While the global population of Steller Sea Lions has dropped by two-thirds, the North Island population is presently stable. Stubbs Island Whale Watching
by Alison Gardner

Right up there with bear watching in the wild, nature-loving vacationers place a high priority on seeing marine mammals in their natural habitat. Why? They are large enough to spot and even photograph without special expertise, most people do already know something about whales, especially the strikingly black and white killer whale or orca. And ... marine mammals are clearly under siege on the planet, thanks largely to human assault or indifference, with many species having the dubious distinction of belonging in the rare and endangered category. That too makes them intriguing.

Killer whales are actually the world's largest dolphins.
Stubbs Island Whale Watching

Map courtesy Telegraph Cove Resorts Ltd.

I drove north from Victoria, clocking almost six hours to cover much of the length of Vancouver Island on high speed, often dead-straight highways, before I turned right onto an unpaved logging road that currently beckons 10,000 visitors a year over the last few bumpy miles into Telegraph Cove. I parked my car in the lot next to Mrs. P's General Store, popped my belongings onto a weathered, wood-decked trolley and hauled it along the handsome wide-planked boardwalk the short distance to my assigned cottage. For the next five days, my life centered around strolling the yellow cedar boardwalk, eating, learning, eating some more, and connecting with nature as hasn't happened in a long time. Blissfully, I had no reason to return to my car until I headed home.

Orca Adoption Makes a Great Gift!
Killer whales are as individual in appearance and as recognizable to a trained eye as any human. Only, there are a lot less of them. To further conservation studies of individuals and accurate tracking and reporting by scientists, consider adopting a killer whale calf or adult, or even a family pod in the wild through an innovative program run by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, www.killerwhale.org. What an amazing educational Christmas or birthday present for a child or teenager, or for a person of any age interested in marine mammal conservation!

Telegraph Cove is a charming time warp, a living history lesson in miniature. Set in a perfectly circular bay with only the smallest of openings into the straits beyond, this antique sawmilling village originally settled in the 1920s and 30s has been expertly restored to reflect the style of life up to the 1950s.

From the floating hospital, the mill owner's mansion high on a rocky outlook and the bachelor bunkhouse to the World War II Air Force mess hall and cookhouse [now divided into five rooms each with bath] and the colourful self-catering homes, there is plenty to explore and to select in the way of accommodation. Buildings are linked together around the edge of the cove by an invitingly strollable yellow cedar boardwalk, dotted with sawmilling and logging artifacts and an occasional furry visitor - this is, after all, the wilderness!

Present-day Telegraph Cove is 100% visitor-oriented. Stubbs Island Whale Watching

The yellow cedar boardwalk is Telegraph Cove's main street.
Stubbs Island Whale Watching

All buildings now serve delighted visitors in some manner, and all are decorated outside with informative plaques that tell touching personal, and often humorous, stories to bring alive the community's pioneer past. This is truly an opportunity to sleep with history, one gentle reminder of which is no telephones or television in the rooms!

The only blight on this idyllic canvas is a motel-style aberration that has recently overtaken a portion of the cove's far shoreline, a two-story soulless block of holiday condos, no doubt conceived as a worthy addition to the community's visitor accommodation by an American developer who obviously neither appreciated the historic nor the environmental context of the rugged rainforest landscape.

Transient and Resident Orca .. A whale of a difference!
Nowhere in the world are killer whales better studied than in the coastal waters of British Columbia, Washington, and southeastern Alaska. One of the most surprising revelations coming out of 25 years of research is that two genetically distinct forms of killer whale reside in these waters - residents and transients. They do not associate nor inter-breed, though the total population of both groups together numbers only in the hundreds.

Making up a significant majority of the population, residents travel within a clearly defined geographical territory, establish larger, stable, multi-generational family units, and consume only a diet of salmon and other fish. Preying on seals, sea lions, porpoises and even large whales, transients fit our more traditional perception of orca as ruthless hunters. They roam up and down the entire coast in unpredictable fashion, coming together in packs as required, and separating into small, unstable groups sometimes as small as two individuals. Transients are altogether more illusive and yet startling with their often dramatic techniques to capture the selected meal. When transients arrive in the neighborhood, word spreads quickly in the marine mammal population, and even resident orca pods head for secluded inlets until the hunters have passed through!
Photo: Stubbs Island Whale Watching

Since the primary focus of a trip to this part of the world is to get out among the islands and inlets, the ship-based experience has to be a high priority. Stubbs Island Whale Watching operates two vessels out of Telegraph Cove.

While the modern, aluminum Lukwa with its spacious lounge areas, picture windows and easily accessible deck areas delivers a day or half-day on the water with great comfort, it is clearly the lovingly restored Gikumi that is the historic treasure of company owners, Jim and Mary Borrowman. This is the vessel assigned to the multi-day tours.

