Wildlife in Desolation Sound
From the very very large to the smallest of the small, experience the wildlife in Desolation Sound
From the very very large to the smallest of the small, experience the wildlife in Desolation Sound
Animal life in Desolation Sound is abundant and diverse, and sure to delight all from the smallest children to the seasoned kayak veteran.
Bird life abounds in the air, the trees, the shore, and the ocean itself. On land mammals as diverse as bears and deer to squirrels and minks roam.
Sea based mammals such as whales, seals and dolphins can be seen year round. While the rich, colourful intertidal life is a whole other world to be discovered!
Below is just a small fraction of the wildlife that can be encountered in Desolation Sound.
Bald Eagles are unmistakable in Desolation Sound, which is the home for dozens of nesting pairs, often spotted far and high in the distance by the sight of their white head feathers juxtaposed by the green of the trees in which they are perched.
Eagles create huge nests out of an accumulation of twigs and branches high in the oldest trees and often return year after year to nest in the same location, close to the ocean, where they feed opportunistically on fish, dead sea mammals, and even smaller birds such as duck hatchlings that stray too far from mother.
Ospreys – or ‘fish hawks’ – are another well known and easily identified raptor often seen in the waterways of Desolation Sound, seemingly hovering in mid-air – a method known as ‘kiting’ – before plunging towards the water and more often than not emerging powerfully, soaked, with the prize of a fish in its talons. These large birds, flying with a ‘kink’ in their wrists that gives them a distinctive ‘M’ shape in the air, with white and black markings underneath, especially like to frequent estuaries and river mouths and can be seen in great numbers at the head of Theodosia Inlet, an intriguing and seldom-visited day-trip from Penrose Bay.
Another common large bird often seen circling far, far overhead is the turkey vulture, scanning the land and sea with their sharp eyesight and excellent sense of smell for decaying animals on which to feed. Seldom seen on land – except when feeding – a turkey vulture is easily identified by it’s lilted, gliding flight. Turkey vultures are extremely adept at using pockets of ‘thermals’ – areas of rising, warm air that allow them to soar high for long periods without flapping their winds, conserving precious energy to keep them off land for as long as possible, and are most commonly sighted far in the distance, titlting from side to side as they move from one pocket of warm air to the next.
A most common sight, especially in early summer before the young birds are old enough to make it on their own, is that of the mother merganser and her long line of ducklings trailing fretfully in her wake. These handsome birds with their rusty red ‘mohawks’ are easily distinguishable and abundant along the coast, especially amongst rocky islets or fishing as a family group in protected coves like our serene launch site at Penrose Bay.
Larger and preferring more dynamic conditions, surf scoters are regularly seen in spring and late summer, bobbing up and down in the waves offshore. These predominantly black, powerful looking ducks have a large, swollen bill with distinct orange and black markings, and come close to land only to feed on mussels and other small shellfish that they wrench from underwater rocks with their bills.
Smaller, but no less abundant and distinctive, Desolation Sound is one of the best places in the world to view the enigmatic marbled murrelet. These tiny, ruddy brown ducks are often heard before they’re seen, chirping their high pitched calls to one another as they emerge suddenly from below the surface with tiny fish between their bills. These birds are designed more for flying underwater than in the air – in fact they are closely related to the puffins off the west coast – often disappearing in front of your eyes as they dive for 30 seconds or more at a time before reappearing nearby just as suddenly as they left.
Other typical ducks that are commonly sighted are the similar looking buffleheads and goldeneyes, marked by a distinctive white dot below the eye on their large ‘buffalo’ shaped heads, as well as the brilliantly coloured male harlequin duck, which congregate in large groups on the coast during the summer before the females return from their inland breeding grounds with their offspring.
Finally, one of the most distinctive wading birds sighted all over Desolation Sound is the noble profile of the great blue heron, which despite becoming increasingly vulnerable across British Columbia is frequently seen standing silently, gazing into shallow water, before striking with great speed and snatching small fish from the water with their rapier-like bills.
Cormorants are diving birds that spend most of their time when not fishing standing upright on the shore, or on floating logs or breakwaters, in large groups with their wings outstretched to dry. This is because, unlike most seabirds, their wings are not waterproof, which allows them to dive deeper in pursuit of fish. Large colonies of Brandt’s cormorant exist year-round on Major Rock just north of Lund in the Strait of Georgia and can be seen all over Desolation Sound flying with a distinctive long profile, low over the water in single file.
In the lower branches above protected waters, paddlers are often startled by the surprised cackle of the belted kingfisher as it flits nervously from tree to tree, always seeming to keep just ahead of any approaching kayakers as they glide along the coast. These handsome, medium sized birds with blue and white markings are notably antisocial, barely seeming to tolerate each other let alone the presence of humans. If you can get close enough to watch a kingfisher fish, however, you can’t help but be impressed; they will hover briefly in the air and then literally throw themselves at the surface of the water, corralling small fish from side to side before they are able to snatch them up in the bills and return swiftly to their perch to feed.
