Can You Kayak with Whales in Desolation Sound?
A commonly asked question from guests planning on visiting us in Desolation Sound concerns wildlife: “What will we see and when is the best time to see it?! Is it possible to kayak with whales?!”
Whales and dolphins are some of the most asked about wildlife, and for good reason! These charismatic marine mammals have fascinated and excited us all for thousands of years. In Desolation Sound we commonly see several types of whale and dolphin, from orcas and humpbacks down to harbour porpoises.
While Desolation Sound is more known for its warm temperatures and striking mountain scenery than its concentration of whale sightings compared to the Johnstone Strait, the increasing number of sightings in recent years has been fantastic to see for our guests and guides alike!
Following is a brief description of each species and their migration patters through Desolation Sound.
- Transient Orcas (Killer Whales)
Orcas are fascinating, well-loved, and occasionally feared apex predators that have a well-earned reputation for both astounding intelligence and devastating hunting methods. On the inside of Vancouver Island in British Columbia there are two commonly seen sub species of orca – the resident ‘fish eaters’ and the transient ‘mammal eaters’.
In Desolation Sound, we are far more likely to encounter the transient variety, named for their seemingly range-less movement up and down the coast in search of their preferred prey: the harbour seal. They will also prey on sea lions, dolphins and porpoises; but don’t worry, despite heir ‘mammal eating’ reputation, there has never been a recorded attack on a human by a transient orca in the wild.
Transients travel in groups of 4-6 individuals, while residents are usually seen in much larger family pods. They are slightly larger than residents and tend to have a dorsal fin with a more pointed tip.
We have the potential to see and kayak with orcas in Desolation Sound at any time of year as they roam through the area in search of prey, though it is definitely not a guarantee. We will often have multiple sightings of a group over a 4 or 5 day period, and then a period of no sightings for a while before the pod – or another pod entirely – returns briefly again.
- Humpback Whales
After being fished out of the waters inside Vancouver Island early last century, humpbacks have made a stunning return to Desolation Sound and the Strait of Georgia in recent years. Many of our guests have had the opportunity to kayak with whales such as humpbacks in Desolation!
The typical migratory pattern of humpbacks is to head south for the winter to warmer climates to breed, and then return in the summer to feed in our nutrient rich waters. Anecdotally, we start to see more humpbacks in June in this area, and the numbers increase steadily and peak in late August and September, before the huge mammals begin their migration south en masse.
That said, a small population does tend to remain year round in the Strait of Georgia. The are also noted to be arriving earlier in numbers and leaving later, most likely due to the abundance of food!
Adult humpbacks range in length from 12-16m and weigh 25-30 tons! They have a black body with a stubby dorsal fin, and are usually seen solo or in small groups of 2 or 3. They will usually surface 5-10 times before raising their flukes and diving for up to 20 minutes.
However, lucky guests have spotted these huge mammals breaching and throwing their entire body out of the water at one time. Despite this, biologists are still not quite sure why whales exhibit this exciting behaviour!
- Pacific White Sided Dolphins
Pacific White Sided Dolphins are usually spotted in pods of up to 50 members, but sometimes they are seen in larger pods of several hundred dolphins or more!
They can be easily identified by white and grey markings underneath and at the tip of their dorsal fin. They are much larger than porpoises, and they often exhibit flamboyant behaviour such as constant breaching and surfing in the wake of ferries and power boats.
Dolphins spend most of their time on the inside of Vancouver Island in the passageways north of Desolation Sound – the Discover Islands, mainland fjords, and into Johnstone Strait. However a couple of times a year there are sightings of large dolphin pods in the Sound and even in Okeover and Malaspina Inlet. Our 5 and 7 day Expedition Tours have a greater chance of sighting dolphins as they head further into these passageways and mountains fjords.
Two kinds of porpoise can be spotted in Desolation Sound – the Harbour Porpoise and Dall’s Porpoise – and for the layman it can be hard to tell them apart. The Dall’s Porpoise shows a white dash on the dorsal fin, and is slightly larger than the Harbour Porpoise.
Porpoises can be seen year round and tend to be seen in small pods of 2-5 ‘porpoising’ along at the surface. They rarely – if ever – breach or play, and are far less gregarious than their larger dolphin cousins.
