Pacific Rim Whale Festival
|A Humpback Whale breeches out of the waters of the Pacific Rim Region, Vancouver Island|
The longstanding human fascination with whales is so widespread and deep-seated that it's an object of fascination itself. What is this abiding fondness and admiration for creatures 50 times our size, adept inhabitants of the ancestral home of all earthly life, singers of great symphonies and 20-ton acrobats?
One need only travel to the West Coast of Vancouver Island to observe both phenomena—the annual northbound migration of grey whales from Mexico to Alaska, and the annual westward migration of humans who strive mightily to catch a glimpse of these evocative beings.
It’s easy to sight both types of migrants. The latter, the whale people, line the shores from Sooke to Port Renfrew, and from Ucluelet to Tofino, watching for the telltale column of mist rising that signifies a spout, or the flash of tail the great whales make when diving. Or they board boats that cruise the offshore waters every day, seeking closer approach to earth’s largest living animals as they ply the Pacific steadily north. There’s even a festival devoted to them, the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, which takes place in Tofino, Pacific Rim National Park and Ucluelet each year in late March. It’s named for the whales, but it is a decidedly human affair. More on that in a minute.
As for the whales… They are simply doing what they’ve done for thousands of years, traversing the earth in passages whose measures and accomplishments still astound scientists, not to mention the rest of us. California grey whales, the marvelous oceangoing mammals most numerous along Canada’s Pacific coast, conduct two astounding annual migrations, south to north from March to May, and then back again in fall. They travel as much as 10,000 kilometers, from warm winter waters along Mexico’s Baja California, to food-rich, cooler shore waters in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. They feed and fatten up north, then return all the way south to Baja to mate and bear young, relying largely on the blubber they have built up while up north to get them through the winter months down south.
Their passage along our coast is a majestic natural procession, with as many as 25,000 whales migrating each summer and fall. That many individuals makes a sighting a pretty common occurrence in late March and early April, from Washington state up to southeast Alaska, for both shore-watchers and those who take boat trips to see the whales. And these sightings represent not just a marvel of nature, but a key achievement of the conservation movement of the 20th century.
Once numbering up to 100,000 in the eastern Pacific, grey whales were hunted very near extinction in the 19th century, valued not only for their blubber but for their baleen—long, flexible straining “teeth” that greys use to sift the bottom sediment of their feeding grounds, gathering up small shrimp-like creatures by the millions. Baleen was used to make whalebone corsets, without which no proper Victorian lady would have left her house.
Whale hunting was first restricted by international treaty after World War II, and the grey whale was later further protected by US, Canadian and Mexican law. Their numbers rebounded dramatically, from a low of just a few thousand to 23,000 in 1994, and they were removed from endangered species lists. Today they are among the world’s most “popular” animals, with a whale sighting high on the list for many travelers.
Greys are not the only whales along our coast. We share our waters with blue whales, minke whales, sperm whales and fin whales, though in lesser numbers than greys. And we also welcome humpbacks, cetaceans that make a journey similar to greys, though their breeding grounds are off the Hawaiian Islands. These storied animals, perhaps the most charismatic of all wild creatures, are both athletes and musicians. Their acrobatic breaches and dives—tails flipped straight up in a signature show—belie their great size, which is slightly smaller than greys but still huge, up to 16 meters. Their famous song, an unearthly concerto of low tones that lasts 10-20 minutes, is produced not by vocal cords but by forcing air through their nasal cavities—making them marine tubas, in a way. Scientists debate the purpose of the song, but lay people who hear it are sure it is a celebration of life in the sea. Song or no, the graceful way humpbacks move through the sea is a symphony of movement.
Compelling to hear, the humpback song also demonstrates a remarkable cohesion within the community—all the whales in the eastern Pacific sing the same song. Unless a boat is equipped with underwater microphones, visitors don’t hear the song of the humpback—but lucky tourists may get to witness an equally astounding phenomenon, “bubble netting,” in which a small group of humpbacks uses bubbles from emitted breath to shape “nets” in the water that drive food fish into a small circle near the surface for feeding. Seeing such an event is a world-class pinnacle of wildlife watching, and is occasionally experienced by visitors to our West Coast’s sounds and inlets.
Meanwhile, orcas, the legendary hunters and marine athletes whose leaps make them the dancers of the seas, are found in both inland and offshore Vancouver Island waters year-round. Though they are known as killer whales, they are not actually whales but the biggest dolphins in the world.
The Whale Festival celebrates all these wonderful beings with events ranging from lectures to hikes to breakfasts to craft markets and a rubber fish race, our version of a rubber ducky contest. More than 90 events take place during the festival’s nine-day span, all the while the objects of our admiration are traveling peacefully past, easily seen from many places onshore or in tour boats.
For more information visit www.pacificrimwhalefestival.com; better yet, visit Tofino or Ucluelet and join the growing clan of whale people.
For more on Wiildlife Viewing in the Vancouver Island Region, check out the video at the bottom of the newsletter!
The Alberni Valley, Vancouver Island
|The view of Mt. Arrowsmith from Argyle Street, a main thoroughfare in Port Alberni|
In many ways Port Alberni inhabits the two halves of Vancouver Island simultaneously—thus enjoying the virtues of both. Tucked into the end of a long fjord leading to the open Pacific, it’s technically and geographically part of the “West Coast,” with open ocean just a boat ride away, and such coastal denizens as Sitka spruce more common here than on the east side. But its location behind towering mountains shields it from the direct climatic effects of ocean proximity, and it is thus warmer, sunnier and drier than locales only 30 kilometers farther west.
