Telegraph Cove lies on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island at the entrance way to Johnstone Strait. How you enter depends on your landlubber or sea salt status.
The winter population swells from a ripple of 20 locals to a tidal wave of 120,000 high-season visitors. Telegraph Cove is one of BC’s last boardwalk communities.
In its 100-year-plus history, the town has been a telegraph line terminus, a salmon saltery, a fish-storage warehouse, a Royal Canadian Air Force station, a sawmill, and now a Top-10-places-to-go BC tourism hub.
Family stories about the Wastells, McDonalds, Farrants, Ogawas, Nakamuras, Burtons, Yuis and Vinderskovs pop up on boardwalk posters between artifacts and cabins.
Gordie Graham, owner of Telegraph Cove Resorts, makes sure those historic voices are heard.
“Gordie has kept the ambience of this special spot,” says Howard Pattinson of Tide Rip Grizzly Bear Tours.
“I grew up in the Fraser Valley on a dairy farm,” says Gordie. “We had a logging company in Port Alice… we liked camping and the road was just opening up. Once the road was paved , I got the RV park and our marina. Now, I get up at 4:30 in the morning to get my fishing in… I gotta get to work!”
Gordie is a boardwalk blur as he zips between the Resort Office and the twice-weekly salmon BBQ in his golf cart. With five granddaughters, he says, “I am completely surrounded by women… even the dog, Sally.”
Jim and Mary Borrowman are founders of the Whale Interpretive Centre run by the non-profit Johnstone Strait Killer Whale Interpretive Centre Society (JSKWICS), perched at the end of the boardwalk.
“No one works harder than Gordie at keeping this place alive,” says Mary. “It’s a wood town and he’s constantly replacing wood… his whole heart is here.”
“The Whale Interpretive Centre is a not-for-profit society, which looked at how humans and killer whales share the same space… and one of the recommendations was for an interpretive centre somewhere on the North Island.”
“Gordie Graham owns the historic portion of the Cove, and he saw how marvelous this centre was, so he rebuilt the new section and this winter, he’s rebuilding the other half.”
“Jim has been collecting dead marine mammals for years. In 2002, we got some seed money and put some of the skeletons on display. We had 17,000 people through here that first summer.”
“When Jim came to Telegraph Cove, the sawmill was still running, so he worked for Mr. Wastell. He was asked one day if he’d like to go out on the *Gikumi*. He fell in love with the water, the boat, the whales – everything. The 60-foot *Gikumi* has been a pilot boat, a cargo vessel and, for over 20 years, a whale watching vessel and member of the Borrowman family.”
“Jim met a man who wanted to take photos of killer whales (author and researcher Erich Hoyt), then he met Dr. Michael Bigg (founder of modern killer whale research), Dr. John Ford (research scientist), Graeme Ellis (research technician) and on and on.”
Jim’s work with the researchers is ongoing, and his award, the 2008 Conservation Champion of BC, attests to his dedication.
Stubbs Island Whale Watching was born, named after the island located close to Telegraph Cove, and their favourite dive spot.
“They thought diving was going to be the main source of the business. Then it turned out that whales ended up being the main business. No one else was taking people out to see killer whales in the wild.”
“We sold Stubbs Island Whale Watching business in 2011, but we’ve kept our old wood boat [the *Gikumi*].”
Gordie maintains the structure of the community. A bit like a keystone species of sea stars, the Grahams, the Borrowmans and the Pattinsons have many arms.
Howard Pattinson has over 50 years’ experience in local waters.
“I knew boats through commercial fishing,” he says. “But the fishery started changing, so I sat down and turned off all the phones and computer for two days… just sat there and centered myself, and asked God what to do. I found myself wandering in a fantasy of how beautiful it is out there. I bought the biggest boat I could afford in 1997, then a German client said, ‘I must see a grizzly bear in the wild.’”
“I had never seen a grizzly bear myself,” says Howard, “but my client kept saying, ‘this is why I came to Canada. Bears are in my Bavarian crest.’ A lightbulb went off in my head and I started running grizzly bear tours along with Dean Wyatt of Knight Inlet Lodge.”
Howard’s son, Lindsey Pattinson, a Transport Canada Master, runs our tour, along with naturalist, Matt Allen. Tide Rip Grizzly Bear Tours make the daily two-hour ride across Johnstone Strait in the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a full day, with a light breakfast and lunch included.
BC inlets are similar to Norwegian fjords in length and depth, except they’re steeper. We’re headed for where the Glendale River empties into the 125-kilometre-long Knight Inlet.
We chug up-inlet as Matt presents “a year in the life of a bear” and, before long, we spot Momma Bear with her three, three-month-old cubs.
“Sleeping for six months, you’ve got to make every waking minute count,” says Matt. “There’s a succession of ripening berries to sustain them and 27 per cent vegetable protein from sedge grasses. They’re eating 70kg per day to sustain their weight before the salmon come.”
