Johnston Strait

Canada, Johnston Strait, British Columbia

The coastline of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska is indented by a maze of inlets and channels, bordered by islands, known as the Inside Passage. This vast marine highway extends from Seattle, all way to Skgway, in Alaska. Cruise ships and ferries ply these waters, carrying visitors who come to see the stupendous scenery, the totem poles in Tlingit and Kwakiutl villages , and the orca migrations in Johnston Strait. Despite the cool, moist summers, the only thing likely to dampen your spirits is the visual blight of areas of clear-cut logging.

These waters are protected from tempestuous north Pacific storms by a huge archipelago of barrier islands that includes Vancouver Island, the largest island of the west coast of North America. The waters off the northeastern shore of Vancouver Island are the setting for one of this region’s most dramatic events.

Each summer, pods of orcas migrate out of the vastness of the North Pacific to feed on schools of sockeye salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the rivers and streams of southwestern British Columbia. At Johnstone Strait, the salmon are pinched into a deep, narrow passageway. Since the whales can swim much faster that the salmon, the whales end their migration here and simply wait for the salmon to swim through. Northbound pods of orcas from the Washington and Oregons coasts occasionally swim as far north as Johnstone Strait, creating a “super pod” of over 200 feeding and frolicking whales.

At a shallow indentation in the coast, known as Robson Bight, whales pursue salmon spawning at the mouth of the Tsitika River, swimming to the shore and rubbing their bellies on the smooth stones that form the seabed. This “rubbing beach” has been protected as the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, and there are strict viewing guidelines for visitors. Stands of old-growth forest grow down to the shore. Once slated for logging, the valley is now protected and acts as a buffer zone for the bight. Land access is prohibited.

Porpoises and seals are often seen in the Johnston Strait area, and occasionally even gray whales. Bald eagles perch on tree snags, or swoop down to feed on the salmon. Black-tailed deer and elk emerge from the woods now and then to forage along the estuaries, and mink and river otter may be seen prowling around shoreline driftwood.

Many ecotourists who come to Johnstone Strait seek out the orca by sea-kayak, a modern version of the baidarka boat once used by aboriginals of the Aleutian Islands to harpoon whales and seals in the Bering Strait. Guided sea-kayaking trips into the strait are available in summer, and independent groups can paddle here as well, although previous kayaking experience is necessary if you undertake such a trip on your own.

Fishing boats follow the salmon, and cruise ships, freighters, and logging tugs also voyage up and down the strait on a regular basis.

In Winter, Queen Charlotte Sound and Broughton Strait are favored by scuba divers because of the stunning clarity of the deep waters. On the shore, the limestone karst topography of northern Vancouver Island has produced some striking caves. Fine examples can be seen in Little Hustan Caves Provincial Park at Nimpkish.