Built in 1950, the Dixie IV was once a Tofino lifeboat and is now a wildlife watching vessel. (Photo courtesy of Brian Congdon)

Reflecting on whales around Tofino and Ucluelet

The Pacific Rim Whale Festival may have been cancelled, but the whales didn’t get the memo.

SHIRLEY MARTIN

Special to the Westerly

Whale Fest may have been cancelled in Ucluelet and Tofino for this year, but the whales didn’t get the memo. They are back and, thanks to the herring roe extravaganza, have even been feasting in the harbour. Local events have provided many opportunities to experience the wonder of whales.

Whales are tied to the spiritual and cultural values of the Nuu-chah-nulth people. They hunted whales for thousands of years, but did so in a small, sustainable way. Nuu-chah-nulth whaling was done with acknowledgment and gratitude and an awareness of the need to maintain a balance with nature.

That balance ended with the arrival of European whaling technology and attitudes. Commercial whaling took hold in B.C. in 1905 with the establishment of the Victoria Whaling Company. They had four out-lying whaling stations and used steam-powered chase boats and large harpoon cannons. Sechart in Barkley Sound operated as both a whaling station and a processing station, until 1918.

The whales were harvested for oil, whalebone and other by-products, including fertilizer. The Victoria Whaling Company shut down in 1943. After World War II, a BC Packers group continued whaling, shifting from the production of oil and fertilizer to edible whale meat for export. By 1967, when whaling finally ended on the West Coast, B.C. companies had processed approximately 25,000 whales. The destruction was catastrophic; whale numbers were decimated. Some species are making a comeback, though not close to original numbers, and many species are still at extreme risk.

Many West Coast individuals and groups are devoted to whale research. Dr. Jim Darling, a pioneer in cetacean studies, founded the West Coast Whale Research Foundation in 1981 and has led independent whale research programs for over 30 years. The Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society, founded by Rod Palm in 1991, has a strong education component, including their interactive Build-A-Whale program.

With the intelligence and uniqueness of these amazing mammals now recognized, whale watching has become a popular pastime. A sighting is always thrilling, whether it’s a spout in the distance, or spectacular fluking, spy hopping or breaching.

Brian Congdon of Subtidal Adventures knows all about whale encounters. He and his wife Kathleen have operated their business since 1978, making it Ucluelet’s oldest whale-watching/nature tour enterprise. Brian, a former park warden, has been an active Coast Guard auxiliary member for over 35 years. It is apropos that his classic wooden boat the Dixie IV is a former Coast Guard search and rescue boat. For speedier trips, Brian runs the Discovery, a rigid hull, Coast Guard style inflatable.

Jamie Bray is Tofino’s longest running whale-watching/nature tour provider, having been in operation since 1982. His fleet includes covered boats and zodiacs. The 60 ft. MV Lukwa, his latest purchase, formerly operated out of Telegraph Cove. As well as tours in and around Clayoquot Sound, Jamie’s does tours through Barkley Sound. The Ucluelet-based tours are either aboard a zodiac, or the M.V. Chinook Princess, formerly of the Canadian Princess fleet.

Other companies in Ucluelet and Tofino also take people out on the water to showcase West Coast wildlife. Viewing possibilities include bears, deer, wolves, and a myriad of birds including bald eagles and herons. Sightings often include seals, sea lions, river otters and sometimes sea otters. And, of course, there are grey whales, humpbacks and orcas.

I’ve been gifted with meeting the occasional whale. I was paddling towards Toquart when a large ‘rock’ ahead of me turned out to be a grey, rising head-first beside the shore.

Once, in Grice Bay, I watched a grey dive as I kept a respectful distance. Suddenly it surfaced beside me, dove again and came up on my other side. My kayak lifted in the whale-generated mini tsunami while my adrenalin surged. Another time, aboard a mothership off Haida Gwaii, the skipper cut the engine and we were encircled by singing humpbacks.

But, the purest magic of all happened at the end of an all-day paddle in Barkley Sound. A humpback accompanied us back towards the welcome of Sechart Lodge. Once we were on the dock, the massive mammal put on an exuberant show, breaching and cavorting. At Sechart, formerly a whaling processing plant, this display was truly a joy to behold.

Shirley Martin is a member of the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society.

READ MORE: No Whale Festival, but still plenty to do in Tofino and Ucluelet this month

READ MORE: VIDEO: Humpback whale plays with a log near Vancouver Island harbour

READ MORE: The long winding road to Tofino-Ucluelet—then and now

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