For more information on kayaking with whales, dolphins, porpoises and all other wildlife in Desolation Sound, please check out our Wildlife Page on this website!
Desolation Sound is renowned as a premier sea kayak destination on the British Columbia coast, but few people know that there are a number of great hikes – only accessible by boat in Desolation Sound – that are perfect to break up the paddling.
These Desolation Sound hikes have differing features and difficulties, from forested strolls to freshwater lakes, to uphill slogs to breathtaking vistas. Below are three of our favourites, all easily accessible for kayakers on a Desolation Sound adventure!
- Sunshine Coast Trail to Sarah Point or Wednesday Lake
The Sunshine Coast Trail is gaining in notoriety among hikers in British Columbia, with 180km of trail and 14 backcountry huts along it’s route.
Few people are aware however that the trail starts at Sarah Point, in the SW corner of Desolation Sound, and can be used for a number of distinct day hikes while you are visiting!
The easiest place to access this trail is at Feather Cove, which is at the tip of Malaspina Peninsula close to the entrance to Okeover and Malaspina Inlets. From the easy landing on the beach the trail heads off in two directions – west to a beautiful viewpoint over Desolation Sound (and eventually the trailhead at Sarah Point), and south through sections of old growth cedar and Douglas fir to a number of freshwater lakes that are perfect to jump into on a long, hot summer day.
- Llanover Mountain from Roscoe Bay
A rarely travelled trail – by kayakers at least – is the climb to the peak of Llanover Mountain that is accessed by an easily accessed trailhead in Roscoe Bay. The trail is mostly uphill, easy to follow, and takes from 1.5-2 hours one way.
The views from the top, however, are spectacular! From the viewpoint at the end of the trail you can see right back west over Desolation Sound, the Strait of Georgia, Cortes and Quadra Islands, and the peaks of Vancouver Island way in the distance.
Head there early in the morning to beat the heat, and then paddle over the Black Lake at the head of Roscoe Bay afterwards for a well earned swim in a beautiful freshwater lake before paddling home.
- Unwin Lake from Tenedos Bay
With its location in Tenedos Bay – an easy hour’s long paddle from the Curme Islands – Unwin Lake is a very popular day trip for kayakers base camping in Desolation Sound.
The easy trail from the campsite runs straight and wide through a beautiful, mossy forest. Occasional side-tracks veer off from the main trail and visit the creek leading to the bay. After about 15 minutes the trail meets Unwin Lake, and you can follow it clockwise around the lake and choose a private nook that speaks to you for lunch and a swim in the warm fresh water.
The trail continues further, past great spots for cliff jumping and further away from other visitors. Returning to your kayaks the way you came, another 45 minutes is all it takes to return to your base camp on the Curme Islands.
2019 will be the 25th year that Powell River Sea Kayak has been running kayak tours, offering kayak rentals and lessons, and recently added eco resort packages at Cabana Desolation Eco Resort into Desolation Sound, British Columbia.
Over that time we have cultivated a reputation of quality, safety and local knowledge that has made us the Desolation Sound kayak company.
Why Desolation Sound? What makes this place so special to us, so much so that we have dedicated one quarter of a century introducing it to thousands and thousands of guests from all over the world?
1/ Easy Access, despite being at the End of the Road
Desolation Sound, Okeover Inlet, and the village of Lund are often referred to as ‘the end of the road’ on the mainland coast of British Columbia. At the terminus for Highway 101 north from Vancouver, it is indeed a remote and adventurous place! Deep inlets and immense mountains cut off any potential settlements or road access beyond the Sound, and the further you paddle towards and into the Coast Mountains the easier it is to lose yourself in the scenery and disconnect from the urban world left behind.
However, remote doesn’t necessarily mean difficult to access.
Compared to other premier kayaking locations on the BC coast – from northern Vancouver Island to the Central Coast to Haida Gwaii – Desolation Sound is surprisingly easy to get to from Vancouver and beyond!
A beautifully scenic 5 hour drive – complete with two spectacular ferry crossings – is all it takes from downtown Vancouver to reach the burgeoning seaside town of Powell River, the staging ground of Desolation Sound.
Tour guests can make this travel at a convenient pace the day before they launch into the wilderness, even leaving work on a Friday afternoon in the summer to reach the Upper Sunshine Coast in time for a spectacular coastal sunset.
2/ Warm Ocean Temperatures
A lot has been said about the warm waters of Desolation Sound, but it honestly cannot be overstated how unique this environment is on the west coast.
Tidal streams flowing north through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and south through Johnstone Strait meet in Desolation Sound from both directions, meaning that the Sound does not have large volumes of water coming in and out of the area each day. This means that we do not get strong tidal currents that can be found in other areas inside Vancouver Islands, and that the water has the opportunity to rise to temperatures much higher than anywhere else in British Columbia!
Practically, this means that summer in Desolation Sound can see ocean temps reach comfortably over 20 degrees celsius in places! Swimming and snorkelling are favourite pastimes of guests on our tours, especially after a nice, hot summer’s day on the water.
Opportunities for education and interpretation abound when you can get right close and personal with intertidal wildlife like we do in Desolation Sound. Snorkelling allows our guests to gain new perspectives on this little encountered oceanic world, and the warm temperatures make the experience unforgettable in more ways than one!
3/ Steep Mountain Scenery & Deep Coastal Inlets
The Coast Mountains frame Desolation Sound to the east like no other paddling Destination in British Columbia. Thousands of years ago, glaciers emerged from the peaks above and carved the steep mountain valleys and cliffs that are synonymous with Desolation Sound.
These mountains form an impenetrable barrier that puts any further mainland coastal settlement north of Desolation Sound out of the question, and proved to be the true nemesis of Captain George Vancouver back in 1792 – a wall of ice and rock that disallowed any further exploration of the fabled North-West Passage that he was desperately seeking.
Mount Denman is of course the crowning jewel of the mountain-scape, causing guests to let out an exhalation of breath in appreciation as the scene slowly unfolds as they enter Desolation Sound from Malaspina Inlet to the south.
Further north these steep mountains are punctuated by long, wide, deep coastal fjords that snack their way into the Coastal Mountain range before ending in wide river estuaries that feed untold numbers of birds and terrestrial wildlife.
Toba Inlet is the fjord directly north of Desolation Sound that we visit on some of our expedition tours. Turquoise ocean water meets towering cliffs that rise into immense ice capped mountains thousands of feet above. Ribbons of water cascade – sometimes gently, sometimes with a thunderous roar – from hidden lakes far above, and you can spend a whole day paddling in awe of the grandeur of the scenery without seeing another soul.
4/ Islands, Islets, Coves & Hidden Lakes
The grandiose scenery is certainly awe-inspiring, but it’s the small and hidden features of Desolation Sound that make it feel so intimate no matter what time of year you visit.
Uninhabited islands and tranquil coves are found round almost every corner and Countless bluffs, ledges and pocket beaches are perfect for pulling up a comfy camp chair and a good book.
Hot summer days can bring a craving for a refreshing freshwater dip, and Desolation Sound caters to us here as well. Paddle up to a quiet cove, leave your kayaks above the high tide line, and follow mossy trails beneath towering trees to hidden lakes undetectable from the ocean below.
5/ Great Summer Weather
Coastal British Columbia is known as a temperate rainforest, which means that during the cooler, winter months we see a lot of precipitation. Few people know however, that from mid-June to late-July BC actually has the driest weather in all of Canada – and without the muggy, 40-degree temperatures that can be found elsewhere as well!
Long, summer days warming to temps in the mid-twenties celsius are the norm out here in July and August, and couples with water temperatures topping 20 degrees you could be forgiven for thinking your are sitting on a nice southern beach if it were not for the preponderance of granite instead of yellow sand.
Less clouds also gives way to more epic sunsets, something that Powell River and Desolation Sound is increasingly becoming famous for in the age of social media. Deep reds, oranges and yellows dance slowly across the summer sky, the perfect ending to another spectacularly perfect day in paradise.
6/ Increasingly Diverse Wildlife
We’ve always been proud of the wildlife viewing opportunities in Desolation Sound – from colourful intertidal invertebrates to transient orcas to bears and other terrestrial mammals on the forested shores.
In recent years however we have certainly noticed an uptick of some very exciting sightings. Most recently, humpback whales have been returning to the waters inside Vancouver Island in huge populations every summer for the first time since they were effectively whaled out in the early 20th century. This suggests not only a greater respect for these magnificent creatures from human populations, but also an abundance of microscopic food sources that these humongous animals consume!
7/ Fascinating Local History
Desolation Sound has been home to human inhabitants for over 10 000 years. We acknowledge the traditional stewards of this land – the Sliammon, Klahoose and Homalco – in which we paddle, hike and enjoy so much today. Indeed, there are many illustrations of this cultural and spiritual history past that we can still see and marvel at today – from pictographs in Homfray Channel to clam gardens in Okeover Inlet and shell middens in Prideaux Haven.
From this traditional past throughout European settlement to the modern day, Desolation Sound has always had a rich and colourful story to tell, attracting intrepid explorers and unsavoury vagabonds alike throughout the years, hilariously illustrated recently in Grant Lawrence’s bestselling book ‘Adventures in Solitude’.
As you can see, there is no shortage of adventure to write home about when discussing Desolation Sound, and after 25 years of exploring we find that there are still more stones to turn as we move into our second quarter century of life in this fascinating and beautiful part of the world.
Come join us in 2019 for our 25th season and #experiencedesolation for yourself!
[This is the second and final instalment of a series written by PRSK guide Luke Raftl. Read the first Part of the series here]
After 3 days on the move and paddling around 40 nautical miles, the middle day of our adventure was a rest day of sorts. Using the Toba Inlet camp as a base for a whole day, we woke and ate breakfast without the usual hustle, and launched without having to pull down our tents just after 10am.
Our destination was deeper into Toba Inlet, with no set itinerary or plans other than to experience the thrill of paddling into the mountains. Huge granite cliffs plunged on both sides straight into the turquoise waters of the fjord, and every corner we turned gave us a new perspective of the rugged Coast Mountains we had come to explore.
Already, as early as it was, we could feel the first breath of wind being pulled into the inlet by the rising temperatures of the day. These sea breezes – or anabatic winds – are prevalent amongst the coastal inlets of British Columbia. With the warm air over the mountains rising in the heat and being replaced by the cooler ocean air from the west, these winds can easily reach over 25 knots on an otherwise calm day and create wind waves in Toba of over 6 feet!
While for now it was still just a nice breeze at our back, we paddled along the steep cliffs and came underneath a cascading waterfall that dropped from a glacial lake many hundreds of metres above – not quite as thunderous as it would have been in May, still a impressive sight in the mid-summer heat. After paddling a little further into the inlet and taking pictures underneath the silent and majestic peaks, we turned back a with a small pang of regret and made our way back to camp into the building wind.
Using the varied shoreline as cover to get out of the gusts as they funnelled up the centre of the inlet, we comfortably returned to camp in time for a late lunch and some relaxing swimming and reading on the beach, content in the knowledge that more good days of paddling remained on the loop home.
We were on the move again on day 5, crossing the mouth of Toba Inlet just after 10am and entering Homfray Channel for our long return journey to Desolation Sound. One guest was overheard over breakfast lamenting that the mountain scenery was all behind them starting from today, and Kyle and I smiled in the knowledge that there were still many breathtaking mountain vistas to come on another perfectly clear and warm day.
We were making great time as we entered Homfray from the north. Our guests were by now supremely confident and comfortable paddling for extended periods with efficient strokes that they could continue all day long. There wasn’t a ripple on the water, our only enemy was the beating sun, that we know would increase in intensity as the day went on.
We paddled past Atwood Bay on the mainland side of the channel in serene conditions, idly chatting away and enjoying the mountain views. Iconic Mount Denman looked much different but no less spectacular from this direction, rising jaggedly above our heads.
Suddenly Kris, one of our guests, stopped mid conversation and stared into the distance.
“I’m not sure, but I think I just saw…”
We all exclaimed in disbelief as a massive humpback whale came up in the distance, its entire body almost leaving the water and becoming airborne down towards the mouth of Homfray Creek in front of us.
We came together and waited, seconds ticking slowly and breathlessly by.
And then again, on more time, the giant repeated its breach after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 15 seconds, as we waited and held our breath.
We all whooped and hollered and the whale – or whales, as we could now see that there were two of them – began moving in front of our path towards the middle of the channel.
For 25 minutes the group sat together, rafted up in silence, taking photos and watching the slow drift of the whales north as they came up together for air, one by one, over and again, before they were long out of sight, and we returned to the paddle ahead.
We had lunch in a nice bay at Homfray Creek, and then jumped back in the kayaks and continued south past Homfray Lodge. High up on the rocks just north of the lodge you can spy old pictographs created in a time long past, and we sat and admired them and tried to interpret their meanings amongst ourselves.
On our left we paddled beyond Forbes Bay and Forbes Creek, directly below Mount Denman itself. The day was getting on and the sun was hot in the sky, and we could feel the energy of the group slowly seeping away.
“Just a little further”, we urged. “Not long now, a couple more bays ahead.”
Finally we reached our goal: a beautiful campsite that looked both north up Homfray Channel to the mountains had left, and west down beyond Desolation Sound again to the rugged spine of Vancouver Island far beyond. It was a wonderful point of land shimmering in the golden afternoon light, and our guests took to the water and swam in the warm ocean temperatures as Kyle and I prepared dinner and appetizers under an incredible Maple tree that reached it’s arm like branches out and over the sea.
The day dawned hot and bright again, and we prepared for our return to Desolation Sound.
We had planned the Mountains Tour to avoid Desolation during the August long weekend, and now hoped to return to the Sound at the tail end of the busiest weekend of the year and avoid most of the crowds.
We paddled south along the final mainland potion of Homfray Channel. As we came upon Prideaux Haven – an area renowned as a busy and popular anchorage for sailors and yachts – we could see a number of boats coming and going from the sheltered cove. Passing by along the northern edge of the anchorage, we avoided the traffic jam and then cut in amongst the islands and bays on Prodeaux haven’s western edge, before deciding to continue on and land on the idyllic Curme Islands before lunch, thus giving us all an extended afternoon of rest and relaxation after some long and rewarding days on the water.
The Curmes are popular with kayakers, especially in August, but we arrived early enough in the day to claim the entire southern Curme Isle for ourselves. As the afternoon dragged into evening and the sun began to set in hues of orange and yellow and red over Mink Island to the west, there was plenty of swimming and even some self-rescue practice by some of our more committed guests!
Finally the day ended and we all started to head to our tents, only for another cry to be heard in the night.
“Who wants to see the phosphorescence?!”
Kyle had gone down to clean one last dirty dish in the dark and had discovered that the magical, glowing lights of bioluminescent plankton were dancing beneath the surface of the water. We lingered for half an hour or more as sticks and rocks and eventually a few brave guests went into the water and swam amongst the glowing lights, before we all eventually made our way to our tents for the final time on this grand adventure.
We didn’t rush on our final morning, and after getting on the water just after 10.30am we crossed in more perfect conditions to the south shore of Mink Island and paddled all the way to the western point, before crossing back into Malaspina Inlet and the final stretch towards home.
The current was rushing into the inlet as we approached, and we relaxed and let the surge of inflowing water carry us almost effortlessly towards our lunch spot in Grace Harbour. After one final meal together upon the bluffs overlooking Okeover Inlet to the south, we silently made our way to Penrose Bay and our launch site, vaguely recognizing the sites we had seen on the first morning of the trip a week ago.
Civilization returned as we closed in on home: first vacation homes on the inlet, then the sight of kayakers looming up in front of us and leaving Okeover for the start of their own journey into Desolation Sound, and then finally we turned the corner and entered Penrose Bay and our destination was in sight.
Friendly staff from PRSK came down to hail us and help us with our kayaks and gear, and in no time we were all standing on the shore and packing our vehicles and saying our goodbyes.
After being threatened with storms of wind and rain in the lead-up to the tour, this turned out to be some of the best paddling weather we experienced all summer in Desolation Sound! With a group of committed guests – with fantastic attitudes – that were all eager to learn and experience this special area of the BC mainland coast, this 7-day Mountains Tour was a highlight of the season for us here at Powell River Sea Kayak.
For more information about out 5- and 7-day kayak expeditions, please click through to our Expeditions page on this website!