BRITISH COLUMBIA'S OTHER LIONS
It is difficult to tell whether the whiskered men's group lolling in the soft morning light, welcomes our arrival or not. Some look bored; others ignore us. The biggest of the lot (at 135 kilograms) sits disdainfully with his snout in the air. Contemplating life on the rocks, maybe. Or thinking wistfully of his favourite wife back home. After all, he and the other guys here have been away all winter, and even the best of bachelor parties tends to grow tiresome after several months.
Binoculars in hand, cameras at the read, we watch as the denizens of the rocks—a cluster of California sea lions—amuse themselves on this late-April morning. A few slip languidly into the water and, flippers in the air, do a couple of show turns for us. At our approach, a venerable old sea dog, his coat paler than the deep-brown ones worn by the others, flip-flops his way across the rocks to give us the once over. He has liquid brown eyes, but his onk is plaintive. "Okay folks, nice to say hi, but back off a bit will ya? Your boat's making a real racket.
We stay at a respectful distance. Like the rest of us on the eight-seater Zodiac boat, operated by Vancouver Whale Watchers, I am thrilled to discover that Vancouverites, or visitors to the city don't need to travel far to meet these sleek visitors to Canada's western shores—it's only a 25 minute boat ride off the Steveston docks in Richmond, which itself is 20 minutes by car south of Vancouver.
And sea lions aren't the only star performers along the route. Bald eagles perch, majestic and aloof, atop old pilings; white wing scoters (sea ducks) skiff like freckles across the surface of the water. Depending upon the route, great blue herons, waterfowl, osprey, harriers and cormorants, all emerge from the wings, so to speak.
In early summer, the passing parade also includes orca whales who like to take a bow as they cruise past the mouth of the Fraser River.
Dr. Mary Taitt, a naturalist, accompanies us on the trip. The Fraser River is on the Pacific flyway, and she estimates that roughly five million birds, comprising about 300 different species fly through here annually on the migratory route from South America to the Arctic. Point Roberts, a short half-hour boat ride away from Steveston, plays host to blue heron rookeries. Snow geese settle and feed on the sand banks and mud flats at the mouth of the Fraser in the winter.
On our outward journey we pass two bald eagles. "You can tell they are young birds," says Taitt as we raise our binoculars. "They haven't yet developed white feathers on their tails and heads." She goes on to tell us that bald eagles ("bald" being an abbreviation of "piebald") have a life span of about 20 years, mate for life and build rather extraordinary nests. "They keep adding to them all year round," she says, "and they can weigh up to a tonne. In fact, I heard somewhere that a two-tonne nest, which set something of a record, eventually collapsed under its own weight."
Now, as we watch the California sea lions, Mary fills us in about their habits and behaviour. "They are migratory," she explains, "and at this time of year the males come here to feast off theoolichan shoals." Polygamous and verile, a healthy male returns to his coterie of wives off the coast of California in early summer, where he loses no time impregnating up to 20 cows over the season.
As we return to Steveston, the sun breaks through, turning the water into a sheet of crinkled silver foil. I'm regretful that there isn't time to visit the nearby harbour seal colony too, located along the shoreline near Point Roberts on the Canada-United States border. But that gives me the perfect excuse to make another trip later in the summer. And also to ride a 47-seat Zodiac out of the harbour to attend the annual pageant of orca whales rolling in stately procession through our B.C. coastal waters.
Vancouver Whale Watch run trips to view the sea lions through to the last week of May (could be extended if the oolichan run continues beyond that date) Whale watching trips run from April to October. They also run several one to two hour marine tours daily from Steveston Harbour aboard their custom-designed Zodiacs, which are idea for wildlife viewing. Their fleet is equipped with up to date navigation and communication equipment. They are also a thrill to ride.