Spirit of The Wild
Whales, wolves and coastal waters
By Caroline Tapp-McDougall
We start where the road ends and the land meets the sea in the waters off BC’s untamed Pacific coast rainforest. Between the mainland and the nearby offshore islands, this far-reaching area is rich in wildlife, culture and natural history.
Each summer, nature-loving tourists arrive in droves to hike, fish, kayak and whale-watch with well-worn maps, guidebooks and tour guides in tow. They come to explore the diversity of the marine life—to catch a fleeting glimpse of a pod of dolphins or the dorsal fin of a transient humpback whale.
Divers, fishermen and marine biologists work on fishing, research or coastguard vessels, while well-heeled eco-travellers—like us—opt for intimate multiday adventures on private expedition yachts.
Room for six
Our captain, Russ Merkel (founder of Outer Shores Expeditions, and a veteran marine biologist and avid sailor) grew up on this coast. A long-held dream of his came true when the 70-foot Passing Cloud, a sister ship to the famous Bluenose, came up for sale but a few years ago.
Today, sailing Passing Cloud is a way of life for Russ and his intrepid crew, which consists of a first mate and chef. The team offer five-, eight- and 12-day outings to those brave enough to take to the water. Our voyage, one of Captain Russ’s last of the 2017 season, takes us into the diverse marine-life-inhabited waters of the Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound.
Adventure, here we come!
Each day on board brings rare coastal experiences. There’s no set agenda, as the weather and wildlife sightings can change by the hour. On our second afternoon, we spot a solitary male orca lounging and blowing off the starboard side. Then, before we know it, there’s a pair in front of us. Three others congregate off our portside, raising their pectoral fins in unison time and again. Suddenly, there are orcas swimming in from all directions. It’s as if, like us, they’re enjoying the afternoon sun. All in all, around 40 orcas are in view… a rare sighting, according to the crew.
Exploring the coast
We walk down bear trails and beside salmon-filled rivers in search of the intelligent creatures that call these healthy lands home: the grizzly, black and spirit bears. Some of our group are a little afraid. But, apparently, there’s nothing to fear. Out here, we’re told, bears live peacefully and will only use their strength if needed to protect their young. As expected, like clockwork, a mother and her cubs appear from the forest, taking advantage of the tides to come to the water’s edge; one of many photo-worthy moments of our trip, to say the least.
Back on board
Passing Cloud has all the comforts of home, but on a smaller scale. Immaculately maintained and wonderfully clean, our cabins and common areas are places for rest, respite and warming up. (It’s October, so we were warned to bring plenty of warm layers.) The common bathroom with shower is comfortably shared between seven guests, and the three crew members have their own quarters down below.
Onboard dining redefines three square meals a day and is really something to write home about. Chef Erin, who travels with the ship, performs boast-worthy culinary miracles in her tiny galley behind the wheelhouse. With stores hidden all over the ship, and good-sized freezers and fridge coolers tucked away circuitously on deck, she prepares healthy, gourmet breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks for the guests and crew each day. Chef Erin is also an avid forager, and scours the terrain with zip-lock bags to bring sea urchins, kelp, seaweed, sorrel and more natural edibles back for dinner.
Don’t worry, be happy
As city people, we find this expedition particularly fascinating as, for most of us, the terrain and its First Nations history are all new.
Aside from navigating and steering the yacht, Captain Russ keeps his eye out for passing whales, seals and other interesting wildlife. He’s ready to answer questions over meals with us, and gives informal talks about the whales and other local flora and fauna. Each evening, he’s keen to show us his nautical navigation charts so that we can figure out where on Earth we are and, of course, where we’re going. He has a no worries, laid back but respectful style that makes things comfortable.