On shore, especially rocky islets amid the copious mussel beds that cover the intertidal zone in Desolation Sound, comical looking oyster catchers pry small shellfish open with their fluorescent orange beaks, which stand out in stark contrast to their black, crow-like feathers. If disturbed in any way – especially when unwittingly paddling close to their nests – oyster catchers will be sure to announce their presence with a series of high pitched, scream-like cackles as they flit from rock to rock in an attempt to herd the danger away.
Ironically, the diet of these popular funny birds rarely include oysters, as their beaks are not strong enough to pry open hardier shelled prey. Mussels and limpets make up the bulk of their food, which exists in abundance on our rocky coastline.
A species of bird that will more likely hear, or even see evidence of its presence, before you see it, is the pileated woodpecker (and it’s close relatives the downy woodpecker and red-breasted sap sucker). All three species of woodpecker are found in the coastal woodland forests of Desolation Sound, tapping out a nest or searching for bugs and the sweet sap of conifer trees with their impossible strong beaks.
Hummingbirds are also frequently seen amongst the flowering plants on the coast – such as salal and salmon berry patches – furiously defending their nests and feeding grounds from each other with a frenzy of cackled warnings and a helicopter-like buzz as they dart from flower to flower, tree to tree. Most commonly on our trips we see the colourful and tiny rufous hummingbirds, who migrate north bloom by bloom from their winter feeding grounds in Mexico and stay throughout the northern summer, and especially seem to like hanging around our Desolation Cabana Eco Resort!
Paddle around any rocky point in Desolation Sound on a calm day with a nice low tide, especially if the sun is beating down on the bare granite, and you are likely sooner or later to come face to face with group of sunbathing harbour seals enjoying the warm summer weather, camouflaged against the mottled rocks with their colours of speckled black and grey and white.
Huge colonies of seals gather in certain locations throughout Desolation Sound where the fishing is good and the shoreline is accommodating. Two such locations are the cliffs on the western shore of Kinghorn Island – location of Cabana Desolation Eco Resort – and Major Rock north of Lund, where seals and all kinds of birds can be observed year round.
If you happen to be in Desolation Sound in the spring or fall, you may be treated to the sight – and sound, and smell – of overwintering sea lions in addition to our plentiful seal population. Most commonly encountered are the California sea lion, commonly hauled out on rocks, log booms and wharves, resting in the water with their flippers in the air to minimise heat loss, or powerfully surging through the water in search of fish. These eared seals have a very distinctive, honking bark, which often gives away their presence long before they are seen in person. California sea lions mostly head south to large rookeries in California and Baja during the summer months, but some small colonies do remain year round.
Larger and more elusive, the grizzly-bear like Steller’s sea lion is occasionally spotted in Desolation Sound during the shoulder season along with the California variety. These sea lions can grow to a size of over 1 tonne and are tan coloured all over, compared to the black uniform of their California cousins. While the Stellers also head off to rookeries in the summer, most of this species heads north instead of south, breeding in huge colonies predominantly in islands off Alaska, but also as far south as northern California.
The harbour porpoise and Dall’s porpoise are commonly seen individually or in small pods of up to 10-12 members, silently surfacing their small dorsal fins in five or six repetitive arches before diving and staying submerged for 2-6 minutes at a time. From a distance these separate species of porpoise are difficult to tell apart, with the Dall’s porpoise showing a white dash on the dorsal fin and being slightly larger than the harbour variety.
A larger and more gregarious cousin of the porpoise, yet spotted less inside Vancouver Island, is the Pacific white-sided dolphin, which is usually seen in groups of up to 50 members, but occasionally in larger groups of several hundred or more! When in larger groups like this it is common to notice a huge mass of ‘splashing’ or choppy water making it’s way towards you before any individual members of the pod are identified. These dolphins enjoy riding the wakes of ferries and small boats, and can be identified by the white and grey markings on their underside and at the tip of their dorsal fin, their larger size than porpoises, as well as their ‘flamboyant’ behaviour including constant breaches and playful nature.
The most prized sighting in this category of small whales in Desolation Sound, however, is undoubtedly that of the ‘demon dolphin’, the orca or killer whale. In latin the word ‘orca’ translates to ‘the underworld’. These enigmatic whales, with their incredible intelligence, co-operative hunting, strength and speeds of up to 25 knots, are indeed a formidable marine predator, though there have been no recorded negative orca / human interactions outside of aquariums.
