For eight months of the year, Telegraph Cove is a sleepy community on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Originally the northern terminus of the Campbell River telegraph line, the former lumber mill and salmon saltery is maintained as it was in 1912, its colourful wood plank houses rising above the tide line on algae covered stilts. The mill and saltery long gone, the community found new life as a hub for eco-tourism after the opening of the first whale watching outfit in British Columbia in 1980.
In the summer months, tourists flock to the area to take in the beauty of the Broughton Archipelago, with kayaking, diving, caving, wildlife tours and, of course, whale watching as the primary activities.
Me? I came for the bones.
The Whale Interpretive Centre
Whale bones, that is.
Telegraph Cove is home to the Whale Interpretive Centre, an interactive gallery and education centre for all things cetacean. Founded in 2002 to increase public awareness of marine mammal biology and threats to their future, the not-for-profit has the most extensive display of marine mammal skeletons anywhere in British Columbia.
Hanging from the ceiling as the gallery centrepiece, still being reassembled after a winter of renovations, is the complete skeleton of “Finny”, the fin whale recovered in 1998 after being struck by a cruise ship. His smaller companion, “Arnie” the grey whale, was found trapped under the public pier in Campbell River. Standing beneath these behemoths of the sea, I’m struck by how something so large can subsist on a diet of krill and small crustaceans.
The collection includes the skeletons of local marine mammals including sea otters, sea lions, dall’s porpoise, white sided dolphins and seals. All of the pieces have been found in the wild and donated to the Centre for display.
The latest addition is the transient “Biggs” killer whale, T-44, who was a frequent visitor to the area, Estimated at 32 years old at the time of his death in 2009, the whale measured approximately 8 meters in length and weighing approximately 7 tons. The process of cleaning and assembling the bones is still underway but it’s hoped to have the entire whale on display shortly.
I spent a good hour wandering the floor, studying the displays and talking to Emily, the interpreter. The gallery has undergone extensive renovations over the winter and will open a second floor gallery this season, allowing a bird’s eye view at Finny and offering more display space for its ever expanding collection.
I had heard rumour of a festival celebrating the 15th anniversary of Springer’s release and asked Emily about it.
Springer’s story captured the imagination of whale lovers all over the world. In the spring of 2002, the whale calf, emaciated and alone, was reported approaching and rubbing up against boats and logs in Puget Sound in Washington State. After months of public debate, the whale was captured and maintained in a sea pen where she was provided medical assistance and fed at random intervals through a chute to gain weight. A few months after her first appearance, Springer, as she was named, was shipped by catamaran to Hanson Island in Johnstone Straight, not far from Telegraph Cove, and released near her family unit.
Springer gradually reintegrated into her pod and in 2012 was seen with a calf of her own. To date, Springer is the only whale to be released successfully into her pod after human intervention.
I’m told the success story will be celebrated in Telegraph Cove July 21-23, 2017. Participants involved in the rescue and rehabilitation, including the Vancouver Aquarium, will be on site with interactive displays. Few details are available at the moment, but if you’re interested, follow the Centre’s Facebook page for more information.
If you’re looking for a good book on killer whales to read during your travels, pick up Mark Leiren-Young’s captivating true story “The Killer Whale Who Changed the World“.