They are called leviathans of the deep. In the chronicles and legends of human history, biblical figures are swallowed by them, whaling ships smacked to splinters, fictional titans obsessed by them. They course the seas indifferent to typhoons, and sing magnificent symphonies that haunt all who listen beneath the surface of our mother oceans. Whales are made mighty in lore and literature, and rightly so—they are among Earth's most majestic creatures, easily the most massive animals of all. The biggest blue whales may reach over 100 feet in length and 200 tons in weight, making them the largest animals ever to have inhabited our planet. Yes, bigger than dinosaurs.
Yet the whales that travel the Vancouver Island coastline are best described by a word that conveys an entirely different aspect aside from sheer size: graceful. Usually we barely see them, the greys, humpbacks, orcas and other cetaceans which are our transitory neighbors. Our sightings may consist of fragmentary glimpses as they arch their backs while diving, a maneuver as delicate as a ballerina’s twirl. If we’re very lucky, they’ll be especially active and leap out of the water, an impressive accomplishment when you consider how big they are and which direction gravity pulls. Most often, a telltale spout of mist flags their passage just beneath the surface as they poke their heads up to breathe.
The latter is also the signal for the intersection where we meet, we two species that dominate the planet. It’s one of the most-sought sights for visitors and residents on Vancouver Island—a key facet of both nature and recreation here. Whales pass by as part of their life work; we seek to see them as part of our search for understanding of this planet we share. When you think about it, isn’t that part of our life work, too?
Thus we head out in boats (or watch from high spots on shore) on all the Island’s coasts in search of these creatures. While there are dozens of different cetaceans found in our near-shore North Pacific waters, ranging from dolphins to orcas to the occasional blue whale, the most common large members of the family are grey whales, and the fact they are so common now represents the climax of a most heartening environmental recovery story.
Not long ago greys were in deep danger, having dwindled under hunting pressure from perhaps more than 100,000 on Earth to just a few thousand in the Pacific. A North Atlantic race of greys was extinguished in the 18th century; a western Pacific population found near Korea reached perilous lows and still has only 150 members. The eastern Pacific race, known as the California grey, seemed headed for similar disappearance until it was given protected status by international agreement in the 1930s. From that point it made an astounding recovery, now numbering 25,000, and was removed from the endangered species list in 1994—one of the very first success stories in environmental restoration.
It’s marvelous to see any species in peril come back from the brink. And if one were to hope for the most appealing animal possible to be the stars of such a story, it would be whales, especially the whales we share our coast with. Greys, humpbacks and orcas all spend their lives as members of extended families (pods), traveling as groups, raising their young and feeding, communicating with each using elaborate languages scientists are just starting to grasp. Humpbacks and orcas are known for their incredible acrobatics, occasionally leaping entirely out of the water, quite an accomplishment for animals so large. And humpbacks are famed for their “songs,” ethereal melodies that carry for miles underwater, that seem to have as much cultural importance to the whales as music does to us, and are mysteriously and abruptly changed every few years.
But it’s the greys that are most numerous, and in some ways most memorable.
Greys reach up to 50 feet and 40 tons—half the size of blues, but impressive nonetheless when you’re up close. Astoundingly, they achieve that size by straining vast amounts of small marine life from the nutrient-rich bottoms of bays and inlets along the North Pacific and Arctic coasts. “Benthic organisms” is the term for the tiny creatures they consume, gulping in mouthfuls of sludge and straining it through filters made of baleen. That’s a fingernail-like substance that substitutes for teeth; baleen was critical to the ladies corset industry in the 19th century, and formed an essential component of the European economy.
Today they are most valuable as objects of wonder for human admirers who look for them close enough to notice the large collections of barnacles that somehow manage to latch on to their thick hides. That’s an experience eminently possible along the outer coast of our Island, especially in spring and fall as they pass by on their way north to summer feeding grounds in northern British Columbia and Alaska; then south to their winter home around Baja California. Each year the greys travel more than 12,000 miles round-trip to complete their migration. That’s one of the longest such journeys made by any animal. Looking into their eyes, you may wonder whether they are not perhaps as intelligent as any other living creature. It’s tempting to jest that any sensible being would head south for the winter, but the journey of the greys is more than a vacation. Mexico is where they bear their young, in protected warm lagoons.
