Port McNeill – Vancouver Island

By Jason Murphy. First Published 28/12/2017 

Port NcNeill is the jumping off point for much of the adventuring that goes on off Vancouver Island’s eastern coast. And while there isn’t much tourist activity going on here right now, tourism is only one aspect of how people make a living from the ocean, and it has become my jumping off point to begin my understanding of the issues facing marine ecology and coastal community culture in the area.

I came here because I had to start somewhere. My research told me that the world’s smallest marine park is in fact Echo Bay located just north from here in a corner of Gilford Island and very close to the much larger Broughton Archipelago Marine Park, an area of some fifty square miles covering some of the hundreds of islands and hidden saltwaterways of mainland BC’s west coast.

And the region faces many of the same issues that other marine parks and conservations areas in more glamorous tropical locations feature – the undeniably positive ecological effects of a network of marine parks in an environment that demands a constant balancing act between indigenous culture, commercial fishing, conservation of fish stocks, conservation of endangered species, eco tourism and aquaculture.

Having said that, this is not the obvious time of year to come here. Its very much the off-season from a tourism perspective and as such, opportunities for simply happening across photo opportunities are slim.

But I came here with a story angle in mind, and besides, I’m not here to tourist. I’m here to get a better understanding of what is really going on.

The story I came to capture focused on the kind of clear parallel between ocean life and human life that I have looked for with all of the potential geographical areas I have identified to explore.

The Johnstone Straight, Broughton Archipelago and Knight Inlet areas are known for whale watching. There are a surprising number of whale species that call the waters off BC home, but one in particular – the orca or killer whale – is the star of the show here, particularly in summer, when whale watching tours rely on frequent sightings.

What many people don’t know is that there are two very distinct groups of orca that frequent these waters – the north and south resident (or fish eating) orca, and the Biggs (or non-resident) orca.

So my angle was simple – resident and non-resident orcas vs. resident and non-resident people (i.e. tourists.) I figured this would be a neat way in to understanding the area and describing differing perspectives.

That idea didn’t last very long.Within a few hours of arriving here however I learned that the term “resident” orca is very relative. Resident orcas in fact stray quite far afield from here depending on the time of year (resident orcas have been spotted as far south as Oregon,) and are not “resident” throughout this whole area – areas of Johnstone straight, yes, but if you see an orca further north or in the inlets its almost certainly a transitory (mammal eating) orca.

So in fact the terms “resident” and “transitory” don’t play out in quite the way you might think.

And more importantly I have discovered that there is a much more specific story taking place.

It turns out that in addition to having entirely different habits, social structure, diet and language, the resident and transitory orca populations have different futures mapped out for them each with its own problems and pressures, and like many of the areas I have researched so far it involves the wider ecosystem of fish stock management, marine conservation and aquaculture.

Port McNeill is a regular place. It’s real, not a resort built only to serve the needs of tourists. As such its arguably not the most picturesque place to spend the few days between Christmas and new year – but I didn’t come here for a pretty picture, even if I might hope to leave with an interesting photograph – I came here to start building an accurate understanding of what is going on with regard to ocean conservation in the area, and in the last few days I have met marine biologists, government employees and people who live on the water and have through those encounters have gained an increased understanding of of the issues facing life here. Human life and aquatic life.

Nearby Telegraph Cove is pretty, but its designed that way.

A seasonal eco tourism attraction built around whale watching. A public boat ramp and dock along with some sincere efforts at conservation and education do add authenticity to the place, but without the summer visitors – the orcas, the tourists they attract and the seasonal staff employed to look after them – to bring life to the place, there isn’t much to occupy me there.

There are two potential directions that tomorrow may take me.

I’ll let you know how that goes.