Wild Vancouver Island

Tobias Nowlan had some close encounters of the natural kind during his recent visit to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Just as it looked like the plane would perch on a Rocky Mountain peak, it dove into the coastal metropolis of Vancouver. I had arrived in British Columbia to visit Vancouver Island, lured by whales and wolves.

Beginning in popular fishing town of Tofino, I set out with whale-watching company Remote Passages. In sheltered coves, I watched grey whales raking the sand and kelp with their baleen plates. Tofino is a pit-stop along the largest migration of these impressive creatures; this coastline provides vital nourishment en route.

Sea otters, having tied themselves in knots of kelp, floated past islands of bare rock which hummed with breeding Brandt’s cormorants, auklets, tufted puffins and a posse of visiting pelicans. Once on the edge of total extinction thanks to an unending desire for their pelts, sea otters are now widespread along the BC coast. I saw ten on this trip. The boat also approached a thrush-sized seabird bobbing on the surface: the marbled murrelet. In summer plumage these micro-mariners are a mottled dark chocolate brown. Researchers were astonished to discover as late as the sixties that the murrelets breed in the canopy of old growth coastal rain forest. Widespread clear-cutting of this ancient habitat has subsequently seen drastic declines in marbled murrelet populations.

After Tofino, I journeyed along the coast 40 km farther south to Ucluelet, a great destination for hiking, bordered by the Wild Pacific Trail. I set off from the hostel one morning and, following the map, crossed a sprawling suburban estate and suddenly found myself on the WPT in the middle of the thick red cedar rain forest. After several hundred meters I looked up at the path ahead, seeing what appeared to be a large German shepherd trotting in the same direction I was. Then it kicked in — I’d seen a wolf!

I chased it; I wanted better views of the beast. The animal picked up its pace and of course easily outran me, so I sat in wait on the side of the track. Within ten minutes the wolf began to howl, and for several minutes, drawn-out, mournful phrases resounded from deep within the tangled greenery.

Following this, another wolf appeared 15 meters in front of me and paused to howl in response. For several minutes, the wolves performed a duet, whimpering as my terrier would in-between howls. The canid was beautiful; the backs of its ears and fronts of its legs were dusted with cinnamon. Its eyes were deep amber and its tail large and creamy with a jagged dark line cutting across it. The wolf before me then made for the thickness of the cedar forest, presumably heading after its counterpart.

The Vancouver Island wolf is an endangered subspecies with fewer than 150 remaining alive. Widespread clear-cutting of old growth rain forest has reduced the wolves’ primary prey base; the Columbian black-tailed deer. As a result the canids have had little choice but to approach livestock for an easy meal. The call for culling of wolves on the island is thus growing.

After several placid days in Ucluelet, I headed south again to the island’s main settlement, Victoria. The whale-watching industry dominates the town, and Victoria is currently the talk of the whale-watching world due to new observations: a mother and calf resident orca moving rapidly through the Sound. This was the first time any of the guides had observed small groups of resident orcas (fish-eating whales, as opposed to transient orcas which dine on mammals) separate from their pod. It was suggested that a crash in the local Chinook salmon population, their primary food base, was to blame for these social changes. Others postulated that the whales simply got cut off from the main pod and had yet to reunite.
 
Our Zodiac headed to Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, locally nicknamed as “pinniped rocks”

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due to high densities of several seal species. I was ecstatic to see what I think is the mightiest pinniped of all; the northern elephant seal. By the end of the 19th century after extensive hunting there were probably fewer than 200 alive. Now the species serves as a classic conservation success story, with over 100,000 roaming the North Pacific. Two three-meter-long males and several, much smaller, females were hauled up on the steepest of rocks. The peace was stirred by a young male who emerged from the kelp and continued to drag himself over the sleeping giants.

Vancouver Island has been a stage for conservation disaster and mighty success.

While the future of the Vancouver Island wolf looks bleak, and that of the marbled murrelet uncertain, the stories of the elephant seal and the sea otter are living proof that declines can be reversed. On Vancouver Island, you can encounter such iconic species, each with a unique and dynamic history.

Photos by Tobias Nowlan

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