Race Rocks Protected Marine Ecological Reserve - most popular Marine Eco-Tour

For over 130 years Race Rocks Lighthouse has stood as a beacon in the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Only 11 nautical miles from Victoria, Race Rocks is a place of convergence. Deep currents sweep the rocks and clash as they meet the inland waters of Georgia Strait.

Race Rocks Lighthouse and Marine Protected Area
Race Rocks Lighthouse and Marine Protected Area - Photo Credit Jeff Lorton

In 1860 the British Admiralty established the lighthouse in recognition of the dangerous currents that claimed many ships and dozens of lives. "It’s like a little mountain in what is otherwise deep water around in the Strait of Juan de Fuca so we get species here normally found in thirty -forty meters of water– they’re living here at three or four meters of depth. You can have the totally marine ones, the inter-tidal ones the land ecosystems, the salt spray ones up on the rocks, you can have small tidal pools that are just an absolute mirror of all the principles of ecology, and they’re all there contained in one little spot.

Stellar Sea Lion Males at Race Rocks
Stellar Sea Lion Males and Comorants at Race Rocks - Photo Credit Jeff Lorton

Sea lions flock to Race Rocks by the hundreds, fattening up before they journey back to California and Mexico.

The sea lions are out there. Anyone can check out the hulkingly handsome creatures as they lumber around Race Rocks. Or, they can splurge on the kind of trip the tourists take.

Elephant Seal at Race Rocks in Metchosin, BC
Elephant Seal at Race Rocks in Metchosin, BC - Photo Credit Jeff Lorton

An estimated 200 lordly pinnipeds (from the Latin for fin-foot) loll the winter away on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. In between fattening up on Pollock and herring the big bachelors lounge about on Race Rocks in the time-honored way: tussling, grunting and creating a suitably briny stink.

Sea Lions at Race Rocks BC
- Photo Credit Jeff Lorton

“It’s kind of like a men’s locker room,” jokes Shawna Walker, who helps operate a sea lion boat tour to Race Rocks.

“I like the way they slide off the rocks and go plop in the water. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” adds Hammond. “They’re so agile in the water but they look so cumbersome on land. You’re always amazed by seeing anything in the wild – by the size, and the smell and the noise…”

And near Trial Island, tell-tale black fins appeared and mammoth tails begin to slap as members of J Pod of killer whales got frisky. “There are at least seven females and one male,” notes Shawna, who took a course offered at the University of Victoria by the marine mammal research group and sometimes accompanies tours. “We’ve had males come and swim right under our boat.”

No sooner said than done, with all on board thrilled at the sight..

Kelp, barnacles and starfish at loow tide at Race Rocks Marine Protected area
Kelp, barnacles and starfish at loow tide at Race Rocks Marine Protected area - Photo Credit Jeff Lorton

“The reason we’re doing the trip is that I have a significant birthday coming up and one of the things at the top of the list was to see the whales,” added Hammond, who also loved the less well-known lions viewed in their element.

One recent visit to the rock saw an estimated 300 sea lions. “They’re still actually arriving from Baja, Mexico,” says Kevin Walker, who’s been operating the tours for eight years.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 male California sea lions migrate to south Vancouver Island waters to winter, while the females stay in southerly climes, waiting for the males to rejoin them for the mating ritual.

Race Rocks is a protected marine area close to open ocean 12 nautical miles from Victoria. The waters were rough enough last week to send coffee sloshing from its cups on the way in the comfortable 12-seater heated vessel with overhead hatches for sheltered viewing.

“You can see why it’s named Race Rocks – the water just shoots through here,” Kevin notes of the tide race that surges past. On this particular day the weather is overcast, but sunlight burnishes the Olympic mountain range and the view is wonderful, even without the wildlife.

“There is a general rule of thumb – do not approach any animal within 100 feet. We’ve found that sometimes the animals want more distance than that and sometimes they swim right up to the boat and want to be close to you.”

Operators look to the behaviour of sea lions for clues: “And if at any point you appear to be causing them a disturbance, you’ve gone too far. With the sea lions they raise their heads and start to wiggle their way down to shore.” There’s no denying that the boat, although keeping a distance, does make noise.

