Eco Adventure in Orca Country

There’s no carbon footprint left by the human steam powering a kayak paddle through the clean, calm waters of the Johnstone Strait. Port McNeill, in Vancouver Island’s North, is the starting point for a sea kayaking journey with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures to Hanson Island. The island is directly across from the tiny coastal community of Telegraph Cove, facing the islets of the Broughton Archipelago to the north, with the Robson Bight (Michael Biggs) Ecological Reserve about 20 km to the east.

This is orca country. It’s where researcher Dr. Paul Spong began studying whales in 1970, eventually conducting experiments setting up hydrophones and underwater cameras to relay live sights and sounds of orcas in their natural environment from his website. The area is home to over 200 northern resident orcas that return here each summer to feed on migrating salmon and to rub on the smooth pebble beaches in Robson Bight, created as a sanctuary for the whales. All boat traffic is restricted here. In addition to the orcas, humpback whales, Minke whales, Steller sea lions, harbour seals, Dall’s porpoises and white side dolphins are often seen in these pristine and protected waters.

Multi-day kayaking treks focus on wildlife

KIngfisher Kayak Adventures
KIngfisher Kayak Adventures

The waters around the ecological reserve’s buffer zone offer extraordinary whale-watching, which Andrew Jones, owner of Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures, says results in about a 95 percent success rate seeing orcas from July to the end of September on their multi-day trips. He calls it “the best place in the world to see orcas.’’

Kingfisher’s multi-day kayaking trips begin with a brief water taxi ride from Port McNeill to Hanson Island, and typically last four days with each day starting and ending at a comfortable base camp of roomy tents set up on platforms. This is roughing it with luxuries thrown in, like a heated shower and a covered kitchen-dining room, where a typical meal might include poached fresh halibut with baby potatoes and asparagus. A beachside sauna is heated with hot rocks from the evening campfire.

There is no logging on the island, and it is traditional territory of three local First Nation bands. Jones says there are an estimated 3,000 culturally modified trees on the island; some can be traced back hundreds of years to when First Nations people used wood, bark and branches in everything from clothing and twine to ceremonial masks and dugout canoes. Many of these traditional practices are still in use today.

The guided group paddles to a different locale each day on the north and south shores of Hanson Island and at Cormorant Channel Marine Provincial Park. “Wildlife is the focus,’’ says Jones, who notes it’s common to see well over 100 Stellar sea lions in late summer in addition to orcas, humpback whales and sea birds.

To minimize impact on the orcas and other marine mammals, kayakers and whale-watching boats respectfully observe a 100-metre buffer zone between them and the animals. In addition to viewing orcas and wildlife from their kayaks, guests often enjoy the added advantage of watching whales swim past as they enjoy dinner around the campfire at the base camp.

Daily whale watching cruises run in summer

Stubbs Island Whale Watching
Stubbs Island Whale Watching

Kayaking is just one way to see whales in Vancouver Island North. Stubbs Island Whale Watching, the first whale watching company in BC, has been operated out of Telegraph Cove by Jim and Mary Borrowman since 1980. Daily whale-watching cruises run from May to mid-September, with select October cruise dates. Two heated and covered Coast Guard-certified vessels take guests on 3.5 hour cruises to the Blackfish Archipelago where resident and migrating orcas, humpback and Minke whales, seals, dolphins, porpoises and sea lions are regularly spotted in abundance.

Stubbs Island Whale Watching cruises are conducted in English or German, hosted by biologists or naturalists, and are equipped with hydrophones to hear the whales’ haunting calls. Stubbs lists a 90 percent success rate in sighting whales. On its website, the company posts a table on how to reduce stresses on whales, including a “summary table of actions’’ to reduce chemicals and pollutants in the environment.

Bear watching with Great Bear Lodge
Great Bear Lodge

Sustainable adventure in the Great Bear Rainforest

In spring, summer and fall, Great Bear Nature Tours picks up guests from Port Hardy’s seaplane base and takes them on an hour’s flight to the Great Bear Lodge in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, home to large numbers of coastal grizzly bears. On tours of between two to seven days, twice daily bear viewing sessions are guided by a wildlife biologist. Guests also enjoy natural history presentations and slide shows, interpretive rainforest walks, guided hiking and kayaking, and “wilderness-gourmet meals’’ served in the spectacular setting of a coastal temperate rainforest.

Nimmo Bay Resort - Eco Adventure
Nimmo Bay Resort

Craig Murray, owner of Nimmo Bay Resort on McKenzie Sound, operates what he calls “a helicopter wilderness adventure resort.’’ While helicopter fishing is the main activity at Nimmo Bay, this is strictly catch-and-release fly or spin fishing using single barbless hooks. Murray is a founding member of the BC Sustainable Tourism Collective and takes seriously the stewardship of what he calls this “awesome eco-system.’’ In conjunction with fishing, Nimmo Bay also arranges heli-hiking, rafting, kayaking, beachcombing and glacier-trekking. Accommodations include intertidal and stream-side chalets and the floating main lodge where professional chefs serve high-end, heart healthy meals. Prime fishing season is from mid-July to the end of October, with some steelhead excursions available between January and May and August to October.

Port Hardy eco-lodge sets bar high

Ecoscape Cabins
Ecoscape Cabins

For hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts using Port Hardy as a gateway to Cape Scott Provincial Park, the North Coast Trail and other Vancouver Island North adventure playgrounds, the town’s newest eco-friendly accommodation can be found at Ecoscape Cabins on Jensen Cove Road. Husband and wife team Dan Zimmerman and Donna Harvie have used environmentally friendly building materials, including salvaged timber, low-energy appliances and landscaping with native plants to create a beautiful hilltop retreat true to their ideals of sustainability.\

Original story By Kathy Eccles