Marine Wildlife Viewing on a Freighter Cruise
British Columbia’s Working West Coast
Story and images by Marianne Scott
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, we crossed Aurora Explorer’s lowered ramp to enter its deck filled with trucks, forklifts, bundled cable, diesel tankers, dumpsters and shrink-wrapped mattresses. The 135-foot landing craft delivers freight and hosts 12 passengers on each of its five-day runs, switching weekly between the protected northeast coast of Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland.
The ship’s delivery and pick-up of equipment determines its schedule; the itinerary may change, sometimes even in the middle of a tour. My husband, David, and I, along with two Torontonian friends, Jim and Carol, had signed up for two back-to-back tours, allowing us to experience the expansive fjords, wildlife, fish farms, logging camps, resorts and small towns around the Discovery Islands and the Broughton Archipelago.
David and I have been avid sailors for decades, having put 30,000 nautical miles under the keels of several boats. Alas, David’s mobility issues forced us to sell our last sailboat and we’ve deeply missed our waterborne voyages that had taken us to French Polynesia, the Baltic, the Atlantic and to Alaska from our home city of Victoria, British Columbia. Aurora Explorer offered us a chance to revisit our beloved watery backyard—without having to navigate or cook.
Welcome to the Working West Coast
Once aboard and after the required safety drill, Capt. Ron Stevenson said we were slightly behind schedule. “A client wanted us to offload his truck at the last second. Naturally, it was in the back of the freight platform, so the crew scrambled to unload the stuff near the bow, then reloaded the ship.”
Over a delicious dinner, we met the other passengers, who hailed from BC and neighboring Washington state. Everyone socialized madly, with the usual questions, “where are you from, is this your first trip aboard Aurora Explorer?” Overnight in Hemming Bay, the crew lashed us safely to the sidestick of a log raft in a booming ground.
The next morning, clouds created dark streaks on the sun-dappled sheer mountains while we ate breakfast. The crew was busy organizing the first drop-off. We inched up to the shore and the bow’s lowered ramp let the ship “push the beach,” allowing freight to be delivered to locations lacking docks and roads. The crew fork-lifted four 30-foot culvert pipes to the Sonora Resort on Calm Channel. All the passengers hung out on the balcony questioning if this simple vehicle could carry that length of pipe up an incline. It can!
Afterwards, the forklifts reorganized the deck freight so the next delivery would be waiting at the bow. Their quick dashes resembled a ballet.
We motored through heavy currents, the sea laden with free-floating logs. Misty mountains were blanketed with endless conifers. Suddenly, the captain idled the ship’s engines. On an islet’s flat rocks, a family of sealions cavorted, the sun having dried their pelts to a copper sheen. Our cameras clicked madly.
At the next stop, the mattresses were forklifted to a newly built, off-the-grid cottage, along with other shrink-wrapped furniture. We then delivered empty dumpsters and collected full ones at a resort. Meanwhile, passenger Tom, a forestry expert, explained the different ways of harvesting timber.
Logging camps abound in these waters, with loggers living in dormitory-style bunkhouses perched on barges. At one camp, after filling a diesel tank from the ship’s tanker, two monster logging machines—reminding me of Battle of the Bulge military tanks—crunched aboard on their tracks. Later, I snuck down to see up close and noted one machine is a delimber—it scrapes branches and bark from newly cut trunks. The other machine displayed a heavy-duty steel blade that fells trees in minutes. The blade’s jagged teeth made me want to keep my legs far away. The logging equipment’s weight, combined with the other freight, had lowered Aurora Explorer to its top Plimsoll line. “They wanted me to take another truck aboard,” said Capt. Ron, “but I told them we’d reached the safety limit. We’re carrying between 130-140 tons.”
Later, we watched in fascination as a helicopter dove down into a small clearcut to grapple a log, lift it and then drop it into the fjord.
Every day brought different experiences. Meals were especially intense conversation events among the congenial passengers, although politics were mostly avoided. Further discussions followed when we lounged in our chairs on the deck. In Bute Inlet, the engine racket suddenly stopped. The captain had halted the engines having spied two humpbacks. They swam up to the ship and put on a show—they rolled, dove and surfaced, breathed, breached and slapped their tails. We were enthralled, and even the crew, who often sight whales, hung spellbound over the railings.
