Life And Death on Canada's West Coast
Seals, killer whales, and the circle of life
There’s nothing beyond here
This is where Canada's West Coast runs out, the land finally faltering and fragmenting into a thousand rocky islands. There's nothing between here and Asia except a wild and shifting sea that brings fogs and storms and occasionally the wreckage of ships to the rocky shore.
Tofino is known as a surfing destination thanks to the huge waves that batter the coast. The sea dulls the sharp edges of the rocks, and the trees grow sideways in the salt-laced wind. But the bleak beauty of this scowling coastline keeps people coming back. That, and the unspoiled wilderness it represents.
It was the wildlife that brought people to Ucluelet, a fishing village forty kilometers down the road from Tofino. The First Nations called themselves the "people of the safe harbor," and fished and hunted among the shattered islands and rocky coves of the coastline. Spanish explorers found the place, followed by British ones. They hunted the sea otters to near extinction, trading their pelts to be made into clothing back in Europe.
Slowly, the town grew. It became a whaling village, located as it is on the migratory route of gray whales. When whaling was banned, it became a fishing village. Now, tourism makes the registers ring.
That's why we were there. In the picturesque harbor, we were waiting for a boat to take us out whale watching on the heaving water. As we waited, bald eagles swooped over the low buildings, squabbling over the scraps tossed overboard by returning fishermen. Down at the edge of the water, we surprised several of the huge birds monopolizing a pile of discarded fish.
They weren't the only ones. Harbor seals bobbed in the water, their doglike faces peering at us curiously before submerging again. Among the reeking tide pools, a mink slunk from rock to rock, hunting for trapped crabs in the shallow water.
And around the fishing boats, sea lions congregated. Barking loudly as they surfaced and dived, noisily snorting their pungent breath as they waited for a handout. Fishermen sat on the sides of the boats, skillfully gutting fish and throwing the entrails overboard for the sea lions to devour. As one of the sea lions surfaced next to a rotten wooden pier, I was able to capture the whole sequence of him rising and sinking below the water again.
Finally, our boat arrived.
There was only us and one other couple aboard. A former Canadian Coast Guard vessel, it was a creaking old tub that rolled at a sedate pace through the water, unable to keep up with the modern whale watching boats that charge higher fees. The captain wore a weather stained ball cap and a tattered old jean jacket, and the smell of stale sweat assaulted the nostrils of anyone who got too close. He kept up a running monologue as our ship lumbered through the waves, bemoaning the empty houses that were springing up in the town for rich city folk to use as holiday homes.
But he knew what he was doing. Before long, we found the whales. Easily spotted by the plume of moisture they exhale when they surface, we watch the scarred grey backs rise above the water and sink back beneath it.
“Gray whales don’t do much,” the captain said, peering out over the sea from under his cap. “But over there… Looks like we got some killer whales.”
Black fins sliced the water. The law in BC insists on maintaining a minimum 100 meter distance from any wild whales. And our boat wasn't fast enough to chase the quick-moving orcas. But just like dancers in a strip club, the rules are different for the whales. You can't approach them, but they can approach you. Soon, the pod of orcas surrounded us. An adult performed a spy hop, rising vertically out of the water to get a better look at us. A baby surfaced, surrounded by bigger orcas.
“They’re after something,” the captain said.
Right beside our boat, the metallic water began to churn. Tails and flippers broke the surface, churning it into a boiling cauldron. The orcas dived and surfaced and dived again, fixated on something just below the surface.
“Yeah, they got something. Must be a seal,” the captain said. As he spoke, a large orca surfaced with something on its back. As it swam, a slippery pink tube stretched back over its dorsal fin. The guts of an eviscerated seal, growing taut and then abruptly snapping back into the water as the orca dived again.
"You guys are lucky," the captain said, as laughter bubbled out of him like rain. "I've been doing this for years, and that's only the second time I've seen them make a kill."
Over on the surf-washed rocks, luckier seals watched as we passed. The West Coast of British Columbia brims over with life - and death. If nothing else, nature teaches us the death of one thing is the life of another, from the fish that feed the eagles to the seals that feed the orcas. And as our tired boat chugged slowly back to the harbor, more sea lions swam alongside it, barking at us to share fish we didn't have. They'd found a safe harbor, at least.