Pacific white-sided dolphins frequently escort boats in Johnstone Strait. Stubbs Island Whale Watching

Telegraph Cove has been the Gikumi's home since it was built in 1954 for Fred Wastell, the owner of the sawmill and the whole town until his retirement in 1980. Its native name comes from the Kwakwala language and means 'The Chief.' This stable 60 footer, complete with miniature galley and lots of polished brass and warm wood, was originally built to tow logs to the sawmill in Telegraph Cove, though it also carried lumber and dry goods all over the British Columbia coast. Stubbs Island adopted the boat in 1980 for its whale watching trips, and Jim has dedicated many hours to making it a guest-friendly vessel without compromising its authenticity. The Gikumi's only drawback is that it is not accessible for guests with physical disabilities, especially the all-important head [toilet], down ladder-like stairs next to the engine room.

Left: M.V. Gikumi is the pride of the whale watching fleet. Alison Gardner
Right: Captain Jim Borrowman and naturalist guide, Jackie Hildering, make a knowledgeable and often excitable team when on the water. Alison Gardner

Every day had its share of highlights on the water, with the Gikumi darting in and out of inlets and around islands where wildlife appeared almost on cue. Occasionally, Captain Jim got on the radio phone, picking up sighting leads from others out on the straits, or he lowered the ship's hydraphone into the deep to pick up "ecolocation" clicks or whale conver-sations before any fluke or fin broke the surface. However, our last day of exploration was exceptional by any standard.

We started that last morning by hanging out at close quarters with about 300 Pacific white-sided dolphin who churned up the surface around our dead-in-water-vessel for nearly two hours, breeching and diving with seemingly endless energy. Bald eagles and sea birds were everywhere as the dolphin drove fish to the surface. Then we spotted a wolf swimming from island to island. Jim commented that this was only the second time in 23 years he had seen that happen. Dozens of harbor seals and sea lions sunned themselves on smooth warm rocks or along tree-lined shores while we passed through narrow channels on an uncharacteristically "glassy sea" that brought to mind poetic lines from the Ancient Mariner.

Neither words nor film adequately capture the experience of bobbing silently in the midst of 300 dolphins or witnessing a humpback whale dive under your boat. Alison Gardner

We were escorted for a time by a handsome troop of 14 Dall's porpoise, whose crisp black and white markings sometimes lead the uninformed to identify them as killer whale calves. And we marvelled at the curious sight of an enormous herring ball bonded together on the surface of Georges Strait, attracting a noisy collection of seabirds as well as an adult humpback whale to an easy lunch. We had the nerve to bemoan that we had not seen any killer whales that day when our first Minke whale of the tour checked in, and a second humpback made a leisurely beeline straight for the Gikumi. We got rather excited when this magnificent creature, as long as our vessel, showed no sign of turning aside, and we fell silently mesmerized when it flipped its tail high out of the water just 20 feet from our stationary craft and made a graceful shallow dive right under the hull.

The waters we were privileged to explore are sometimes labelled the Serengeti Plains of the world's ocean because of both the sheer numbers and diversity of marine life. On this day, surely, I would say that such a label can be no exaggeration.

Stubbs Island Whale Watching, www.stubbs-island.com, offers extraordinary educational day excursions from mid-May to mid-October and multi-day all-inclusive tour packages in September that reflect 30 years of commitment to preservation and a deep understanding of the marine environment and wildlife on Canada's Pacific Coast. Promising to fill all spaces for the high season in August each year, the company's small-group Orcella Expeditions, fully hosted by owners Jim and Mary Borrowman, features five days of total immersion in a rare pristine oceanic world, together with six nights ashore enjoying the comforts of Telegraph Cove's historic accommodations. Non-stop gourmet cuisine from Mary's kitchen starts each day with a hearty homemade breakfast and ends with naturalist-led educational discussions and slideshows. CAD$2,475 per person. This expedition tour fills quickly!

Telegraph Cove Resorts, www.telegraphcoveresort.com, offers a variety of character accommodations, from rooms to multi-person cabins. It also runs a 120 space full-service campground secluded above the cove, 140 marina berths, a fine wharf-side restaurant and pub, and a traditional general store.

While visiting Telegraph Cove, consider trying some ocean kayaking among the protected islands and inlets of the Blackfish Archipelago and Johnstone Strait, or a full-day grizzly bear watching trip across the channel to Knight Inlet where sightings are abundant, especially during the Fall salmon migration. Though I seldom mention shopping, the Stubbs Island gift shop at the wharf entrance has chosen a dedicated marine mammal focus that is quite exceptional, full of intriguing possibilities from books and posters to all manner of clothing, china, sculpture and jewellery. Further along the wharf in a spacious new building, a fine inter-active marine mammal museum contains impressive full-size skeletons of specimens as well as many other displays in this growing collection.

Telegraph Cove is accessible by plane, ferry, car and bus from Seattle or Vancouver. For planning details, consult Tourism Vancouver Island, www.vancouverisland.travel, the premier Vancouver Island resource for visitors. For the fifth year in a row, readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine have selected Vancouver Island as the Best Island, North America. They are on the right track!
Photo: Stubbs Island Whale Watching

Considering a vacation on Vancouver Island? National Car & Truck Rental has locations in Victoria, Duncan, Nanaimo, Courtenay/Comox, Campbell River & Port Hardy with one ways available. National carries a fleet of compact to full size cars, convertibles, minivans, SUV's, 4x4's, 15 passenger vans and trucks. www.nationalvictoria.com

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine.
Email: alison@travelwithachallenge.com

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