Bella Bella Rides the Waves with BC Ferries

Bella Bella is a very special Spirit Bear who accompanied my friends David Wei and Suzanne Clouthier on a coastal adventure with BC Ferries. Bella Bella normally shares her stories with schools but she learned such interesting things about ferry travel,  she asked to share with getaway readers. So, with the perspective of a Spirit Bear —

To get to Port Renfrew from the mainland of British Columbia, your drive will take a maritime turn. In fact, the highway becomes a ship that takes you across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island.

Since 1960, a company called British Columbia Ferry Services Incorporated has carried people, dogs, cats, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, boats on trailers — you name it — across the water all up and down British Columbia’s coast. And it’s quite the coast: including both B.C.’s mainland and offshore islands, our coastline twists and turns more than 27,000 kilometres.

Some three dozen ferries follow 25 different routes along this coast, and link 47 ports! You can voyage to places with magical names like Haida Gwaii, Penelakut, Sointula, Hornby, Gambier, Vesuvius Bay, or Waglisla (a community also known … not coincidentally … as Bella Bella).

There are other ways to get across the water, though you couldn’t bring your car!

About 20 million passengers – and  nearly 8 million vehicles – travel aboard B.C. Ferries every year. With more than 500 sailings a day (nearly 175,000 sailings per year), the ferries leave on schedule over nine times out of ten. Given sometimes foul weather, heavy traffic loads, and complicated machinery, that’s pretty impressive!

We boarded a ferry called the Coastal Celebration at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, which is about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver.   There’s lots to do while you wait for your chance to board. You can shop and eat in the Tsawwassen Quay Market …

play outdoors

or take a stroll, and watch the freighter traffic at the nearby Roberts Bank Superport (which ships over 20 million tonnes of coal each year) and Deltaport (which can handle the largest container ships on the seas).

Built in Germany in 2008, the Coastal Celebration is  a whopping 160 metres long.  The ferry can carry 370 vehicles (including up to 32 big semi-trailer trucks) and over 1,600 passengers and crew. The 45 km crossing to Swartz Bay, on Vancouver Island, takes an hour and 35 minutes.

The ship goes through Active Pass, between Galiano and Mayne Islands. These are just two of the over 200 islands and islets that make up B.C.’s beautiful Gulf Islands.

What great views of islands passing by.

I played on board

browsed the on-board shop and took in some sun (though didn’t have time to try the BC Ferries’ spa services.

Once we disembarded in Swartz Bay, it was a pleasant 142-kilometre drive to Port Renfrew.

Coming home, we boarded a ship called the Spirit of Vancouver Island at Swartz Bay. This beauty was built in Victoria in 1994. It’s 167.5 metres long, and can carry 410 vehicles and 2,100 passengers and crew.

After a snack in the onboard Coastal Café, believe me, it was tempting to just drowse during the crossing to Tsawwassen. When I heard that a naturalist (an expert on plants and animals) would be giving a talk on the aft (rear) deck, though, we hustled there.

This is Dan Stewart, who is part of B.C. Ferries’ and Parks Canada’s Coastal Naturalists program. Naturalists like Dan have been giving talks during summertime sailings for the past seven years.

Dan focussed his talk on Garry Oak meadows — the brown patches you see scattered around the Gulf Islands. They are in fact a kind of grassland. While 80% of B.C. is coniferous forest, less than 1% is grassland. In this area, grasslands occur because of a rain shadow effect, and very thin soil that doesn’t retain  moisture. Garry oaks can tolerate these conditions.

In fact, back in 1851, the flower-filled Garry Oak meadows around what is now the City of Victoria were described as an Eden by settlers.  They were there because idigenous people had burnt off vegetation to promote the growth of the camas lily, whose root is a prized, edible bulb.

Dan told us that less than 5% of pre-Contact Garry Oak meadows remain. 100 species that depend on the meadows’ ecosystem are now at risk.

Whenever we have the pleasure of enjoying the outdoors, this is a good thing to keep in mind: nature always needs us to help look after it. B.C. Ferries is working on environmental concerns too. And I like that because as a BC Spirit Bear, keeping my home clean and wild is what makes British Columbia so special.

 Story © S. Clouthier; Southern Gulf Islands map courtesy Wikipedia; Quercus garryana (Garry Oak) courtesy brewbooks on Flickr; Camas lily courtesy; Other photos © S. Clouthier


About Chris McBeath

Travel writer Chris McBeath has worked aboard cruise ships, opened hotels, managed convention centers, marketed spas and spa resorts, and written guide books and travel articles on nearly every aspect of travel.
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