Exploring British Columbia’s Salish Sea

Over the years, John A. Barrett of Nanaimo, B.C., has explored this large, diverse area of waterways off the southern coast of his home province.

Pipers Lagoon ParkPhoto: John A. Barrett

“There is nothing like the spectacle of killer whales on display.”

The ferry to Vancouver Island moves cautiously off the southern tip of Salt Spring Island, as excited passengers swarm the vessel’s starboard decks. The distinct sound of an exhaled blowhole rips the air with its lingering water spray from a surfacing orca with calf in tow. Other killer whales follow, joining in a feeding frenzy of chinook salmon.

It’s like a game, where the pod of killer whales captures the marine harvest close to shore, while producing a spectacle of acrobatics including breaching, diving, skimming and using their flippers like elbows above the ruffled surface. Their black upper bodies are adorned with pronounced white saddle-patch markings behind their dorsal fins. We spot the white oval eyepatch and white underbelly of a large male as it breaches the water with a thunderous clap, in a surf of rolling white water.

On this occasion, our amazed British visitors, who were in town for our daughter’s wedding, showed lively appreciation for the unfolding extravaganza. There are cheers, astonished awes and high-fives from the mix of other nationalities on board as well, chattering in their respective tongues while bouncing gleefully off the rails, cameras focused with a newsreel intent.

There is nothing like the spectacle of killer whales on display—it’s a sight to behold, especially being so close to a large pod. The Salish Sea is home to resident orca pods, with a few transient whales “wandering” in from the ocean to sample its seasonal harvest.

Intrigued by the action, a pair of bald eagles alight on the blemished arm of a Garry oak tree before pursuing another marine cocktail. Nearby, other eagles’ nests sit atop a towering Douglas fir, their high-pitched shrills adding a chorus to the orcas’ performance.

The Salish Sea displays many outstanding features, with its tidal surges from the Pacific Ocean bordering international waters, partly separated by Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. With numerous freshwater inflows of teeming rainforest nutrients, it’s one of the world’s largest and most biologically rich inland seas, providing a perfect recipe for the abundance of marine and forest life that occupy its almost 7,500 kilometres of coastline. This includes more than 400 islands, which sprinkle the sea with outstretched mounds of craggy bluffs and forested greens mingling with splashes of yellow cedar.

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Sea lions "sailing" during the herring runPhoto: John A. Barrett

“There is a special feeling about the Salish Sea.”

Along the more than 320-kilometre length of the Salish Sea from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., humpback whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins can be spotted. Sheltered in shallow inlets, colonies of sandy-brown Steller sea lions, black Northern sea lions and harbour seals often bask on rocky outcrops or sometimes hitch rides on the logging booms that frequent these waters.

Off the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the Strait of Georgia stretches out offering sights of a restless surf as well as the tranquil reflection of forest greens layered in valley folds, rising from foothills to mountainous snow-capped peaks.

An Alaska-bound cruise ship sails north, flirting with the Sunshine Coast. The distinct bump behind Gibsons’ hillside rises like a goosebump on an outstretched arm. Further back are the stark Pykett Peak and Brandywine Mountain, as well as Whistler, the Bookworms of Garibaldi, and many more.

An island coast stroll comes alive with the tang of seaweed and damp driftwood. Arbutus trees with crooked trunks divided into several gnarled, reddish-brown oversized fingers reach out to the sea, while pine trees sprout between rocks. An abundance of evergreens and deciduous trees, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, bigleaf maple and cone-shaped amabilis fir trees tower above it all.

The forest floor offers an abundance of earthy aromas, with herbs growing among arrays of yellow-green mosses merging with lichens and ferns in the shadow of the forest.

There is a special feeling about the Salish Sea, be it the rolling white-capped waves pounding craggy rocks, the lure of a flat pebble-hopping surface, or fishing in a generous sea of marine species.

The experiences are limitless, from viewing the splendour of the Coast Mountains to searching out arrays of bird life. Ever-present seagulls swarm together, delicately hovering, swooping and scouring the coastline. As I watch, a lone seagull carries a clamshell over rocks and drops it high enough to smash open and claim its foraged reward.

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Low tide at Neck Point ParkPhoto: John A. Barrett

“It would take a lifetime to experience all the different aspects of the Salish Sea.”

During the spring herring run, the coastal shore waters transform into a frothy, turquoise showpiece, where fishing boats with accompanying tenders separate fish and nets for the herring roe harvest. In shallower waters, leaving a respectful distance from orca predators, sea lions and seals share the herring bounty, barking and gorging themselves to exhaustion. They lie upside down with flippers extended out of the water to absorb warmer air to regulate their bodies by transferring heat via their blood to other parts of the body. This also serves to cool them during hot days, when they face their flippers to the wind, known as “sailing.”

From Rocky Point, the tide changes draw distinctive lines above shelved currents in white-capped waves, depending on the wind. High and low tides are confirmed by the presence or absence of the outer rocks at Neck Point Park. The sight of rocks protruding from the sea indicates a receding tide, where ramblers are seen traversing the path between the parkland and craggy island outcrops. The pathway disappears during high tide, which makes crossing the gap precarious.

It would take a lifetime to experience all the different aspects of the Salish Sea. Each window to the water offers its own unique perspective, where the sea’s ever-changing moods continually surprise.

On this day, the sun slowly rises from a distant haze and peeps above the Coast Mountains, unfurling its golden glow on snow-capped peaks and layers of thinly veiled cloud. A commotion reverberates from a northbound fishing vessel’s tender, as the unmistakable mist from a blowhole spurts above a patch of increasing ripples on the water. It’s another promising day stretching across the Salish Sea.

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