Heading north out of Nanaimo meant leaving most of the civilization behind. As the roads narrowed to a single lane in each direction, we entered the upper third of unspoiled Vancouver Island North. Our destination was Telegraph Cove, a small village on the water surrounded by forest.
This little hamlet has only 20 hearty year-round residents, but it gets crazy-busy during the summer months as over 100,000 visitors flood in. Fortunately our stay was near the end of the season, and things were starting to slow down a bit.
Famous for its ecotourism, Telegraph Cove was originally a one-room telegraph shack for loggers, fishermen, and pioneers only 50 years ago. Soon thereafter it grew bigger when a lumber mill, salmon saltery, school and general store were built.
By the late 1970’s the sawmill and saltery gave way to the era of marine tourism, and a family called the Grahams established the current campground and marina. Over the past 40 years the original buildings have been painstakingly restored, bringing the former sawmill town back to life.
The history here is embodied in the restored wooden buildings. Due to the steep banks of the cove and a lack of shoreline, most structures were built on stilts and raised above the water on pilings linked by a wooden boardwalk. The restored and colorfully painted clusters of buildings are now part of Telegraph Cove Resorts, which includes a lodge, restaurant, pub, general store and a couple of tour operators.
An informative plaque in front of each building (which we discovered are now rented lodgings) describes previous owners and their history:
At the end of the boardwalk is The Whale Museum, a simple and small collection of marine mammal bones, including a fully assembled Orca skeleton and a 59′ long Fin Whale:
Coming to this out-of-the-way spot to join other whale watchers, fishermen, boaters, kayakers, and campers, we wanted to see for ourselves what the draw was all about. Besides being the birthplace of whale watching in British Columbia, Telegraph Cove is the gateway to one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world:
It was a beautiful sunny day with smooth waters when we took our whale watching tour. We were excited as we boarded with Prince of Whales, the new outfitter in town. Roman, Sharon, and Rebecca were the crew that day, and they did a great job.
After the safety drill, Rebecca the Naturalist told us that Johnstone Strait is a channel where the entire water flow in and out to the east coast of Vancouver Island passes. The result of this push-me/pull-you of the oceans, combined with icy 45º water, is a pristine undersea park. It also happens to make for a predictable place to see Killer Whales (commonly called Orcas) in the wild.
Johnstone Strait is frequented by two types of Orca’s: the mammal-eating population – known as “Bigg’s killer whales” or “Transients” – and the fish-eaters, known as the “Northern Residents.” Because they all regularly visit this area, the Robson Blight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve has been established as a sanctuary where both the land and water areas of the reserve are closed to the public. Whale tour operators must follow strict guidelines:
Captain Roman maintained the required distance, and we were glad we’d brought our binoculars and long zoom lens to see the whales. We weren’t disappointed!
Several groups of whales swimming and feeding together were identified by Rebecca as being from the A30’s, A26’s and I4s pods in the A clan. What is that, and how did she know it?
She taught us that Killer Whales can be identified individually by the shape of their dorsal fin, the pigmentation pattern of their “saddle” patch (a gray area behind the fin), cuts, scars and calls. This identification process was pioneered by Michael Bigg.
He developed a technique using photographs of the left side of the whales to distinguish individuals. Using that technique, clans and pods have each been assigned a letter of identification, while individuals get the letter of their pod plus a number. This was confirmed when I later visited The Whale Museum, where I saw a display of family trees (pod groupings and clans) with identification letters and numbers. Pretty cool, eh?
Then everybody stood up when Rebecca pointed out a pod headed our way.
We also spotted a group of Steller Sea Lions lazing on a small island:
We moved on to a spot where several Humpback Whales are commonly seen. On the way there Rebecca mentioned that Humpbacks don’t normally have a hump on their backs; the name comes from the large hump that forms when they arch their backs before making a deep dive into the ocean.
And then three of them swam by:
They usually surface 2-5 times in rapid succession before taking a deep dive:
To wrap up where we were and what we had seen, Rebecca showed us on her map. The crew did a great job, and Rebecca was informative and just as excited as we were to see all of these magnificent mammals during our tour.