Sail away on a northern BC adventure


Transient orcas swim through the waters of the Inside Passage in northern Vancouver Island. This pristine area on Johnstone Strait provides wilderness adventures for all sorts of travellers. (Rennett Stowe photo)

Story by Tricia Edgar Outdoor Columnist


Alert Bay is a tiny community on Cormorant Island, home to fishing boats and resident whales. (Tricia Edgar/

ALERT BAY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — For the past two years, my daughter has been reading — avidly — about sunken ships. She’s our household’s resident expert on the Titanic and its lesser-known compatriots. A product of this knowledge of doom at sea has made her rather nervous about boats.

This year we chose to vacation in British Columbia, exploring the rainforest, grizzly bears, and marine mammals that people from around the world flock to see. Our adventure also happened to feature a trip on a sailboat — something my daughter was antsy about. However, our trip on the S.V. Tuan quelled her worries almost immediately. Slipping into her life jacket, she enjoyed the view from the decks, watching the eagles and other wildlife as we moved smoothly and quietly through the islands of Johnstone Strait.

We’d come to the area on northern Vancouver Island, a spot that’s part of the famed Inside Passage, to enjoy the wildlife and the wildness of this section of BC’s coast. While southern Vancouver Island receives a large number of visitors — many of whom also journeying on wildlife adventures — the north has a more rugged flavour. Coming up on the Greyhound bus, we watched as cities turned to towns and then to forest.

The place where the forest meets the sea is the true essence of the BC coast, and our destinations of Port McNeill, Alert Bay, and Sointula truly fitted this mold. The two villages of Alert Bay and Sointula are on islands sandwiched between Vancouver Island and the province’s mainland, and they’re accessible only by boat, a short ferry ride across Johnstone Strait.

To get to our sailing adventure, we took the morning ferry from Port McNeill to Alert Bay. This beautiful village is a 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill, and it’s well worth a visit by itself. The world-renowned U’mista museum is a short walk along the boardwalk from the ferry terminal, and it features an outstanding and diverse exhibit of aboriginal Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw potlatch masks, many of them connected to the families who live on the island. Cormorant Island is walkable, thanks in part to lovely seaside hiking trails. For those who prefer to stay in bed a little longer and explore the island after the morning trip, Seasmoke Whale Watching’s Maureen and Dave Towers also offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations in their oceanfront home.

Explore Northern BC by Sailboat

The Towers were our hosts for the day, and they led us on a dream of a sailing adventure. We were the first group out for the year, and although there were no whales to be seen yet we enjoyed the abundance of wildlife and the quiet of gliding through the waters of Johnstone Strait. An eagle lover, my daughter was delighted to see numerous eagles on nests of young. They swooped in front of the boat and hung out in the trees, their bright white heads easily visible among the branches. She was also vastly entertained by the loud belches of groups of Stellar sea lions that basked on the rocks.

Seasmoke’s tours begin in May and extend into the fall. While there’s always plenty of wildlife, if you’re coming specifically to see orcas, aka killer whales, you’ll discover that there are different populations that visit the area. From July to September, the Northern resident orcas feed in Johnstone Strait. Other orcas called transients move through the area on a more sporadic basis, feeding on larger mammals like seals.

Whales have distinctive markings and part of the excitement of going on a whale-watching tour is hearing the stories of the individual whales you’re viewing. There are many different whales that live in and move through the strait. You may see huge humpbacks and the quiet minke whale, as well as smaller cetaceans like porpoises and dolphins. The trip also takes you by the OrcaLab, which helped transform the public’s vision of the orca, creating an understanding of the amazing intelligence these mammals possess.

Gliding along in a sailboat is the ideal way to enjoy the sounds of the sea, and the quiet boat also provides ideal conditions for bird-watching. Seasmoke’s tours are perfect for those who want to get out on the water but leave the nervousness behind on the docks. The Towers provide an opportunity to enjoy the ruggedness of British Columbia’s coast from the comfort of a safe sailboat — with scones and jam provided as you sail home to Alert Bay and beyond.


More About Seasmoke Tours

Schedule: Seasmoke Whale Watching tours leave at 8:30 am from Alert Bay and last between 4-5 hours. Seasmoke also offers pick up at Vancouver Island’s Alder Bay Resort at 8:45 am.
Cost: The price per person is $100 plus tax, and $90 for children. Reservations are required.
Telephone: 1-800-668-6722 (toll free in Canada and US) or 1-250-974-5225
Need to know: Seasmoke also carries wet weather gear for those who need it.


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