do like the loggers once did and set up camp in the nearby village of Port McNeill.
Did you know…
**Orcas can live up to 80 years of age in the wild!
**Soon-to-be mamas have a gestational period (pregnancy) of 17 months. That’s… rough.
**Like humans and their fingerprints, orcas have unique black and white saddle markings that allow them to be tracked by researchers.
**Orcas seek out “rubbing beaches,” where the animals are able to rub against the pebbles along the ocean floor. One such rubbing beach at Robson Bight near Telegraph Cove has been turned into an ecological reserve. Non-scientific visitors and boats are prohibited from entering, and the orcas are able to play without interference. See below for a cool video of the orcas rubbing!