After spending two days on Quadra Island between tours, we boarded Aurora Explorer again and this time, cruised among the Broughton Archipelago’s islands. Fellow passengers came from as far away as Bermuda and New Jersey. Our hope for orca sightings was dashed, but instead, we were treated to hundreds of white-sided dolphins that leapt and frolicked ahead of us, their dorsal fins slicing through the briny.
Fish farms are big business in these waters and as they strongly discourage sailboat visits, David and I had never seen one up close. Venture Point Fish Farm contains 20 ponds surrounded by walkways. The ponds are netted on all sides—keeping eagles, seals and other predators from scavenging. The ponds’ surface was in constant motion as salmon hopped up, then thumped back down.
Aurora Explorer delivered 40,000 litres of diesel there. “Why do they need that much fuel?” I asked the captain. “The larger fish farms may have up to three-quarters of a million fish in the ponds,” he answered. “That could be two million kilos of salmon. The diesel runs compressors that push up oxygenated water to help keep the fish healthy and prevent algae blooms.” He chose not to comment on fish farm politics.
We conveyed more diesel to Pierre’s at Echo Bay on Gilford Island, a large marina famous for its Saturday night pig roasts. Around the corner, we met 85-year-old Billy Proctor. He has spent his life here; has fished, logged, hunted in the region and become a minor celebrity. He’s chronicled his adventures in The Heart of the Rain Coast—a Life Story. He has also built a museum. The jetsam and flotsam he’s collected over decades are neatly shelved in an oversized shed and include old tools, bottles, stone axes and fishing lures. It’s a great jumble of yesteryear’s collectibles on their way to becoming antiques.
For David and me, the trips satisfied some of our lust to be on the water. That never goes away! For our Toronto friends Jim and Carol, it was the wildlife that most enchanted them. “Seeing lazing sea lions and breaching humpback whales in their natural habitat was thrilling,” said Carol. ”The other thing was the magical variations of B.C. light that transformed the mountains and ocean into a melody of moods.” Jim added, “the Aurora Explorer allowed us an intimate experience with the wild coast without having to charter a boat, sidestepping worries about tides and currents. An excellent voyage.”
Follow Up FactsAurora Explorer has been owned by Marine Link, marinelinktours.com since 1990. As a 135-foot craft, she was widened and lengthened in 1999.
From April through October, Aurora Explorer operates two five-day freighter/wildlife tours that switch weekly—the Discovery Island route and Broughton Archipelago route. For both routes, the ship departs Tuesdays from Menzies Bay, near Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Following Canadian and international Covid-19 recommendations, the Aurora Explorer has halted sailings until further notice. Check the Marine Link website for updates.
For each departure, the ship hosts 12 passengers in six cabins with twin beds. The majority of guests are of retirement age. Lavatories and showers are separate from cabins; lavatories are separated by gender; showers are unisex. Cabins are comfortable, but not luxurious. The stairways are narrow and steep but have strong bannisters. The ship is not suitable for people using wheelchairs or walkers. Several passengers used canes.
The crew—captain, mate, engineer, deckhand, cook and steward—are highly skilled and gladly explain the ship’s operation. Two captains switch roles every week, so a backup captain is always aboard. The chef shops for local foods, regional wines, and accommodates food allergies. The food service was outstanding, sometimes including freshly caught shrimp and salmon. Breakfasts had a full range of hot and cold items, lunch was a cold buffet, and a hot meal was served at dinner.
Marianne Scott writes for marine and other publications in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. She has authored Naturally Salty—Coastal Characters of the Pacific Northwest, published by TouchWood Editions. She also wrote a commissioned coffee-table book for the Taiwanese luxury yacht builder entitled, Ocean Alexander—the First 25 Years. She co-authored Vancouver boatbuilder Ben Vermeulen’s memoir, Before I Forget. She’s completing a book on the craft distilleries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enjoy other articles by Marianne Scott in our feature article collection:
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An Exploration of Oregon’s Wild Pacific Coast
A Geological Adventure in Utah’s National Parks
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Exploring Ancient Rome Underground