I have visited Canada many times but my most memorable day was 17 September 2011 while visiting Vancouver Island. We were on a Naturetrek Wildlife Holiday, staying in the picturesque town of Zeballos. This former gold rush town is accessed via 42 km of logging tracks on a beautiful mountainous inlet on the north west coast. Our charismatic boatman was Daniel O’Connor who regaled us with tales of wildlife he had encountered, but that didn’t prepare us for the encounter we were about to have. Soon after we set off I noticed a distant head swimming in the water.
Now that isn’t exciting in itself as there are plenty of possibilities; seals, sea-lions, otters, maybe even deer, and Dan even told us he had occasionally seen wolves, which would be very exciting. But our sighting was about to trump even a wolf. We trundled forwards but it was difficult to hold binoculars still on a bobbing boat, but I started to make more out on the head as we got nearer. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, and I kept telling myself “no, it can’t be”, but it was. I couldn’t wait any longer as I bellowed “COUGAR!!!!!” and Dan put his foot down (or whatever the nautical equivalent is) and sped forward.
The cougar was swimming between two islands and we intercepted it so it was just a few metres in front of our boat. North America’s most iconic mammal was there in front of us, so close we could almost have reached out and touched it. It swam to the island and climbed out onto the rocks where it stood for a few seconds, allowing us to take photographs. The water was pouring off it, but it never shook itself dry, like dog or a bear would. It turned to give us one disdainful look, then bounded across the rocks and with one leap, scaled a three metre rock face and vanished into the forest. We did not see it again but we knew where it was by its retinue of alarm-calling birds following it through the forest.
We looked on the original island where the cougar had been and saw a number of Harbor seals slowly climbing back out of the water. We think that this hungry cougar had swum out there in the hope of catching a seal, but he had failed. I say “he” because we could clearly see he was a he when he climbed out of the water. Dan told us that young female cougars are free to wander but young males get ousted from territories already held by males. Most of the cougars that end up in towns making a nuisance of themselves are young males unable to establish a territory where they can feed. Their favourite food, by the way is Black-tailed deer, and cougar numbers are highly correlated with peaks and troughs in the deer population.
We continued on, stunned by the serendipity of our sighting when we spotted humpback whales up ahead. Their enormous blows hung on the still air, catching the early morning rays. When they dived the water poured off their enormous tail flukes before slipping deep into the water, occasionally rising with an open-mouthed lunge into a ball of terrified fish. Any whale sighting is exciting, but watching humpback whales lunging and fluking just a few metres away was an unforgettable experience.
Continuing onwards we passed numerous Stellar’s sea-lions hunting salmon, but these were just a back-up cast for this wonderful day.
As the estuary opened out into the Pacific Ocean we began to see what was supposed to be our main target that day. This was the population of sea otters, playing among the forests of kelp. Sea otter has the densest fur of any animal. Demand for their fur meant they were extirpated from large parts of their range (including Vancouver Island) by the early 1900s, surviving only in remote areas like Alaska. In 1969, eighty nine individuals were introduced from Alaska to Nootka Sound near Zeballos and forty years later their numbers have exceeded 3000. They are still very wary of humans and do not usually allow close approach. They spend their entire lives at sea; eating, sleeping and mating there. Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters do not have a thick layer of insulating blubber. They rely on their incredibly dense fur to keep them warm.
Other birds of note included many Pacific loons, surf scoters, red-necked and Western grebes, black oystercatchers and the ubiquitous belted kingfisher. We even managed to spot a yellow-billed loon among the common loons. Dan was sceptical at first as he had never seen this rare species before but was wholly convinced after he expertly manoeuvred the boat for a close view. We managed to see its huge yellow-white upturned bill like a giant Bowie knife held aloft. There was no mistaking this scarce Arctic visitor.
By this time the tide was low, so Dan suggested we toured the beaches. At low tide black bears come out of the forests to feed on crabs and clams on the shore. Every bay we looked at seemed to have black bears, sometimes a mother with cubs, teaching them how to feed on the shore.
Some of the bears were timid and shot back into the forest as we approached, whereas others fed quite nonchalantly, unconcerned that we were just a few metres away. This allowed for some wonderful photographic opportunities.
After about eight black bear sightings we realized it was nearly lunch time, so we had to reluctantly make our way back to Zeballos. But none of us could complain after a day like that. I will probably never see another cougar in the wild, but every moment of that wonderful sighting will be etched in my memory forever. Thankfully the photographs will help to keep the memory fresh. Dan told us that he sees cougars maybe once a year, but he said this was his best and closest sighting ever. And what a privilege it was to be with him to share his best ever sighting.
Article written and photos taken by wildlife enthusiast Tim Melling. Tim resides in the UK and comes to Vancouver Island once a year to help guide a wild life expedition. The trip is packed with excitement and one of the best trips you can take take!