Thus the Alberni Valley offers:
- Vineyards and estate wineries—two, in fact, growing cool climate grapes along south-facing slopes and pressing varietals such as gewurtztraminer, chardonnay and pinot gris, as well as blends unique to the valley.
- Year-round golf courses—there are two of these, one an 18-hole championship layout, the other a very affordable executive course with three par-4s supplementing the remaining 6 par-3s.
- A lakeside provincial park, Sproat Lake, with excellent facilities for swimming, water skiing, windsurfing and other water sports.
In addition, all the usual West Coast activities are available, from ocean salmon and halibut fishing to simply watching salmon make their spawning runs each fall at Stamp Falls Provincial Park.
A compact urban area of about 25,000, the Alberni Valley has a long tradition as a logging center. One of the key attractions is the historic McLean Mill, the only place in Canada visitors can watch a steam-operated saw cut timber. Most visitors reach the mill by riding the Alberni Pacific Railway, a historic line along which a lovingly restored 1929 locomotive now pulls passenger cars on what was once a major forest products conduit.
Heritage preservation is a strong element in the Alberni Valley. A refurbished lighthouse holds the city’s Maritime Discovery Centre, devoted to the area’s shipping and boating history. A restored 1936 movie theatre, the Capitol, is now the community’s main performing arts venue. The Alberni Valley Museum offers extensive collections devoted to Nuu-chah-nulth art and culture such as vividly colored masks, as well as exhibits detailing the valley’s industrial past.
And “port” is more than a historic term here. The city’s wharves are still active shipping points for timber, and Alberni is the departure point for the famous MV Frances Barkley, the “mail boat” that sails the waters of the West Coast to bring supplies and visitors to its various stop-offs in Barkley Sound, including the Broken Group Islands so popular with wilderness kayakers. But one need not be a wilderness expert to enjoy Port Alberni.
With sunshine, vineyards, a mild climate and a memorable setting, it’s one of our Island’s finest secrets—a place where visitors can truly enjoy the best of two worlds.
For more information, please visit www.vancouverisland.travel/regions/pacific-rim
Tree Top Adventures in the Vancouver Island Region
|A bungy jumper thrills at the experience of the wet dunk into the Nanaimo River|
Anyone who’s ever watched a Tarzan movie has encountered the visceral appeal of treetop adventure. But adventure parks such as Vancouver Island’s zip line, bungy and treetops experience venues still suffer from popular misconceptions, most prominent of which is that the thrill derives from danger. Not at all.
Whether it’s riding a zip line, plunging into a canyon on a bungy cord, or simply “playing” on Monkido elements in the forest canopy, the “danger” is perceived rather than real. All these activities are exceptionally safe—more so than most common outdoor sports such as bike riding, skiing and wilderness trekking.
Why? Simple: At Adrena Line and the Island’s two WildPlay parks, every activity takes place with elaborate safeguards that have been proven reliable through years of testing and widespread use, not only here but by paragliders, mountain climbers and adventurers around the world. Harnesses and cables are much, much stronger than necessary for safety, are inspected regularly, and park staffers are trained to emphasize safe “play” above all. At Nanaimo’s WildPlay bungy jump, one of the world’s longest running such venues, more than 200,000 people have safely taken the plunge
So, if it’s perfectly safe, what’s the big deal? First is the thrill garnered from facing and overcoming an atavistic fear—your brain may “know” that it’s safe to plunge 150 feet into a river canyon, or ride a 1,000-foot cable through the forest canopy, but the human brainstem still reacts viscerally to the exposure and the fall. That’s why similar activities known as rope courses, involving exposure to heights while participants are thoroughly belayed, are used by human potential trainers to teach the difference between real and perceived risk. Understanding that difference, goes the theory, may enable you to overcome other fears, enter American Idol, say, and become the next global singing sensation.
At Adrena Line and WildPlay, the second half of this memorable equation is provided by the refreshing natural environment—the rushing Nanaimo River, the fir-and hemlock forest, the Island mountains that form the backdrop, the nearby glint of sapphire waters and the impeccably clean air that rolls in off the Pacific. Eagles call from the sky, salmon flash in the waters, the spicy scent of coastal conifers fills the air. At Adrena Line, near Sooke, night-time rides—sometimes lit by the full moon—add a whole other element to the aesthetic experience. All three parks are designed and engineered so that visitors not only experience Vancouver Island’s marvelous natural environment, they learn to appreciate it more.
And the experience is not necessarily a quick plunge—treetops adventures such as Monkido can take more than two hours. Visitors to Adrena Line first ride an ATV up to the zip course summit, then proceed back down on eight separate zip lines, plus two suspension bridges.
Zip lining, bungy jumping and treetops adventure are exhilarating in many ways. But, dangerous… ? Nope. So grab some gloves and get yourself airborne.
For more information please visit www.vancouverislandoutdoor.com.
Alberni Valley Activities
- Cathedral Grove
- McLean Mill National Historic Site
- Chase & Warren Estate Winery
- Steam Train Station
- Stamp Falls Provincial Park
- Alberni Valley Museum
- Sproat Falls Fish Ladder
- Sproat Lake to watch the Coulson Flying Tankers
- Roger Creek Walking Trail
|Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island|
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