Northern Vancouver Island and the mighty Orcas

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This year after our Mount Hood, Oregon family-related holiday, Ann and I took off for the wilds of Northern Vancouver Island, which included the blue, Inside-Passage waters of the Johnstone and Queen Charlotte Straits. The Pacific Ocean feeds its waters. It’s the most western part of the country, and, despite what President Donald Trump insinuates, Canada is still our friendly neighbor to the North.

We started our journey on August 2nd with a jet-airplane flight from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, Canada. Then, we got into a twin-engine plane to get to Port Hardy – only about one hour and 290 miles away, on northeast Vancouver Island. We then hopped a shuttle taxi to Port McNeill. It was a 40-minute ride along a two-lane highway, full of green woods on both sides of the road. No stop signs or red lights to deal with on this part of our journey.

Dolphins racing along side the boat

The driver, a long-time resident, filled us in on what to expect in Port McNeill. “We are now in the heart of timber country,” she said. We found out that McNeill was originally a base camp for loggers. The town also has a charming museum documenting its early days.

Our trip brochure revealed that this area is the largest one containing “a pristine old-growth coastal forest in North America.” It is a full-time job, it continued for conservationists to “protect this remaining wilderness. Wales, bears, and salmon require this wilderness to flourish. The forest industry, however, wants to log the old-growth areas.” The battle to preserve these precious declining resources continues unabated.

We stayed overnight in Port McNeill in a motel close to the docks. The next morning, August 3rd, we embarked on our exciting one-week tour. We met the captain of our vessel, the “S/V Island Reporter” a 68’ sailing/power/boat vessel, and the other ten passengers.

The captain, a young, very competent and charming individual, who was clearly a “safety-first” kind of seaman, introduced us to the three members of his crew; one of whom was the cook,(and a darn good one she turned out to be). Another one was an avid “naturalist,” with a keen interest and deep knowledge of the Orcas (the killer whales), and the final crew member assisted the captain with just about everything else that needed to be done.

Orcas of Northern Vancouver Island

The naturalist, a soft-spoken, erudite fellow, also shared his knowledge about the grizzly bears, the salmon, the old growth forests, seabirds and eagles, and of the culture and traditions of the native peoples – the Kwakwakas. Every day with him was like being in a natural history class! Simply delightful!

It didn’t take long for us to sight our first group of Orcas. They were located by our skipper swimming off our port bow about 200 feet away. The orcas are the oceans’ greatest predator and they usually swim in a team. I found it a little hard to get a good photo of them. They are moving very fast, and so is our boat. But, I did, after many failed efforts, get off some decent shots of them.

As our naturalist pointed out, that the killer whales faced, up until the late 60s, an abundance of “human violence.” In fact, in the areas where we were traveling, the local fishery department once hunted them down and killed them with a (double gasp) machine gun! Mercifully, people’s perception of the Orcas has changed radically over the years for the better. To learn more about the Orca species, and the preservations efforts, go to:

Besides the Orcas, who are forever foraging for salmon just about every day, we saw schools of humpback whales and Dall porpoises. The porpoises liked to swim, too, alongside our boat as though they were racing us.

Feasting on the salmon

If you like sea kayaking, this is the trip for you. Every day, the opportunity was presented to explore the protected waters of the Inside Passage. Even on some mornings where the fog was kind of dense, some of the passengers indulged in their favorite water sport.

The bird life on the waters and coastline was simply amazing. One morning, I spotted a huge flock of birds of every description: eagles, swans, ducks, and mallards feeding off the salmon.

On board our vessel, I also got a view of some our winged friends, smaller sized, enjoying a respite from all of the frenzied sea action.

Along an inlet, known as “Knight Inlet,” a brown grizzly bear, probably a cub, chose to make an appearance walking slowly along the coast. This is one of the best places for the bears to fish for salmon.

We did get a chance on this trip to visit an abandoned Native American village – Minquimlees. When we explored it, we found fallen totem poles and evidence of a once rich heritage. This village also was located in Knight Inlet.

Brown Grizzly Bear

Malcom Island, 14 miles long, was also on our itinerary and its main town of Sointula. The town is steeped in history. It was the base for a “group of Finnish immigrants who wanted to set up a utopian society” around the end of the 19th century. The idea couldn’t be sustained. There is a museum in town which tells their amazing story.

A journey like the one we took wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Native American museum, such as the “U’Mista Cultural Centre.” It housed a collection of marvelous potlatch masks. This facility was found in the modern Kwakwaka community of Alert Bay.

I can’t tell you how many beautiful sunsets I encountered along the way.

On August 9, we headed back to Port McNeill. Our seven-day odyssey was complete. I’m giving “Bluewater Adventures,” the sponsor of our fulfilling, captivating excursion, five stars, and the highest recommendation.

More of my photos can be found on my Facebook page.

Photos by Bill Hughes