In Desolation Sound we often encounter the transient variety of killer whale. These are a genetically distinct sub-group from the ‘resident’ orcas – though we do occasionally see these groups as well in our waters south of their traditional range – that eat mainly mammals such as seals and sea lions. Unlike seals, orcas are not a guaranteed sighting in Desolation Sound at any time, but when they do make an appearance, especially when viewed from the seat of a kayak, inches from the water, it is an awe-inspiring moment.
Gray whales have a low hump on their back instead of a dorsal fin and are mottled in colours of grey and white on dark grey skin, while humpbacks have a darker, almost black body with a low, stubby dorsal fin. Both species can be seen breaching and spy-hopping, and generally make 5-10 surfaces (4-6 for gray whales) before raising their flukes and diving for extended periods (3-5 minutes for grays and up to 20 minutes at a time for humpbacks).
While usually visiting the BC coast during migration, if the feeding is good both species have been known to stick around for months at a time!
By far the most abundant sea star is the ochre star (or purple sea star) which can be found in huge clusters throughout the intertidal zone. These 5-rayed stars range in colour from purple to oink to pale orange, with a very hard spiny body, feeding on mussels, barnacles, limpets and snails, which they often digest by pushing their stomach outside their body until the prey is broken down enough to retreat inside their ‘shell’.
Another conspicuous sea star that has been affected by the above disease is the multi armed (up to 24 in each individual) sunflower star, which is both the largest (arm radius up to 46 cm) and most predatory sea star found in Desolation Sound. These sea stars are soft-skinned and malleable, moving up to 110m and hour in its hunt for sea urchins, sea cucumbers, clams, sand dollars and even other sea stars! Closely related to the sunflower star in looks is the smaller and smoother morning sunstar, which similarly preys on other sea stars and elicits escape responses from many intertidal creatures.
Other common sea stars found in the upper intertidal zone and seen by kayakers include the leather star, which mottled brown and orange and has a smooth leathery surface (and also, apparently, smells like garlic if you are brave enough to put your face close enough to smell it!) and the pretty vermillion star which tends to drop deeper in the intertidal zone as the waters warm in the summer months.
Related to sea stars biologically if not in looks is the spiny California sea cucumber, a long orange and red cucumber-shaped animal covered with soft ‘spines’ on three sides, and a muscular ‘foot’ on the underside with hundreds of tube-like feet that enable it to grip tightly to rocks and crawl slowly in search of food. Due to the relative absence of its main predator, the sunflower star, sea cucumbers have been seen in great abundance in Desolation Sound in recent years.
When paddling through areas of noticeable current at low tide, be sure to search the shallow water for the giant red sea urchin, which graze extensively on drift and attached algae. The ferocious looking spines operate both as a defence mechanism and also as a means to grab passing seaweed – especially kelp – which it feeds on. Other urchin species commonly found in Desolation Sound are the similar sized purple sea urchin, and the much smaller white and green sea urchin, which can form massive carpets or barrens along the shore.
What from a small distance looks to be a wall of glistening algae is often actually hundreds and thousands of small aggregating anemones clinging to exposed, low intertidal rocks. This species actually gets it colour by eating single celled algae that remains alive inside the body of the anemone. The colourful tentacles will retract when touched with your finger, and even give off a slight ‘sting’ in the form of a noticeable numbing anaesthetic, which it uses to paralyze and consume small fish and crustaceans!
Much larger, the giant plumose anemone appear underwater as brilliant white and brown frills attached to long strong stalks, while above water at low tide they droop in unattractive blobs by changing their internal water pressure. They are common in dense colonies and often found on wharves and the underside of floats due to a tolerance of poor quality water and low salinity. Peer over the edge of the wharf at Refuge Cove and you’ll be sure to spot groups of these pretty underwater anemones!
Pacific oysters are at once the most abundant and most conspicuous shellfish on the coast, as well as the most profitable. These large, strong oysters with a fluted white shell were introduced from Japan in the early 20th century for their size, taste and rate of production that dwarfs that of the native olympia oyster which is has largely supplanted. Okeover and Malaspina Inlets are the centre of a vast aquaculture network that specializes in oyster farming right up and down the coast, with many small and large shellfish ‘farms’ visible in protected bays and inlets for importation all over the world.
Some of the most common and edible species of clam that is harvested in this area today include the Pacific littleneck clam, manila clam, and butter clam, all found abundantly and co-existing together on our beaches, harvested at low tide with rakes and garden forks! As the tide drops, watch for the telltale jets of water that shoot out of holes in the rocky sand, indicating the presence of a clam just below the surface.
There is also a small but lucrative commercial geoduck fishery in Desolation Sound. This clam is the largest intertidal clam in the world, with a huge, long siphon that cannot physically retract into the shell, giving an entirely comical appearance. These clams are only harvested recreationally at the lowest tides and can bury themselves at the slightest tremor on the surface up to 3 feet deep, making them very difficult to capture!
