Nestled into a peaceful inlet on the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island lies a tiny, picturesque boardwalk village with a reputation for outstanding whale watching. This would be our furthest northernmost adventure on Vancouver Island, and we had been looking forward to it since we arrived on the island.
Leaving Campbell River, we found ourselves suddenly removed from all trappings of civilization. After a two-and-a-half hour drive on a two-lane road through a forested, mountainous landscape, we arrived at our destination: Telegraph Cove.
Pulling into our site, we were delighted to find that despite the total lack of privacy in the wide-open RV Park, we had a wonderful view of the Johnstone Strait. In mid-September, there were only a handful of other travelers.
The boardwalk town of Telegraph Cove is about a five-minute walk from the RV Park. Fishing villages built on stilts and connected by boardwalks were once a common sight in western Canada. Telegraph Cove, with a year-round population of 20 hardy souls, is one of the last remaining. More than 120,000 people make the trek to Telegraph Cove each year, most of them during July and August. Which is why we came in September.
In 1912, the town began as the northern terminus of a telegraph line originating in Campbell River. Through the ensuing years, Telegraph Cove has seen a salmon saltery, sawmill, and the Royal Canadian Air Force come and go. Many of the original buildings still stand, now housing travelers accommodations, adventure tour operators, a restaurant, pub, and a fabulous whale museum.
The pristine, wildlife-rich waters of the Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago sit at the doorstep of Telegraph Cove. This is home to more than 260 orcas, the largest resident pod of killer whales in the world. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called it one of the best places in the world to view orcas in their natural environment.
From mid-July through mid-September, the orcas are attracted by the annual salmon run that funnels through the narrow glacier-carved channel between the Canadian mainland and northern Vancouver Island. We had a whale watching trip booked for Eric’s birthday, and I was hoping the whales would come by to wish him a happy birthday. And they did.
For three hours that afternoon, we were in the company of orcas. It was glorious. They are magnificent creatures.
Although they’re called whales, orcas are actually dolphins—really big dolphins, up to 30 feet long and weighing up to 6 tons (about the size of a small school bus, but much sleeker). These glossy black-and-white creatures are intelligent and social. They hunt together, care for each other, and have a highly evolved, complex social network.
Orcas travel in family pods consisting of 5 to 30 whales. Each pod consists of the matriarch (the eldest female), her offspring, and her daughter’s offspring. Males leave the pod to mate, but return to their mothers and siblings. Family pods live within clans that share a common language. They have different accents, but they understand each other’s clicks, squeaks, and whistles.
Each orca can be identified by the unique shape of their dorsal fin, their gray and white “saddle patch,” and telltale nicks and scars. Researchers use these identifying marks to track and study the whales.
Orcas are divided into two distinct groups: residents and transients. Residents eat only fish (primarily salmon), while transients hunt marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and whales. Residents are very vocal and travel and hunt in larger groups, while transients travel in smaller groups and are stealthy, silent predators, which helps them sneak up on their larger and smarter prey.
We saw both residents and transients on our whale watching expedition. They moved gracefully, fins knifing through the water in a tightly choreographed water ballet. We were hoping to see the whales spyhopping, feeding, or tail slapping, but they just peacefully cruised along. “They’re resting,” explained the naturalist. Whales rest with one half of their brain awake, one eye open, while the other half of their brain sleeps.
The Pacific white-sided dolphins put on a hilarious side-show act, zooming through the water and taunting the orcas. The lightning-fast little dolphins are preyed upon by transient orcas, so of course, they’re not fond of the whales. Gangs of little dolphins mobbed the resident whales, chasing and bugging them, just like a flock of small birds will mob a hawk.
The Johnstone Strait is also the summer home to humpback whales, gentle toothless giants that filter seawater to feed on plankton, krill, and small fish. They spend 90 percent of their time underwater, surfacing just enough to take a breath every 10 to 15 minutes. The blows of the humpbacks surrounded us as we ran from one side of the boat to the other, each time capturing just the rounded back, the tiny dorsal fin, and the mist of the blow lingering in the sunlight.
Large colonies of Stellar sea lions haul out on rocky prominences in the Johnstone Strait. These guys are huge and strong and are near the top of the marine food chain—their closest land relative is the grizzly bear. But they’re no match for a hungry orca.
Back on shore, we continued our marine education the following day with a couple of hours at the Whale Museum. Lots of whale and other marine mammal skeletons here, and lots of information that’s well presented. The museum guides are wonderful—when they offer to give you a personal tour, take them up on it!
Our visit to Telegraph Cove was all we had hoped for, and more. We’ll definitely return. On our wish list: additional whale watching cruises (the best option for photography), and an overnight kayak trip, because it would be extraordinary to kayak with the whales!
About the campground:
We loved it! The views and location are terrific at Telegraph Cove Marina RV Park. Full hookups, concrete patios, level sites, and decent internet for a small fee. Stock up on groceries before making the trek here. There’s a general store with a random assortment of stuff; the books and souvenirs looked more appealing than the grocery items. Note: There are two campgrounds in Telegraph Cove and it’s easy to confuse the two. The other campground is deep in the forest and about a half-mile from the harbor.
We highly recommend Stubbs Island Whale Watching. The first whale watching outfit in BC, they’ve been around since 1980 and are ethical and passionate about protecting the orcas and other wildlife. We learned a tremendous amount and had a fantastic time on our tour.
Next Up: The Wild West Coast: Tofino, BC