Travel Story Wildlife spotting on Mayne Island

Photo of Mark Thornton

Historic Mayne Island in Canada is a haven to orcas, otters, beavers and other lesser-seen wildlife. 

It’s a warm late afternoon and the placid, softly lit water of Dinner Bay is suddenly disturbed by a splash. A sea otter has surfaced with a fish and is motoring across the bay. It’s 100m away but I just have time to take a photo before it dives and I lose sight of it.

Once common in the eastern Pacific off British Columbia, these beautiful animals were hunted to extinction by fur traders for their pelts. The one I was looking at descended from 89 Alaskan sea otters relocated to the waters off Vancouver Island in the early 1970s. There are now several thousand but they are still classified as a threatened species, so I was happy to see this one.

Dinner Bay is on the south-west of Mayne Island, one of the 10 major Southern Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and Vancouver. They are Canadian but there are about 10 American across an imaginary line delineating the border of the US. Such is the zigzagging way the border separating the two countries is drawn across the strait, you briefly pass through US waters on the Canadian ferry trip from Vancouver to the Gulf Islands.

While there are 10 major settled Southern Gulf Islands, there are probably more than 300 small uninhabited ones. The islands and the cool water that swirls between them are nutrient rich with ocean- driven plankton blooms that support a great variety of plant and animal life, from giant kelp forests to schools of orcas. 

The climate is Mediterranean so in winter the temperature rarely drops below freezing. That, and the fact eight ferries a day leave Tsawwassen ferry terminal in Vancouver for the 90-minute journey to Mayne — with similar sailings for the other islands — makes them a favourite holiday destination in summer and winter.

There appears to be a happy mix of millionaires (either resident or visiting their beautiful homes overlooking the water), local artists, farmers and travellers. It’s hard to tell the difference between them, because all fall into island time when there and dress similarly. Whatever else is going on in the world, even in Vancouver, doesn’t seem particularly relevant. The only clock time to think about is ferry arrival and departures but even then the ferries sound their ship’s klaxons — an unusually pleasant sound with harmonics in the key of G — giving plenty of warning.

 No one among the island’s 1100 inhabitants or tourists, who outnumber locals two to one in summer, seems to be in a hurry.

In the forest behind Dinner Bay is a beautiful Japanese garden built by locals to commemorate Japanese residents who were expelled from the island during World War II. People from Agarimichi in Japan settled on Mayne Island about 1900 and became an integral part of the community. They formed a strong sense of fellowship with the other islanders and, while comprising a third of the island’s population, they contributed more than half its economic activity, notably through fishing and farming.

After the outbreak of hostilities with Japan their properties were seized, their possessions sold and they were forced to leave. Most of the islanders railed against this and managed to maintain close friendships, though few Japanese returned. Volunteers built the garden in honour of their absent friends. Today it is peaceful and well maintained but, despite its beauty, a sense of sadness still lingers. The dispossession was “a black mark in Canadian history”, according to a volunteer who tends the garden. 

Native peoples first settled Mayne Island about 5000 years ago. The first Europeans arrived in 1794 when Capt. George Vancouver briefly camped here but it was not surveyed until 1857, by another Royal Navy officer who named it after his lieutenant, Richard Mayne. 

Locals claim Mayne is the region’s most historic island in terms of European settlement, mainly because it was the earliest stopover for Cariboo gold rush miners, though they apparently didn’t appreciate it, naming it Little Hell. Where they set up camp became known as Miners Bay, also the site of Springwater Lodge, built in 1892 and the oldest continuously operated hotel in British Columbia.

The water around the islands is deep, in places plunging to 400m within cooee of the shore, and strong currents surge between them. This is particularly so in Active Pass, a narrow passage between Mayne Island and Galiano Island to the north, through which passes a steady stream of marine traffic and marine life, with pods of orcas often seen swimming within 20m of the rocky shore.

According to the Canadian Government, the Strait of Georgia is one of the nation’s most important marine regions. Runs of coho and chinook entering the strait form one of the world’s largest commercial salmon fisheries. It also provides a haven for herring spawning and growth, and is the largest overwintering location for waterfowl in Canada.

There was so much else to do on Mayne that I didn’t have time for fishing (!). Instead I made the most of my camera, snapping the island’s wild deer, birds and unusual vegetation — such as the exquisite Oregon white oak and arbutus trees native to the Pacific Northwest and northern California — and the views across the strait to the mainland’s snow- capped Coastal Range. On Mayne the best view is from Mt Parke, the island’s highest peak which affords spectacular 360-degree views. It’s a great walk through old forest of spruce, western red cedar and Douglas fir.

There are many hiking and cycling trails leading to viewpoints, lighthouses, rocky coastlines, First Nation middens and sandy beaches. Apart from sea otters, wildlife includes whales, seals, sea lions, porpoises, deer, raccoons, otters, beavers, red squirrels and birds, including the magnificent wood duck and the great blue heron.

Like pretty much any place proud of its history, Mayne has a number of memorial plaques honouring its residents, current and former, but one is worth noting. At Miners Bay there is an octagonal bench made to commemorate the occasion when in 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mum) sailed past on their way between Vancouver Island and Vancouver.

Sailed past. Didn’t stop. Yet locals built the bench complete with a brass plaque and still keep it polished, which speaks volumes about the islanders and the gentle love they have for their home.

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