Our Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) tours are well under way for the season. Those of us in the office are living vicariously through these reports sent from the ship in Haida Gwaii, via satellite.

We hope you enjoy these updates! To learn more about taking a trip yourself, or to ask us to send information, please visit the page about our Haida Gwaii Tours.

Satellite Email Blog from SV Maple Leaf in Gwaii Haanas

Puffin Tales and Many More, Too, Haida Gwaii, June 2013

humpback whale doing a tail lob in Haida Gwaii. Photo by James Warburton

After a beautiful reach along the top of Moresby the first evening under sail, with an abalone sky above, we anchored between Maude and Moresby to wait out the worst of a gale. A school of sandlance boiled around us with  pair of eagles scooping them up by the talon.

The next day, the winds had diminished enough to round the spit where breaching humpbacks and shearwaters entertained us for the trip down to Limestone Island. Jake and Ainsley from the research station greeted us in the rain but the skies cleared as we worked our way across the island alive with Pacific slope flycatchers, hermit and varied  thrush and song and fox sparrows.

Ancient murrelet families joined the list of ‘to sees’, together with both species of puffin, to complete the auk family, for the many experienced birders aboard the boat. At Anna Inlet again, we encountered lovely opalescent squids. Dogfish and wolf eels were prowling around the schools as well. Next morning, we encountered six orca, two females, two calves of the year. We threw down the hydrophone and didn’t hear any vocalizations so probably Bigg’s whales.

Headed down to Heater Harbour in Houston Stewart Channel where chef James produced the most magnificent meal of prawn and squid in a Japanese/Spanish fusion. Next day, we came around into Rose Harbour and visited Susan and Erin for a trip to a special site, and a visit to see the remnants of  the whaling station.

Then off to visit Flat Rock Island in search of the elusive horned puffin. We got into the zodiac and spotted a  pair of horned puffins who proceeded to fly over us three times so everyone got good views and pictures. Then a tufted puffin flew close by for comparison. The pigeon guillemots, Cassins and rhinocerous auklets were all at close quarters for photographing. Bowles Point was the destination for that afternoon and we had a good stretch hiking to the south- facing beach and a forage for interesting Wrangellian rocks to complete the geology and plate tectonic  lesson started the  previous night with dinner plates, potato volcanoes and hummus reefs.

Humpbacks, alcids and eagles were feeding off a ball in the south bay. We headed up to Louscoone for water and more  breaching humpbacks feeding along the western shore, tucking into the protected anchorage half way up.

Next morning, the kayakers were treated to close encounters with a bear who was far more interested in crabs. The foraging along Louscoone was drawing hundreds of alcids as well as the whales so lots of birdwatching all the way to SGang Gwaay. Ken and Shirley met us at the Watchman’s cabin and Ken, the carver, gave a detailed interpretation of the carvers of SGang Gwaay and their particular styles and stories.

The weather had calmed right down and we headed round Cape Saint James which was shrouded in mist and looking stunning with shafts of light breaking through. The beach was calm enough to land everyone and a salmon feast for a fire and  barbeque and impromptu pig in the middle with our inexhaustable captain in the middle. We spontaneously formed the Kunghit Kelpic Band for the anniversary being celebrated.

Today heading for more sealions and explorations in Juan Perez. Maybe an exploration around the Copper Islands for the copper specialists aboard.

– Sent by naturalist Briony Penn, on July 1 (Canada Day) aboard the SV Maple Leaf

Location of this update, Kunghit Island, Gwaii Haanas, Haida Gwaii

From anchor in Luxana Bay, south-east side of Kunghit Island, Haida Gwaii

Yesterday the weather was calm and blue skied as we turned west from mirror-still Rose Inlet towards the old Haida village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay at SGang Gwaay (formerly known as Ninstints, the UNESCO World Heritage Site).

We paused enroute to watch tufted puffins circling Flatrock Island, and  their orange beaks and feet were positively glowing as they came in for landing on top of the rocky islet. We also saw two puffins on the water, nuzzling their beaks together as if they were kissing. So cute!

At SGang Gwaay, bright sunshine and flat seas highlighted the incredible diversity of the super low tide, with giant California mussels, brilliant green surfgrass and ribbony chocolate-brown kelps in the intertidal zone. We could see the dense  aggregations of sea urchins on the seabed below us in the clear water.

Behind the village, the watchman met us at the beach and walked with us, explaining how the site has changed over the years since the first photos were collected in the early 1900s. The early morning light was perfect for our photos of the detail on the old monumental (totem) poles, especially clear in the eyes and faces that are still so strong in the old wood after all these years.

A powerful place.

Because the conditions were ideal, we were able to continue south off the west coast of Kunghit Island to circumnavigate and cruise by the streaming currents and rounded loaf-shaped islets at the southernmost tip of Haida Gwaii, Cape Saint James. We had a glimpse of albatross and shearwaters, the soaring oceanic seabirds, out to the west.

To cap off an already incredible day, we went ashore the curving sand beach at the head of Luxana Bay to walk to beach, some did yoga, and we all feasted on crab.

