The Belle Chain at Last!

Date: January 2, 2013
Trip: North Pender Island to the Belle Chain Islets
Distance: Approximately 11 Nautical Miles
Sea Conditions: Sometimes Choppy with Stretches of Calm Waters
Weather: Sunny with a Mild but Cold NE Wind
Joined By: Jill, Tim, and Dave.

This was our third attempt to get out to see the sea lions on the Belle Chain Islets. Both currents and weather had thwarted us last winter, but we were determined this time, even if we had to fight a little current on a freezing cold day.

The Belle Chain is a series of rocky islets jutting out of the waters of Georgia Strait,  just off the north shore of Samuel Island, in between Mayne and Saturna Islands. These seemingly inhospitable rocks are the winter home to a large colony of Stellar Sea Lions. The numbers of these marine mammals has dropped something like 80% in the last several decades, so the Belle Chain has become an important part of their survival. As a result, the islets are a protected marine habitat.

We set off from Hope Bay around mid-morning, with frost on our kayaks and a sharp chill to the air.

I don’t normally like to give a commercial plug on my blog, but Hope Bay is home to one of my favorite restaurants in the Gulf Islands, The Cafe at Hope Bay. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, check it out.

Plumper Sound looked calm as we set out, but a cold north wind soon slowed us down, even if only only for a short while.

We had only one bad stretch of current to deal with, but it was definitely a challenge. Not long after we entered Georgeson Passage, which leads from Plumper Sound to the Strait of Georgia, we hit a strong current flowing in the opposite direction to the way we were going. We were paddling for all we were worth, and only making inches of headway. Luckily, Dave knew the waters well, and knew that we only had to fight this for a short distance, then we would be in the clear, but that short distance must have taken us most of 45 minutes to cover. Here are the calm waters after we emerged from the current.

After giving ourselves a break to catch our breath and have a have a drink of water, we continued through Georgeson Passage and out to the Georgia Strait, only encountering small pockets of current. The Strait itself was typically choppy. This huge body of water is rarely calm, even in summer, and swells that could have been generated far to the north can continue unabated to as far south we were. Below is a shot of our rocky destination with Mount Baker and the Cascade Range in the background and the choppy waters of the Strait.

Despite the conditions, we made good time getting to the second islet in the Chain. Even from a distance, we could clearly see the huge Stellars perched high on the rocky outcropping. As we arrived, a small motor boat also arrived, flagrantly disregarding the 100 meter distance rule from the preserve. We were worried that they would scare the sea lions into the water and we would only get a glimpse of their heads as they swam around. Sea Lions are not to be trifled with either, and I didn’t want a bunch of angry bulls, almost as long, and much bigger than us in our kayaks, taking it out on us. But luckily, all they did was growl, which is quite something to hear by itself. Below are the best pictures I could take. The sea was moving so much, and we were far enough away that my little camera couldn’t really do a good job.

Stellar Sea Lions are incredibly noisy. They sound like a whole bunch of small muffler-less engines roaring away. They also smell QUITE fiercely. Below is a video I took so you can hear the sound they make. The sound unfortunately doesn’t come across very well in the video, more like loud cat purrs, but it gives you some idea of the sea lion roar. You can also see just how choppy the water was by my inability to hold the shot.

After spending some time with the sea lions and patting ourselves on the back for finally making it, our stomachs were growling as loudly as the bulls, and we were definitely ready to get out of our boats for a while. So we headed toward Boat Passage, a place I’ve been to many times, but never transited. The current in Boat Passage is one of the swiftest in the Southern Gulf Islands sometimes reaching higher than 6 knots. When we arrived it was running at a mere 1 1/2 knots in our favor. Even at that speed, all four of us shot through the narrows at what seemed like racing boat speed.

We were all very happy to arrive in the sheltered waters of Winter Cove and get out of our boats. I, for one, was walking like Neanderthal Man for the first few minutes. We settled on Winter Point and had our lunch in the sun, despite the cold breeze coming off the Strait. Tim snapped the the better of the lunch pictures.

After lunch we headed back to the beach where it was sheltered from the wind, and sat soaking up the warm rays. Not bad for January in Canada! Then it was back in our boats to cross Plumper Sound again. This time, the breeze was at our back and the paddling was easy. Along the way, we passed one of four large freighters anchored in the Sound and I took an few shots of it including an “I’m not afraid of you!” shot (how often do you get to go nose-to-nose with a monster like that!).

I have to admit, the last couple of miles were getting hard for me. It was the first time out paddling in a couple of months, and combined with a lingering head cold, I just didn’t quite have the energy I usually have. But it was worth it to finally get out to see the Stellar Sea Lions (even if I am paying for it today!). And we even made it home before the sun set.

Thank you for reading, everyone!

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