It Was a Whale of a Show – Telegraph Cove, BC

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.

There’s Betsy at Telegraph Cove Marina and RV Park

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.

This tiny town is the last boardwalk settlement left on Vancouver Island

An informative plaque in front of each building (which we discovered are now rented lodgings) describes previous owners and their history:

A stroll down the boardwalk at low tide.  With tide level changes of around 10′, the harbor view changes every few hours

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:

Fin Whale skeleton
An Orca skull

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:

Fishermen cleaning their catch of the day
Kayakers beginning their adventure

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.

A beautiful sunrise portends a great day in the water

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

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!

These lucky kayakers got a great show!

Does the movie “Jaws” come to mind?
Here he is a bull killer whale

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.

Everyone was excited, with cameras ready

These fish-eating Orcas live in tightly-bonded family groups called matrilines, and stay with their mother their entire lives

We also spotted a group of Steller Sea Lions lazing on a small island:

Time for a dip!
The romantic pair

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.

I couldn’t hear what she was saying as she pointed to the mouth

And then three of them swam by:

Humpback Whale can measure up to 49′

They usually surface 2-5 times in rapid succession before taking a deep dive:

The hump that gave its name

When you see the fluke it’s a deep dive and they’ll be down for a while:

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.

We came, we saw and we had a whale of a show!




  1. I always enjoy the background to the stories you tell ML. Nice little learning chunks.

    Really like the mid-air action shot of the sea lion.

  2. Oh yay!! So glad you saw the orcas and got such great photos! That’s a really fun photo of the flying sea lion. 🙂 Telegraph Cove is such a remote, sweet little spot. It looks like you scored a beautiful site with a wonderful view of the Johnstone Strait, too.

    Eric and I have on our bucket list a return trip to that area so that we can do a kayaking trip. I’d love to see the orcas close up, even though it does look a bit unnerving. Yes, ‘Jaws’ does come to mind, LOL!

    • Always exciting to see the critters when you’re looking for them! Love the pic of the sea lion launching from it’s rock perch. Never fear, I know what the guide was saying when she was pointing to the mouth, “This is the bitey end.” 😊

    • We were disappointed to learn that Stubb closed its business, they had a good reputation. But the crew of Prince of Whales did a great job. We love Telegraph Cove. And you know we went to Telegraph Cove campground and we saw a hiking trailhead. Too bad we were not wearing our hiking boots we could have followed it and it leads to a lookout to Johnstone Strait. We are definitely following your footsteps 🙂
      I was sort of wanting to kayak there having seen several groups launching everyday. It must be thrilling for them to see that ORca up close!

    • For a guaranteed treat and great time with the Orcas, this is the place to be. Even if the town is way up north it is so picturesque that you want to hang out at the marina.

  3. Wonderful and informative post MonaLiza! Your shots of the whales and the diving sea lion were so clear I almost felt I was there with you (wish we were!). My favorite shot, however, is the peaceful sunrise…..

  4. What an awesome post ML. Beautiful pictures of Telegraph Cove with the colors, wooden boardwalk and oh my, those flowers! Great score on the whales too with so much information…I can feel your excitement as I read. Love the picture of the diving sea lion. Your big smile tells it all..what a great adventure! gay

    • Thanks Gay, we had a wonderful time. That was the best whale tour we had, so many Orcas! And I think you would even like the tiny town, it is so picturesque that your camera will be busy for a while.

  5. Telegraph Cove actually reminds me a bit of Mackinac Island in that, it’s touristy, but it doesn’t “feel” phony – at least from the photos I’ve seen. Not a lot of trinket shops and that kind of stuff. It seems like it’s been honestly and thoughtfully restored rather than just turned into a Disney-esque fictional place. Those are the types of places we really appreciate and enjoy, so it is definitely on the long term list!

    Anyway, I am jealous you got to see so many whales! Every time I’ve gone, I haven’t seen anything. What an awesome experience that must have been! And I bet those kayakers were having heart attacks just then… So cool, but nope!! Too close for me!!

    Great photos!

    • Hmm, having been to Mackinac Island, Telegraph Cove is quieter and none of those hundreds of tourist on bikes! I did not see a store here that sells trinkets. There was just a General Store, a pub, a coffee shop and a restaurant.
      Oh my goodness we were on for a treat for the whale show. We were not disappointed and the drive to this remote place is so worth it. This is your kind of place: out of the way, picturesque, and quiet 🙂

  6. Hello, we are sure enjoying reading your blog as we travel also. What gps do you use? We are currently just using google maps but are considering a system specifically designed for RV’ers. —-Glenda & Kelly Shull

  7. Wow! What a great place. I’m adding it my long list of places to visit. Thanks for the great info.

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