Wildlife & Scenery Tour - Bears, Whales, Dolphins, Seals, Sea Lions & More - North Vancouver Island, British Columbia
With the fantastic four days we spent with Orca Dreams (see posts here), we still wanted to see more, including the Grizzly Bears of Knight Inlet.
So, I booked a tour with professional photographer, Rolf Hicker. His company is Vancouver Island Tours, and he has a 12-hour Wildlife & Scenery Tour that includes Knight Inlet. And the best part is he takes a maximum of four people.
It was an epic day on the water, and though Rolf's tours are expensive because he keeps them small, it was worth every penny.
We happened to be staying at Alder Bay Resort in our RV, and that's where Rolf launches his tour boat, Ambient Light, every morning.
That was quite fortunate for us since we met him at 5:30 a.m., and we just had to get up early enough to walk to the dock.
Rolf is from Germany, but emigrated to Canada in 2004 where he now runs his photo tours and the Artists Point B&B.
He told us he was hooked on the area when he was kayaking and suddenly a "2 meter fin rose out of the water beside my boat". He filmed Orcas underwater here for a period of seven years.
Today, our boat mates were two young ladies, sisters from Germany, who were guests at the B&B.
The plan was to go to Knight Inlet first to try to find Grizzlies before other tour boats arrived. The two-hour ride went by quickly as we chatted with Rolf about the wildlife, his amazing life, and places we've been.
Entering Knight Inlet, the water color changed, ....
and Rolf puttered by a couple of spots where he has seen bears before. No luck there, but we did find a few Harbor Seals, and took the opportunity to photograph them.
We proceeded up the inlet to Glendale Cove which is known for having the highest concentration of Grizzlies in British Columbia.
Near the mouth of the cove is the Knight Inlet Lodge where people come from all over the world to stay and view bears. Float planes come and go a few times a day in the summer dropping off incoming guests and hauling out departures.
This time of year, the bears are feeding on what they can find along the shoreline, and Rolf was concerned that we might have to wait for low tide later in the morning to see bears. He said his favorite time of the year to see the bears here is in May and June, although most people like to come in the Fall when they are feeding on salmon.
However, the lodge boats were out and we could see people looking through binoculars. Right past the lodge, we saw our first Grizzlies, a sow and a cub.
They were feeding on the exposed plants and whatever else they uncovered under the seaweed and rocks.
And Rolf was relieved, as he is everytime his clients see the first bear.
We saw another Grizzly farther into the cove, but it was moving back into the woods, so we stayed with the two in front of us.
The lodge boats took their guests in for breakfast, so we had these bears to ourselves for quite a while.
There is a 100-meter viewing distance required, and Rolf had a range-finder to ensure we stayed at a proper distance and didn't disturb the bears.
It was especially important for this pair, as Rolf said there were two cubs yesterday. A researcher in a boat nearby confirmed that one cub disappeared overnight, and they weren't sure what happened to it.
These bears seemed a bit skittish this morning and flinched when a Raven made some racket close by.
When they heard a noise they didn't like, the cub would run up into the woods immediately, and then slowly return when the sow went back to feeding.
Everyone hoped the other cub was okay, and they'll give it a couple days before they declare it missing.
My little 18 - 200mm lens was not exactly good enough to get some of the magnificent shots I've seen from here. But with the distance and boat rocking, I did the best I could, and some of the photos turned out just fine for us.
Soon, the boats from Tide Rip Grizzly Adventures out of Telegraph Cove started to arrive. They and Rolf work well together letting each other know where bears are being seen.
Around the corner just outside Glendale Cove, a couple of boats were watching a male on the rocky shore.
It had shed its early summer coat, and was looking a little scraggly. It looked like it had a mohawk haircut with just a tuft of dark brown fur on its characteristic Grizzly hump.
The other boats left, and we had this bear to ourselves for a long time.
Curiously, and comically, this Harbor Seal was bear-watching with us.
In the photo below you can see the seal (far right) watching the bear (far left).
The seal would be so intent on watching the bear that we would startle it when we floated a little too close. It really was just as focused on the bear as we were, maybe even more so. It was fun to observe.
We continued to watch the bear eat mussels and whatever else it found.
In this photo it seemed to be saying "I'll be glad when the salmon arrive, so I don't have to eat this stuff anymore".
From there, we moved back around toward the mouth of Glendale Cove where another bear was lounging more than eating.
It appeared to be a young Grizzly, and everyone agreed it was the "cutest" of the day, although those claws could definitely do some damage.
So, we saw five bears including the cub in a pretty short period of time, and all were pretty close together.
In my research and looking at photos of the Grizzlies in this area, I didn't recall seeing the types of pictures we got today with them grazing on mollusks and seaweed. So, the bear viewing was different than I expected, but it was interesting and a five-bear morning was certainly a great start to the day.