Those on board saw more than the anticipated Stellars and California sea lion species.

Two enormous elephant seals also lumbered about with the sea lions. “That’s a pretty significant sight – there are only about 500 elephants in the world,” says Shawna, amid deep grunting sounds in the background.

On the B.C. coast, numbers peak for both Stellar sea lions and California sea lions between January and March, says marine mammal biologist Linda Nichol of the Pacific Biological Reserve. The huge animals are checking out fishing grounds for herring and Pollock and both species pretty well depart by May. Stellars, which weigh up to 1,000 kilograms, head for their breeding rookeries, including the Scott Islands off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, Nichol adds.

The Stellars are named after George Wilhelm Stellar, the first scientist to set foot on North American soil via Siberia, in the 1740s. Stellars are larger and lighter in colour than California sea lions, and unfortunately, the precarious status of the Western Stellar stocks in the U.S. has landed it on their endangered species list. Found in Western Alaska, its numbers have declined by 70 per cent since the 1960s, Nichol notes.

The Eastern stock, which ranges from southeast Alaska to B.C. and south to Oregon, is viewed by the U.S. as threatened, out of concern for a repeat of the Eastern decimation.

But in B.C. the Stellars are “doing fine,” says Nichol, stressing the population appears both stable and quite healthy.

California sea lions, which can reach 400 kilograms, return to breed in California and Mexico.

The excursion was quieter than expected, at least gauging it by the major-league bellowing and roaring that kept Victorians awake a few years ago.

“They were good today. There wasn’t a lot of fighting. They’re not vying for territory so it doesn’t get ugly,” says Shawna.

The scenic tour takes in the 1860 Race Rocks lighthouse, the former leper colony at Bentinck Island, a quick view of Pearson College of the Pacific, which manages the sea lion sanctuary.

Spotting juvenile Stellar sea lions swimming madly off Pedder Bay on the return trip, another passenger quips: “I love when they do the breaststroke.”

Live webcams and much more information about Race Rocks Marine Protected Area click here


                    Map Credit: RaceRocks.com

ROCKS AND ROLLS
by Katherine Dedyna
Times Columnist Staff

ARTICLE DATED SATURDAY, JANUARY 12, 2002
reprinted with permission

Sea lions flock to Race Rocks by the hundreds, fattening up before they journey back to California and Mexico …

The sea lions are out there. Anyone can check out the hulkingly handsome creatures as they lumber around Race Rocks via the video cams at www.racerocks.com. Or, they can splurge on the kind of trip the tourists take.

An estimated 200 lordly pinnipeds (from the Latin for fin-foot) loll the winter away on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. In between fattening up on Pollock and herring the big bachelors lounge about on Race Rocks in the time-honored way: tussling, grunting and creating a suitably briny stink.

“It’s kind of like a men’s locker room,” jokes Shawna Walker, who helps operate what might well be the only sea lion boat tour in Canada.

Irish visitors Stephen Chambers and Glynis Hammond came to Victoria to see marine wildlife and got more than they bargained for on the Sea Lion Safari, operated by Oak Bay Beach Hotel. “Amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Chambers after seeing great clumps of the massive marine mammals crowded and sprawling about the rocks.

“I like the way they slide off the rocks and go plop in the water. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” adds Hammond. “They’re so agile in the water but they look so cumbersome on land. You’re always amazed by seeing anything in the wild – by the size, and the smell and the noise…”

And near Trial Island, tell-tale black fins appeared and mammoth tails begin to slap as members of J Pod of killer whales got frisky. “There are at least seven females and one male,” notes Shawna, who took a course offered at UVic by the marine mammal research group and sometimes accompanies tours. “We’ve had males come and swim right under our boat.”

No sooner said than done, with all on board thrilled at the sight..

“The reason we’re doing the trip is that I have a significant birthday coming up and one of the things at the top of the list was to see the whales,” added Hammond, who also loved the less well-known lions viewed in their element.

One recent visit to the rock saw an estimated 300 sea lions. “They’re still actually arriving from Baja, Mexico,” says Kevin Walker, who’s been operating the tours for eight years.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 male California sea lions migrate to south Vancouver Island waters to winter, while the females stay in southerly climes, waiting for the males to rejoin them for the mating ritual.