According to Matt, only 10 per cent of grizzly bear’s diet is salmon, but it constitutes 90 per cent of the weight gain necessary for survival through the winter when they can lose up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds) or 40 per cent of their body mass.
“Eating 25 fish a day [in calories consumed] is like 120 Big Macs.”
They start out eating the whole fish and, later in the season, go for the fatty brains, eggs and skin. The Knight Inlet bears are waiting for “pinks”: the smallest, fattiest and most common Pacific salmon.
Farther up the estuary, three juvenile bears are plucking jaw-fulls of sedge grass. We’ve transferred from the power boat to a flat-bottomed herring skiff with a re-fitted viewing platform. The bears move slowly over rocks and logs; they seem unaware of us although the guides never walk on the estuary.
“One thing I learned quite early on — I don’t know everything – is to hire people who know more than I do,” says Howard.
We set out on the *Lukwa* with Stubb’s Island Whale Watching. It’s early season; the salmon aren’t yet running (the northern resident orca whales follow and feed on them) but, since 2002, the resident humpback whales are here. We spot their sleek backs as they wave a two-metre-wide tail or fluke, diving to the depths.
Captain Wayne Garton aligns the *Lukwa* as close to the whales as guidelines allow.
“I’ve been in every nook and cranny on the BC coast,” says Wayne, 69, a former RCMP police boat operator. “Here is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the whole coast.”
Captain Wayne and naturalist, Jackie Hilderling, have been doing whale-watch tours for 16 years.
“Jackie’s probably one of the best educators I’ve ever met,” says Mary. “You should see her with a group of young kids – she can get any kid turned on to science.”
“After my first whale watching tour, I felt I had to return to nature. A very unique niche has opened up for me here,” says Jackie.
A cold-water diver, underwater photographer and humpback whale researcher, Jackie won the Vancouver Aquarium’s Murray A. Newman (MAN) Award for Excellence in Aquatic Conservation in 2011.
“We know how many killer whales there are, whether they’re male or female, and their age. They are telling the story of what’s happening with the ocean… they brought you here; so did the humpbacks.”
With such an experienced staff, visitors get caught in a bubble-net of enthusiasm. We see Ripple and Quartz, named for their distinctive tail markings. On display are Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Pacific harbour seals, bald eagles and a giant nest.
“One of the big messages is we’re using killer whales as ambassadors for everything else you see. They have been studied for over 40 years; thanks to one remarkable man, Dr. Michael Bigg. We’ve gone from whalers to whale watchers within many of our lifetimes. We [humans] have an incredible capacity for change,” says Jackie.
One of the whales who has helped educate the public is Springer, a fish-eating killer whale. Officially A73, she was born in 2000, and is the first cetacean orphaned, rescued and then re-integrated with her Northern Resident pod or group.
“Next year is the fifteenth anniversary of the return of Springer. There’ll be an environmental fair and all the people who were involved will come back for scientific panel discussions, all set for July 2017,” says Mary.
Springer is 17, which is young for a female resident whale whose lifespan can be up to 80 years. There’s a Southern Resident female in her 90s.
“We get guests from all over the world and when they come here, they get a great peace. We love it here and we like what we do,” says Mary.
We like what they do, too — British Columbians and international visitors alike. It’s their calling that calls on our response. Whale-willing, they’ll continue providing a Telegraph Cove portal into wildlife viewing, kayaking, scuba diving and sport fishing.
Telegraph Cove’s calling. Time to pick up. And go.
For IF YOU GO information, visit www.seniorlivingmag.com/articles/telegraph-cove-calling
IF YOU GO:
How to get there:
BC Ferries: Horseshoe Bay ferry to Nanaimo (1.5 hours). Drive north on Highway 19 to Parksville where the highway splits. If you stay on Hwy 19, it’s a half hour shorter, or take (scenic) Highway 19A to Campbell River (2 hours). Follow Highway 19 another two hours (a well-marked right-hand turn onto Beaver Pond Road accesses Telegraph Cove). If you carry on Hwy 19, a half hour brings you to Port McNeill amenities. www.bcferries.com
Telegraph Cove Activities:
Grizzly Bear Watching: http://tiderip.com
Whale Watching: www.stubbs-island.com
Multi-day boat tours: www.orcellaexpeditions.com
The Whale Interpretive Centre: www.killerwhalecentre.org
Kayak touring: http://kayakbc.ca
Saltwater Fishing: www.telegraphcoveresort.com
Where to stay:
The Cabins/Houses/Moorage: www.telegraphcoveresort.com
The Campground: www.telegraphcoveresort.com/camping.html
The Cove also has condo-style accommodation, an RV park, a marina and vacation rentals. www.telegraphcove.ca
Where to eat:
The Killer Whale Café & The Saltery Pub (two eateries in the same cedar-and-beam building): www.telegraphcoveresort.com/telegraphcovedining.html
The Seahorse Café and Gallery (for casual breakfast/lunch/dinners): http://seahorsecafe.org
The Cove Coffee Company
A General Store and liquor store are a short walk away, and a patio café is located both ends of the boardwalk.