Rolf warned us that the winds pick up, and it can be rough getting out of Knight Inlet, one of the largest inlets in British Columbia. So, he tries to get in to see the bears early and head back by noon or sooner.
His prediction was right. It was quite the bumpy ride making our way out of Knight Inlet, and that was the least enjoyable part of today's trip.
When we reached calmer waters, Rolf gave us a choice to take a long way back (about a half an hour longer) or a shorter way. With the long way, he said there was a 50/50 chance of dolphins.
I immediately spouted "Long way!", and I think the others agreed, but they may have just gone along. It turned out to be a good decision.
We soon came upon what looked like a pod of about 200 Pacific White-sided Dolphins.
And they immediately started coming toward us. They were definitely bored and in the mood to play.
For the next several minutes we were witness to the best dolphin show I've ever seen. Here are just a few of the many photos of these fun-loving, acrobatic animals.
I have about 20 photos of leaps like this one.
Watching them was far more fun than watching the bears.
This one would jump, twist in the air, and then give a loud tail slap when it hit the water.
And this is one of my favorite photos of the day.
We were all smiles as we left the dolphins and pulled into a more sheltered bay for lunch. Even on this cloudy day, the scenery was beautiful.
Rolf got out a tablecloth and set out everything we needed on the back of the boat to make our own wraps or salads.
After relaxing and having a bite to eat, we continued on through the Broughton Archipelago, a kayakers paradise.
As we were exiting the marine park area, we stopped for photos of the Steller Sea Lions.
The dark one in the front in the photo below was rather feisty.
It slid into the water to spy-hop and check us out.
And then it climbed back out and had an argument with another sea lion.
Most were just lounging, ....
but there was some drama.
This bull climbed up on the rocks looking quite smug, ....
but, apparently, that rock belonged to a bigger bull, and he didn't like the intrusion.
We thought the larger bull would be satisfied just chasing his rival into the water, but he was angry enough to go in after him.
Well, that made things interesting. By the way, Steller Sea Lions are the largest of all sea lion species, and their size difference is quite apparent if you've been around other sea lion species.
Here's a good shot of the external ear flaps which is one characteristic that distinguishes sea lions from seals (which don't have external ears, and are sometimes referred to as "earless" seals).
After watching the sea lions, we continued on into Queen Charlotte Strait, and started our search for whales. It didn't take long.
We got a glimpse of a Minke Whale, a small baleen whale and the first Rolf has seen this summer. And then we found a Humpback.
We then spotted a lot of birds circling which can indicate the presence of what is known as a "bait ball". We hurried over hoping to see a whale "lunge" feeding on the ball of fish.
It happened right as we approached, and we were barely prepared to get pictures. Amazing!
I wish we would have gotten there seconds sooner, but it was still awesome to see. Birds and tiny fish were scattering out of the way as the behemoth crashed the party.
As the whale disappeared, we kept our eye on the birds, and a couple of seals got in the mix.
Also, the Minke Whale was feeding alongside the much larger Humpback. Here's my best shot of the Minke.
Rolf told us to focus on the spot where the gulls were hitting the water. That indicated the fish were being forced to the surface by something below them, and they were easy to pick off. And it possibly meant we could witness a powerful "lunge" feeding moment.
Though we didn't see a spectacular "lunge", the Humpback passed through a few more times displaying different feeding techniques.
Well, that was very cool.
The Humpback moved on and gave us a tail shot on its way out.
The gulls scattered, and many of the Rhinoceros Auklets left the fray with a prize.
And with that, we were off to see if we could find any Orcas.
Rolf headed to Blackfish Sound. We never heard him confer with any of the whale-watching boats over the radio, and I'm not sure how he knew, but we found Orcas.
We had to just stop and shut off the engine because the small pod was coming right at us and they split up going past on both sides of the boat. We didn't know where to look or aim our cameras, and my Orca photos today aren't great, ..... but I got a few.
What an absolutely fantastic day of wildlife watching. Whenever we go on tours like this, we try to keep our expectations low as wildlife is unpredictable. But this was an expensive trip, so our expectations were fairly high in spite of our usual method of trying to deflect disappointment.
Fortunately, the wildlife exceeded our expectations and imaginations, and Rolf did a great job getting us to the proper spots.
Just for kicks, we saw a couple more Humpbacks on the way to Alder Bay.
What a day!! My photos pale in comparison to Rolf's, but I'm thrilled with what we got, and we'll refer back to them fondly for a long, long time.
Nobody can guarantee wildlife sightings, but if you are in the area and want what is pretty much a small private charter and personal attention, then Rolf and Vancouver Island Photo Tours is the way to go.