Modern civilization celebrates things that range from frivolous to memorable. Here on Vancouver Island, surrounded by Pacific waters as we are, we celebrate the natural world every day we set foot outside, since we inhabit a land rich in earthly wonder. Ancient trees, soaring birds, tumbling streams, snowy peaks and the greatest ocean—all are the gifts of our land.
But we do offer special attention to these marine marvels that frolic just off our shores. And frolic it is: Soaring into the air, diving to the depths, nosing up to breathe and creasing the indigo swells of the North Pacific, it’s easy to conclude that whales enjoy their lives as much as we do watching them.
Formal celebrations of whales take place every spring, in March, in the West Coast communities they pass by most closely. The Pacific Rim Whale Festival takes place this year March 14-22 in Tofino, Ucluelet and at Pacific Rim National Park, and includes art shows, photo contests, film showings, dinners and presentations from whale experts. This year that includes John Ford of the Vancouver Aquarium, one of the world’s pre-eminent cetacean experts, who will present an overview of the history and conservation status of North Pacific whales.
Of course, local tour operators will be mounting excursions to see whales—book now, as the tours fill up rapidly. And that’s just when the greys will be passing by, heading north in time with the sun’s rise from its winter lows.
It’s worth reflecting that, however large and diverse the earthen portion of our planet is—and however much the human race has managed to settle it, mark it and turn it to our own use—whales dominate a much larger share. The Earth’s oceans comprise more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface and more than 99 percent of its living space. Mount Everest may be 29,000 feet above sea level, but the Mariana Trench reaches below 36,000 feet.
And in that immense space, 25,000 of its most magnificent creatures pass by our shores twice a year, in plain view for all to see. That’s a miracle, and we should celebrate it.
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Who needs another holiday? Why, everyone.
That's the basic idea behind Family Day, the new statutory holiday in British Columbia, set for the second Monday in February each year in B.C. The new holiday gives us 12 such every year, this being the second in February, and the idea has an unassailable purpose—encouraging families to spend more time together doing this.
But what’s to do on the Island in February? Plenty:
- Go skiing at Mount Washington, mid-Island near Comox. Unlike last year the weather looks like it will bring consistent snow to coastal resorts along the North Pacific; Washington has been receiving regular stashes of snow. While the mountain offers terrain for skiers of all abilities, it is especially good for families, with excellent and extensive beginner and intermediate runs, and a vast network of beautiful Nordic trails adjacent to the resort stretching into Strathcona Provincial Park.
- Visit Ganges, Salt Spring Island’s main town. With a wonderfully walkable town center right on the waterfront, and a grand collection of intriguing shops, cafes and restaurants, it’s a great day trip destination just a 25-minute ferry ride from Swartz Bay, followed by a scenic half-hour drive across the island.
- Spend the afternoon at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney. Though it’s compact, this cleverly designed aquarium provides a comprehensive view into the sea life of the Salish Sea that lies just outside the door. Up the street are a half dozen marvelous bookstores—yes, one is devoted to children’s books. Old and new, rare and mainstream, there are books for everyone here.
- Stroll Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. Though it’s only February, this park’s vast collection of rhododendrons and azaleas will start to bloom by early February, and it’s a great place to celebrate the fact the Island climate is temperate (mild) maritime.
- Follow the Nanaimo Bar trail in this popular dessert’s namesake city. A couple dozen confectioners, cafes and bakeries offer different versions of this famous treat, and all are worth sampling. Peanut butter, cranberry and deep fried (yes, really) versions are supplemented by a Nanaimo bar martini, a milkshake, a cupcake, and last but not least, a cheesecake.
- Visit one of the many provincial parks on the Island that are centred on a waterfall, such as Little Qualicum Falls, Englishman River Falls and Elk Falls. Rivers are usually running high enough for the falls to be impressive, and wandering the forest trails in the parks is a much more interesting experience during winter rains—which are, after all, the reason for our rainforests in the first place.
- Visit the World Parrot Refuge in Coombs. This evocative facility holds over 950 previously-owned pet parrots, parakeets and other tropical birds, all of them personable and fun to get to know.
There are infinitely more options. The point of the day is to get out and do something as a family, and Vancouver Island is one of the very best places on Earth to do so.
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