– update from Naturalist Mary Morris on the SV Maple Leaf

Sunday morning, May 26 – Orcas and Sea Lion Left Us in Speechless Awe
Sunrise, at anchor, Rose Inlet, Gwaii Haanas (Haida Gwaii)

with photos by Greg Shea

3 Bigg's killer whales

3 Bigg's killer whales hunting a sea lion that was sheltering under our ship. Photographed with a GoPro on a pole, that Capt. Greg was pulling out of the water.

Everyone aboard is still in speechless awe after yesterday afternoon’s epic encounter with a group of transient orcas (aka Bigg’s orcas) hunting a mature female Steller sea lion. We had stopped to let some folks try fishing and saw the whales on the horizon churning on the surface, one large male with tall dorsal and several smaller ones together…and then we saw the sea lion surfacing often and encircled by the whales. The orcas seemed to be corralling the sea lion and taking turns chasing, ramming and charging the animal. We guessed that the larger whales were showing the smallest whale how to hunt.

sea lion

The sea lion, floating against the hull of our ship; photographed with a GoPro camera on a pole, that Capt. Greg lowered into the water.

The exhausted sea lion adopted the lee of the Maple Leaf keel as a refuge from the charging orcas and spent many long moments tucked in beside us as we drifted. We all were at the rail and could look down into its eye as it looked up at us, floating beside us and nearly as big as the inflatable boats we tow. The orcas kept close attention and cruised by the bow sprit and under the hull several times, and rose side-by-side in unison behind our stern. In one charge the bull leapt fully out of the water, parallel to us, and we fully observed his size and power compared to us.

biggs orca

The female lunges through the water

Inevitably the sea lion made a dash for shore, and the orcas resumed their hunt. We watched astern, crowded along the aft rail, as the whales lunged and crashed over the sea lion until finally they all disappeared from the surface far behind us.

The male Bigg's orca by the doomed sea lion.

Maple Leaf Adventures is called a ‘experience of a lifetime’ and that is exactly what the encounter with these hunting orcas became for us. We became intimately connected with the rawness of the  predator-prey encounter with these magnificent and powerful marine mammals. None of us will ever forget this over whelming first-hand observation.

– from Naturalist Mary Morris aboard the SV Maple Leaf

The three whales, a family, near the ship as the sea lion sheltered under it.

Composed during exquisite sunrise over mirror calm Rose Inlet, and headed to SGang Gwaay to catch the morning light on the poles. Incredible low low tides with all the eelgrass and kelps twinkling along the water line along the shore.

[editor’s note: This is the second hunt of a Steller sea lion that Maple Leaf guests have witnessed this year, the first being on our Gulf Islands National Park trip. This is a rare and extraordinary thing to witness – truly moving, raw, and humbling. It is not usual to see and so it would be wise never to expect to see this on a trip. : ) ]

May 17, 2013 – A Few Days from the First Trip
At anchor, Burnaby Narrows (Dolomite Narrows), in Gwaii Haanas

Maple Leaf at anchor in Haida Gwaii, with a group having fun in the zodiac. Photo: Greg Shea

Day 1 The guests arrived with Andrew Merilees after a day and a half exploring northern Haida Gwaii including Masset, Old Masset, North Beach, Tow Hill, Skidegate and Tlaal.

Everyone boards in the afternoon and we cruise from Morseby Camp to Carmicheal Passage. Had lovely fresh prawns with salad after a zodiac trip to Louise Narrows to look at the forest and birds. Saw kingfisher, oystercatchers, eagles and megansers.

Day 2 Calm seas on Hecate Strait, sea lions at Reef Island, humpback whale sighting. Anchor at T’aanuu and had a 3 hr visit with watchman Sean Young. Great informative tour from very well educated watchman who has had a lot of involvement with tracing the Haida`s past. From T’aanuu to Shuttle Island to fill water tanks. Guests amazed by dock-side viewing of the creatures just under the surface. Off to our anchorage in an inlet for the night. Celebrating one of our guests` birthday with balloons, candles & dessert, the Parma movie and a few good laughs.

Day 3 Early morning kayaking for naturalist Mary & a guest, guests fishing at secret spot with the women board scoring favorably with 3 lovely fish (1 ling, 1 yellow eye and 1 tiger rock) and the men coming up with a couple lost lures. Enjoyed shortly afterwards in a lovely fish soup that chef James prepared for guests from their catch. Anchored at the north end of Burnaby Narrows to hit the 1:30 low tide in the narrows.

[where we float through on just inches of tide to see the rich, colourful world of intertidal and subtidal life spread before us, with Mary interpreting it]

Other reported highlights from this trip included dozens of humpback whales, including breaching whales, visits to UNESCO World Heritage Site SGang Gwaay, Cape St. James and southern Kunghit Island beach, and sailing southern Haida Gwaii.

– from Capt. Greg Shea on the SV Maple Leaf

To learn more about taking a trip yourself, or to ask us to send information, please visit the page about our Haida Gwaii Tours.