The third prolific and edible shellfish found all over the Desolation Sound coast is the blue mussel, which can be seen blanketing entire rock formations and wharf pilons in the intertidal area. These small mussels live for only 2-3 years in this area and grow to about 3 inches long, and they are an important food for many marine species such as the ochre star, whelks, nudibranchs, and even bird species such as surf scoters and black oyster catchers.
The most common larger crab found in these waters – found from rocky intertidal zones to floating kelp forests – is the shield-backed kelp crab, also known as the spider crab, with an angular, almost triangle shaped carapace and long slender legs reminiscent of a spider hiding amongst the floating seaweed – which is the main part of its diet – or lurking just beneath the surface on rocks and jetties searching for barnacles and other small crustaceans. These interesting crabs are known to startle unsuspecting snorkelers as they make their way through eerie looking kelp forests, though unless they are deliberately disturbed these crustaceans are far more interested snipping away at the kelp than they are snipping away at you!
If you are launching your kayak at our Okeover Inlet location at low tide, be sure to look down amongst the rocks and the sand and notice the thousands – probably tens of thousands – of tiny, colourful shore crabs scuttling along the ground both above and below the tide, feasting on barnacles and other miniscule sea creatures.
Shore crabs – consisting of numerous species – only grow to a couple of centimetres across, but occasionally amongst these cute little critters you can spot the much larger red rock crab, which can be seen amongst eelgrass or on rocky beaches in the intertidal zone. Preferring sandy beaches and eelgrass beds, Desolation Sound is also home to the sought after dungeness crab, which has been – and continues to be – highly valued for its meat for thousands of years.
When paddling in Desolation Sound in late summer, before the first big fall rains that fill the valleys and rivers to bursting point, the waters are constantly disturbed by the splash and bright flash of salmon waiting for the right conditions to enter their ancestral spawning grounds to complete one of the greatest migratory and biological cycles in the natural world.
While some species do have a spring spawning cycle, all five salmon found in these waters – chinook, chum, coho, pink andsockeye – return in great numbers to spawn in late summer and fall in streams and rivers all over the BC coast.
Another popular sport and commercial fish found in Desolation Sound is the rockfish – consisting of many separate sub-species – a large , extremely long-lived fish that often live to ages of over 100 years! To help protect these fish from overfishing in this area, a designated Rockfish Conservation Area exists throughout much of Desolation Sound.
Other fish species commonly encountered in Desolation Sound include lingcod, perch, sole, various species of sculpin, dogfish, and even the friendly and unique looking wolf eel, which have been known to allow curious divers to feed them out of their hands!
It’s often the case that the most surprising mammal sighting in Desolation Sound isn’t due to the animals scarcity, but simply due to the fact that you simply don’t expect to see it in such an aquatic setting. For example, you set up camp in a group of small rocky islands with no water source or seemingly much vegetation at all, and suddenly you notice, on the islet immediately across the way, a deer and fawn happily grazing on sea grass and small, dry shrubs. Yes, deer can swim, and often do, turning up in some of the most inhospitable and isolated islands in Desolation Sound!
Black bears are a perfect example of this. In the early spring these big omnivores come down to the shore and feed on herring spawn and, if they can find them, fish and marine mammal carcasses, while in the fall they are well known to frequent salmon bearing rivers to feast on the rich, fatty salmon and pack on the weight before they retire to their winter dens.
Coastal grizzly bears are similarly reliant at certain times of year on marine species like salmon, and though they are rarer than their smaller black furred cousins, they can be seen at the northern edge of the Desolation Sound area, in the valleys and at the river mouths of Toba Inlet and the fjords to the north.
River otters are another land-based mammal that is dependant on the the ocean for most of its diet, including crabs, fish, shrimp and young seabirds. River otters look like large weasels (to whom they are related) with sleek brown fur. Unlike sea otters on the west coast of Vancouver Island, river otters only hunt at sea, returning to beds of hollow logs or stumps on land to sleep and nest.
Minks are another member of the weasel family that are commonly encountered in Desolation Sound. Minks are semi-aquatic carnivores that feed on rodents, fish, crustaceans, frogs and birds. Wary of humans, minks are most often seen scurrying between rocks and boulders on shore, always keeping one step ahead as you paddle past.
Of course, where there are deer and other potential prey, there are usually predators. Desolation Sound is no exception. Though rarely sighted and generally indifferent to humans, cougars and wolves are occasionally spotted in the forest and islands of Desolation Sound. As with bear and deer, be careful how you store your food and keep a close eye on small children and pets to help keep these beautiful animals wild.