Race Rocks is a protected marine area close to open ocean 12 nautical miles from Victoria. The waters were rough enough last week to send coffee sloshing from its cups on the way in the comfortable 12-seater heated vessel with overhead hatches for sheltered viewing.

“You can see why it’s named Race Rocks – the water just shoots through here,” Kevin notes of the tide race that surges past. On this particular day the weather is overcast, but sunlight burnishes the Olympic mountain range and the view is wonderful, even without the wildlife.

“There is a general rule of thumb – do not approach any animal within 100 feet. We’ve found that sometimes the animals want more distance than that and sometimes they swim right up to the boat and want to be close to you.”

Operators look to the behaviour of sea lions for clues: “And if at any point you appear to be causing them a disturbance, you’ve gone too far. With the sea lions they raise their heads and start to wiggle their way down to shore.” There’s no denying that th boat, although keeping a distance, does make noise.

Those on board saw more than the anticipated Stellars and California sea lion species.

Two enormous elephant seals also lumbered about with the sea lions. “That’s a pretty significant sight – there are only about 500 elephants in the world,” says Shawna, amid deep grunting sounds in the background.

On the B.C. coast, numbers peak for both Stellar sea lions and California sea lions between January and March, says marine mammal biologist Linda Nichol of the Pacific Biological Reserve. The huge animals are checking out fishing grounds for herring and Pollock and both species pretty well depart by May. Stellars, which weigh up to 1,000 kilograms, head for their breeding rookeries, including the Scott Islands off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, Nichol adds.

The Stellars are named after George Wilhelm Stellar, the first scientist to set foot on North American soil via Siberia, in the 1740s. Stellars are larger and lighter in colour than California sea lions, and unfortunately, the precarious status of the Western Stellar stocks in the U.S. has landed it on their endangered species list. Found in Western Alaska, its numbers have declined by 70 per cent since the 1960s, Nichol notes.

The Eastern stock, which ranges from southeast Alaska to B.C. and south to Oregon, is viewed by the U.S. as threatened, out of concern for a repeat of the Eastern decimation.

But in B.C. the Stellars are “doing fine,” says Nichol, stressing the population appears both stable and quite healthy.

California sea lions, which can reach 400 kilograms, return to breed in California and Mexico.

The excursion was quieter than expected, at least gauging it by the major-league bellowing and roaring that kept Victorians awake a few years ago.

“They were good today. There wasn’t a lot of fighting. They’re not vying for territory so it doesn’t get ugly,” says Shawna.

The scenic tour takes in the 1860 Race Rocks lighthouse, the former leper colony at Bentinck Island, a quick view of Pearson College of the Pacific, which manages the sea lion sanctuary, and the ocean-side of William Head Institution.

Spotting juvenile Stellar sea lions swimming madly off Pedder Bay on the return trip, another passenger quips: “I love when they do the breaststroke.”

Baby Orca breached!

The open air market on Salt Spring Island was a unique and fun experience. The arts and crafts stores in Ganges were a delight to discover. We enjoyed the fresh air, the natural scenery and the Dahl’s porpoises along the way. The ride back to Victoria was even more scenic as we boated through the channel and under the old wooden bridge between the Pender Islands. Going home the long way through the San Juans and around the bottom of San Juan Island was an excellent choice. We saw Orcas and a recently born baby orca breach out of the water! The boat is very comfortable and Dieter knows the waters like a seasoned mariner. We really appreciated having the zodiac all to ourselves and not being on any schedule. This was the best trip to Victoria ever! See you again next year for another adventure.

Whale calf buoys hopes for pod - L118 Orca

A rambunctious youngster is causing waves among whale watchers around Juan de Fuca Strait.

The first new calf of the season for the endangered southern resident killer whales is racing around with other members of L Pod, said Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Endangered western Pacific grey whale could be bound for Vancouver Island

Flex, an endangered western Pacific grey whale who has astounded researchers by leaving Russia and speeding across the Bering Sea, could be in northern Vancouver Island waters by the weekend.