A charming historic waterfront community on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island is home to bears, cougars and killer whales
“The cougar appeared out of nowhere. It grabbed Buddy from our front lawn and started running,” says Jim Borrowman.
Borrowman, one of Telegraph Cove’s six full-time residents, saw the attack and chased the cougar shouting at the top of his lungs. Fortunately the predator dropped Buddy but the little dog’s injuries left it blind.
Hearing about a cougar taking a dog seems incredible but stories like these are commonplace in Telegraph Cove, which is a charming historic waterfront community on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
The forest near Telegraph Cove is home to cougars and black bears. You can take a day trip to see the grizzly bears at Knight Inlet. Rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, sooty shearwaters and bald eagles soar above in the clear blue sky. If you’re the adventurous type, you can also go swimming with salmon at Campbell River.
The Johnstone Straits is one of the most accessible and predictable locations to spot orcas, or killer whales, in their natural habitat.
Beneath the water, the colourful invertebrate life is a kaleidoscope of thousands of species of sponges, hydras, fish, shells and shellfish. And the ocean is home to a wealth of marine wildlife such as Dall’s and harbour porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Steller sea lions, harbour seals, humpback and Minke whales.
“I’m an orca-holic,” Borrowman says.
Borrowman fell in love with killer whales in the 1970s after diving with an underwater photographer to help capture images of the mammals. One thing led to another and he established British Columbia’s first whale-watching company in 1980, Orcella Expeditions.
The waters around Telegraph Cove are home to three kinds of orcas: resident, transient and offshore orcas. Each speaks a different whale language.
Residents are fish-eaters that return to the same area each year, transients are stealthy mammal hunters and offshores are the ultimate marine predators known to eat great white sharks.
Soon after our Stubbs Island Whale Watching boat leaves Telegraph Cove, we encounter a pod of transient orcas hunting a Pacific Harbour seal near Stephenson Island.
It is unusual to spot transients in these waters and the guide tears around the boat like a whale paparazzi taking photos to pass on to marine researchers who track and study orca behaviour.
Wildlife in Canada
Since 1973, Canadian scientists have been compiling photographs of killer whales off southwest British Columbia. Individual whales can be identified by physical characteristics such as nicks, scars and the shape of dorsal fins to identify individual whales.
We follow a pod of resident orcas, the A36 group consisting of Cracoft, Plumper and Kaikash. Residents are fish-eating orcas that migrate in and out of the area seasonally with the salmon.
A lot is known about resident orcas. They live in a matriline society where the oldest female leads the group; female killer whales stop having babies at 40 but can live until 80.
Another amazing fact about orcas is they are able to recognise how related they are to each other based on the songs they sing. An orca will not mate with another from the same clan.
We compare recordings of the “A” clan’s high-pitched singsong sounds with “G” clan’s scratchy staccato sounds.
Later in the morning, a Dall’s porpoise rides playfully beside the boat while sooty shearwaters soar overhead.
Three humpback whales blow and roll in the distance. Humpback whales, which were once hunted in Canadian waters, are now protected and are rediscovering the inland waters of Vancouver Island as a migration route.
A colony of plump Steller sea lions basks on rocks in the sun, frolicking, fishing and splashing in shallow pools. One sea lion performs ballet movements with its flippers.
Although Telegraph Cove was named after the telegraph station terminal, built in 1911, most of the historic buildings were erected after 1920 when a sawmill and cannery was established here to cut logs for boxes used to ship salmon from the Japanese salmon saltery.
The MV Gikumi, built in 1954 and fully operational, is moored in front of the whale interpretation centre.
After WWII, the population continued to grow and a school, a post office and more houses for the saw mill workers and their families were added.
These old buildings have been converted into cosy accommodation, offices and cafes. It’s a picturesque base with old-world charm for visitors who want to get away and experience nature.
The oldest building, Crouter House, was built in 1940 for one of the mill’s employees Colin Armitage. Armitage needed a house for his new bride so he found an old shack in Beaver Cove and floated it along the river to its current position on the waterfront.
We dine at the Killer Whale café next to the Old Saltery Pub, which occupies the former saltery. A picture gallery between the pub and the restaurant displays historic black and white photos.
Our accommodation is a duplex within a blue cottage called Burton House, constructed in 1929 using the balloon building method. It’s a house with no frame.
External wall boards support the roof, which cannot be removed without the walls collapsing. When the roof needed to be repaired in 1947, the builders constructed a second roof over the original.
The duplex is huge. There are two bedrooms and a loft; the living room has a floor-to-ceiling rock wall and a wood burning stove. As we’re here to enjoy the natural surrounds, it’s a good thing that there is no television and no telephones.
Outside, a pale orange sky is shimmering in the bay’s waters. A seagull hovers before landing on a fishing boat tied to a dock. The serenity takes my breath away.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Canadian Tourism Commission
Discover British Columbia
Telegraph Cove is a 1 1/2-hour drive from Port Hardy. Telegraph Cove Resort has rooms and cottages from C$85 a night. There is also a full-service campsite. Orca watching season is from May to October.
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