Vancouver Islanders have a name for the few weeks in late summer when whales can be spotted from ships close to shore: ‘humpback soup’. Like a pot on the boil, the sea churns over this period with heaving, grey muscle, all popping and roiling and slapping the surface with barnacle-crusted flukes, so close you can hear the wind-tunnel roar of air being sucked wetly into gargantuan lungs.
Whale-watching — normally a sedate activity — practically becomes an adrenaline sport, involving many unsteady sprints from port to starboard and back again for a triumphant glimpse of a tail fin or a gut punch of lingering spray.
Cetacean-spotting here offers rich pickings, but the Johnstone Strait — a narrow and, on the surface, completely unremarkable channel cleaving the northeast shore of Vancouver Island from craggy mainland British Columbia — is particularly notable for its high number of humpback sightings. But myriad other species call these shores home, among them galumphing, salt-crusted grizzlies, skulking black bears and rare fish-eating sea wolves, as well as porpoises, dolphins and cougars. Bald eagles also perch imperiously on the island’s coniferous fringes, their white heads starkly contrasting with the green, feathery fronds.
For Canadian wildlife, there are few better places — and for orca, there are few better places in the world. There are three kinds that ply the waters here: the vocal ‘residents’, which feast on the salmon that wash silvery life into the waterways every summer; the ‘transients’ — seal-eating, sneaky and wolf-like in their ‘pack’ behaviour, and silent unless celebrating a meal; and the elusive and mysterious ‘offshores’, which ply deeper waters and are rarely seen.
The only way in or out of this maze of waterways is by seaplane — a wide-angled, often wide-eyed perspective that misses the finer details — or by boat. On a small-ship cruise, those finer details — and the essence of what this stretch of coast is about — come into focus: the cathedral-like hush beneath the rainforest canopy, the heavy scent of sap hanging like incense in the air; the sound of beachcombing grizzly bears crunching mussels like breakfast cereal; the briny tang of nibbled samphire, plucked fresh from the intertidal zone from aboard a rigid inflatable boat. And the sight of a mighty black fin — not glimpsed from above but at eye level — cleaving the waves just beyond the bow.
The journey always begins in Port McNeill, a picturesque community overlooking the water on Vancouver Island’s northeast coast, and from there days are flexible and easygoing, taking the ship wherever the wind and the wildlife sightings lead; time seems to slow, dictated by the turning of the tides. Occasionally, if weather conditions allow, the mighty sails can be unfurled and the engine can be switched off, so the only sounds are the puffing blows of cruising whales and the washing of the waves over the bow.
From the Johnstone Strait, pit stops include West Cracroft Island, where the Pig Ranch Trail is popular for its mighty cedars, which troop like evergreen giants towards the shallows to meet the fiery orange seaweed; the sandy banks of the Otter River, which are crisscrossed with wolf tracks; and Knight Inlet, a lagoon of aquamarine water occasionally traversed by families of swimming bears. This labyrinth of islands is at the centre of a rich natural world, in a place where gradually all lingering thoughts of modern life drift away with the tides.
Bluewater Adventures has a seven-day Northern Vancouver Island itinerary from $4,620 (£2,738), full board, aboard the Island Odyssey or Island Solitude.
This story was created with the support of Bluewater Adventures and Destination British Columbia.