A group of Stellar Sea Lions on the rocks

A wild water adventure: seeking orca, seals and other marine life

A group of 10 Cortes Island residents set out from Gorge Harbour in a Zodiac. 

“I loved it that we were all together on this boat, like tourists from Cortes out there hunting for a sighting of a whale. Everybody was in that together. Our only purpose today was to get out onto the water, look around and see what creatures we’d see. And it just seemed like community,” explained Jane Newman.

Jenefer Smalley (l) and the 10 Cortes residents – Photo by Garry Henkel
Places mentioned in the text – adapted from Google maps by Roy L Hales

Our guide, Jenefer Smalley of Wild Waterways Adventures heard that there were orca near the Copeland Islands.

Leaving the Gorge, we passed through a drizzle. The clouds in Desolation Sound look threatening, so we took a detour to Mitlenatch Island. 

Seals were gathered along the shoreline, each according to their tribe. 

First we saw a colony of Stellar Sea Lions basking on the rocks. Smalley explained this will change in June, when they make their annual migration to the rookeries off the west coast of Vancouver Island. 

“It is really survival of the fittest when it comes to breeding, because only one in ten Stellar Sea Lion males ever gets to breed.  Once they get there, they gather up a harem of roughly 12 females,” she said. 

“They’re charged with not only continually breeding with the females,  but protecting them and making sure that no other males come into contact with those females. So they literally stop eating to focus solely on breeding and  obviously there’s lots of battles.”

Faces of of the 10 participants (l to r) Rick Bockner (in sun glasses), Graham McKenzie, Anastasia Avvakumova, Carina Verhoeve, Jane Newman – Photo by Roy L Hales

Next we saw a colony of Harbour seals, the most common sighted marine animal off the coast. They consume about two kilograms of food per day. Most of the year the bulk of their diet consists of herring and hake, but this changes once the salmon runs begin. 

Unlike their distant kinsmen, the California Sea Lions did not cluster together but rather spread out on the rock individually, just enjoying the sunshine. 

“I really loved seeing the sea lions up close. That was really neat! There was a whole bunch of them lounging around and we got pretty close and then had binoculars,” exclaimed Anastasia Avvakumova. 

A steep stone face rose out of the ocean. Pelagic cormorants made their nests in the cliff’s narrow ledges, and dyed the rock white with their excrement. 

The Glaucous-winged Gulls above the cliff were screeching. Clusters of them would momentarily appear in the sky. Then we caught sight of the cause of this mayhem. A solitary Bald Eagle soared above them. According to Cortes Island naturalist George Sirk, there is only one eagle nest on Mitlenatch. Most of the time, the residents defend the gulls against other eagles, but there are times when they exact a protection fee. This is much less than what the gulls would suffer if other eagles were allowed to prey upon them, so the relationship is beneficial to both species.  

Two of the T002C Matriarch family of Biggs Orca in Teakerne Arm that day – courtesy Wild Waterways Adventures

“I really appreciated the rocks on the south end of Mitlenatch,” said Max Thaysen.  “The scale there was kind of like disorienting and impressive. Some other really beautiful rock formations. The sea life was awesome and we did see some of that, but I really liked the rocks.”

The clouds were melting away by then. So we proceeded east past Hernando Island, with its many houses clustered along the shore. The orca had left the Copeland Islands by the time we arrived.  

We stopped at Refuge Cove for a snack. The tourist season had not yet begun and we had the whole place to ourselves. 

It was starting to seem unlikely that we would see any orcas, then Smalley  received a text. A pod was in Teakerne Arm. She found them deep within. It turned out they were old friends of hers.  

“The T002C Matriarch is a local family that actually spends a lot of time in the Discovery Islands. They are Bigs Orca, a mammal eating culture and they used to have a pretty famous whale called ‘Tumbo’. He had scoliosis and so he was always trailing behind them, sometimes  a kilometer behind. They actually also lost another family member about a year ago, a baby. They now have a new baby,” said Smalley.

The two waterfalls (Graham McKenzie facing the camera) – Photo courtesy Wild Waters Adventures

“There’s four in the family. Tasu is the matriarch: daughter, Lucy and son, Rocky. And they now have a new baby. I’m not sure if that’s Lucy’s baby. Rocky is very recognizable. He has a six foot dorsal fin which has a scar that is really easy to spot.”

She explained that the T002C Matriarch often forage in Teakerne Arm.

 Avvakumovah added, “Although we didn’t see a lot of the orcas bodies out of the water, it was still really neat to be close to them and know that they’re there and doing their thing!”

Looking down Suitil Channel between Cortes (l) and Read Islands, on the way back to Gorge Harbour – Photo by Roy L Hales

Cassel Falls is at the end of Teakerne Arm. While it is a beautiful sight anytime, a second waterfall appeared overnight because of the heavy rains.

Howie Roman commented, “The highlight for me was the waterfalls and just spending the day out there.”

On the way home, we stopped below the pictographs at the entrance of the Gorge. Smalley pointed out the image of a man and a whale. There are also what appear to be tally marks. According to one account, the Klahoose stood on top of the cliff and hurled rocks down upon invading Haida canoes. These marks are said to be a tally of enemy casualties.

Man with a whale pictograph at the entrance of Gorge Harbour – courtesy Wild Waters Adventures

We returned to Gorge Harbour Marina in the early afternoon. 

Carina Verhoeven summarized the whole experience,” This was just wonderful being on the water, of course. Seeing the seals and the sea lions up close with the binoculars and then of course the Orcas. What I found mesmerizing was being  between those two giant waterfalls. I mean, normally there’s one. Now there are two and to be almost there. So invigorating and good company. Thank you, thank you, beautiful.” 

Top photo credit: Some of the Stelar Sea Lions on the rocks at Mitlenatch Island – courtesy Wild Water Adventures

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: