Wildlife in Desolation Sound
From the very, very large to the very, very small
From the very, very large to the very, very small
Bald Eagles are unmistakable, often spotted far and high in the distance by the sight of their white head feathers against the green of the trees. Paddling in Desolation Sound you will constantly hear their surprisingly melodic communication, indicating their presence is close.
Bald eagles create humongous nests out of accumulated twigs and branches up in the largest trees, and they will often return each year to nest in the same oceanfront location. They feed opportunistically on fish, dead sea mammals, and occasionally even small birds like ducklings that stray too far from their mother.
Ospreys are an easily identified raptor occasionally seen in and around Desolation Sound. These ‘fish hawks’ seemingly hover in mid-air – a fishing method known as ‘kiting’ – before plunging towards the water, more often than not emerging with a fish in their talons. They especially like to visit estuaries and river mouths, and are often encountered in great numbers at the head of Theodosia Inlet.
Turkey Vultures are seen scanning the land and sea with their sharp eyesight and excellent sense of smell, searching for decaying animals and carrion. While they are rarely seen on land, turkey vultures are easily identified by their lilted, gliding flight. They use pockets of ‘thermals’ – areas of rising, warm air – allowing them to glide high above for long periods and conserving energy. They are most commonly sighted far above, tilting from side to side as they move from one pocket of warm air to another.
Mother mergansers and their long line of ducklings trailing fretfully in her wake are a common sight in the early summer in Desolation Sound. These handsome looking birds sport rusty red ‘mohawks’, and are easily distinguishable and abundant all along the coast. They are especially spotted amongst rocky islets or fishing as a family in protected bays like our serene launch site in Okeover Inlet.
Larger than an average duck and preferring more whitewater, surf scoters are commonly seen in spring and late summer in Desolation Sound, bobbing up and down in the wind and waves. They are predominantly black, powerful looking ducks that have a large, swollen bill with distinct orange and black markings. Scoters will come close to shore to feed on mussels and other small shellfish that they tear from underwater rocks with their strong bills.
Desolation Sound is one of the top places on the coast to view the enigmatic marbled murrelet. These tiny brown ducks are usually heard before they’re seen, making their high pitched chirping calls as they emerge from below the surface, often with tiny fish in their bills. Murrelets are designed more for flying underwater than in the air, in fact they are closely related to the puffins off the west coast! They will often disappear in front of your eyes, diving for 30 seconds or more and reappearing suddenly just as quickly as they left.
Other common ducks that are often sighted in Desolation Sound are buffleheads and goldeneyes, which are marked with distinctive white dots below the eye on their large heads. There are also large numbers of the brilliantly coloured male harlequin duck, which come together in large groups during the summer while they wait for the females to return from their inland breeding grounds with their young.
One of the most distinctive looking birds sighted all over Desolation Sound and the BC coast is the noble looking great blue heron. While they are becoming increasingly vulnerable across British Columbia, GBHs are commonly seen standing silently along the coast here. Gazing into shallow water, they strike with sudden speed and snatch small fish with their rapier-like bills.
Cormorants are black diving birds that – when they’re not fishing – stand upright on a rock on the shore or floating logs or breakwaters in large groups, their wings outstretched to dry. Unlike most seabirds their wings are not waterproof! This allows them to dive deeper in pursuit of fish. Huge colonies of Brandt’s cormorant live all year on Major Rock, just north of Lund. They can often be seen in Desolation Sound flying with a distinctive profile, low over the water, in single file.
The cackle of the belted kingfisher as it flits nervously from tree to tree can sometimes startle a kayaker searching for peace and quiet! These medium sized, handsome birds have blue and white markings and are very notably antisocial. They barely seem to tolerate each other let alone the presence of humans. If you can get close enough to watch one fish, however, it is an impressive spectacle. Kingfishers hover momentarily in the air before literally throwing themselves at the water again and again, corralling small fish from side to side before snatching them up in their bills and returning swiftly to their branch to feed.
Oyster catchers pry the shells of mussels open and limpets off intertidal rocks with their fluorescent orange beaks, which stand out in stark contrast to their black, crow-like feathers. If disturbed – especially when a kayaker accidentally paddles close to their nests – oyster catchers announce their presence with a series of high pitched cackles, flitting from rock to rock in an attempt to herd the danger away.
One species of bird that you will most likely hear before you see it is the pileated woodpecker (and it’s close relatives the downy woodpecker and red-breasted sap sucker). All three types of woodpecker are found in the islands and forests of Desolation Sound. All three species are known for tapping out a nest or searching for bugs and the sap of conifer trees with their incredibly strong beaks.
Hummingbirds are often seen flitting between flowering plants on the west coast, furiously defending their nests and food sources from others with a cackled warning and a helicopter-like buzz as they dart around. We most commonly encounter the colourful rufous hummingbirds, who migrate north from their winter feeding grounds in Mexico and stay throughout the summer in Desolation Sound.
Paddling in Desolation Sound with a nice low tide, you are likely to sooner or later come face to face with group of sunbathing harbour seals, camouflaged against the rocks with various colours of speckled black and grey and white.
Seals gather in large colonies at certain locations throughout Desolation Sound, wherever the fishing is easy and the shoreline is accommodating. Two popular areas are the cliffs on the western shore of Kinghorn Island, and Major Rock north of Lund, where seals and interesting bird life can be observed all year.
If you are paddling in Desolation Sound in the spring or fall, you will likely be treated to sight – and sound, and smell – of rafts of overwintering sea lions, in addition to the plentiful population of seals. The most commonly sighted sea lion is the California Sea Lion, which can often be seen hauled out on rocks, log booms and wharves. They also rest in the water with their flippers in the air to minimise heat loss, and are often seen surging through the water in search of fish. California Sea Lions have a very distinctive ‘barking’ call, which gives their presence away long before they are sighted onl and. This species mostly heads south to large rookeries in California and Baja during the summer months, but some small colonies do remain year round.
Larger and less common than the California Sea Lions, the grizzly-bear like Steller Sea Lion is seen in Desolation Sound during the spring and fall seasons. These sea lions can grow to over 1 tonne and are tan coloured all over. While the Stellers also head off to mating rookeries in the summer months, this species heads north instead of south, breeding in huge colonies in islands off Alaska, but also as far south as northern California.
The harbour porpoise and Dall’s porpoise are occasionally spotted both individually and in small pods of up to 10-12, silently surfacing five or six times before diving and staying submerged for 2-6 minutes at once. The two species of porpoise are difficult to tell apart, but to keen observers the Dall’s porpoise will show a white dash on the dorsal fin, and appear slightly larger than the harbour variety.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is usually seen in groups of up to 50 members, and occasionally in larger pods of several hundred or more! When in larger groups like this usually the first thing noticed by paddlers is a huge mass of ‘splashing’ or choppy water making it’s way towards you on the ocean. These dolphins are easily identified by their white and grey markings on the underside and at the tip of their dorsal fin. They are also a much larger size than porpoises, and their ‘flamboyant’ behaviour includes constant breaches and a playful nature.
In latin, the word ‘orca‘ translates to ‘the underworld’. These popular whales are incredibly intelligent, use co-operative hunting methods, display incredible strength and travel speeds of up to 25 knots. They 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 orca, or ‘killer whale’. These are genetically distinct from the ‘resident’ salmon eating orcas, though we do occasionally see these groups in our waters south of their traditional range. Transients eat mainly mammals such as seals and sea lions. When orcas do make an appearance, especially when viewed from the seat of a kayak, it is an awe-inspiring moment!
Gray whales can be identified by a low hump on their back in lieu of a dorsal fin, and are mottled colours of grey and white on dark grey skin, while humpbacks have black body with a stubby dorsal fin. Both can be seen breaching and spy-hopping, and usually will surface 5-10 times (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 both species visit the BC coast during the summer migration, if the feeding is good both have been known to stick around for months at a time!
The most abundant sea star species 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 pink 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 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!
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 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.
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.
These tiny 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 and sockeye – 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!
In the early spring black bears 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 dependent 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.