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Gulf Islands expedition cruise a nature lover's dream

If cruises are like summer camp for adults, a Gulf Islands expedition cruise is up a notch. It’s more like a university field trip as we gain a better understanding of Coast Salish history, culture, plants, and wildlife.

Fellow passengers and I gather for breakfast at the start of each day in the beautiful, varnished wood salon of the 111-year-old, retrofitted tugboat the Swell.

It’s here our Gulf Islands National Park and Salish Sea expedition leader Michael Jackson tells us what to expect that day, sprinkling his talk with a fair bit of “ish.” As in, what time we’ll drop anchor and climb into the two zodiacs, bobbing behind the boat, for a shore outing.

With so many variables at sea, our itinerary on Maple Leaf Adventures’ four day journey is fluid and guests quickly realize going with the flow has its benefits. So far, we’ve discovered something wonderful happens with every twist and turn. Like the time a nature hike to Salt Spring Island was dropped after two orcas appeared, and we happily spent the next hour whale watching instead.

My fellow passengers include Gavin Fitch, past president of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, who is representing the non-profit, educational organization on this trip.

The society partners with different travel companies across the country to help make Canada and the society’s endeavours better known to Canadians.

In B.C., the society partners only with the Victoria-based Maple Leaf Adventures, which has been offering conservation-focused expeditions since 1986.

Fitch says the society does about two trips a year with Maple Leaf Adventures. Their next one happens in June to Haida Gwaii, on the Cascadia, an expedition-style catamaran that can accommodate 24 guests.

The Swell can accommodate up to 12 guests, who sleep in six private cabins ranging in size from 57 to 120 sq. ft. This isn’t your typical big-ship cruise with on-board entertainment and over the top amenities (although The Swell does have a hot tub), but rather an opportunity to travel with experts and see this important eco-system as you never have before.

While my sleeping quarters are tight, there’s no compromising when it comes to the food. It’s equal to any fine dining experience I’ve had on land, thanks to chef Dave Lundie, on his first sailing with Maple Leaf Adventures. The chef’s speciality is seafood, but he expertly incorporates ingredients, like the wild mushrooms and seaweed foraged by one of our naturalists during outings.

Other crew include the captain, two deck mates (one also a captain who will be taking the Swell on its next trip), an interior steward and two naturalists.

“Seeing the Gulf Islands from the water is completely different from taking a ferry up with your car and then driving around Galiano or Salt Spring,” says Fitch.

“Its been amazing to see the islands close up and to learn about the indigenous history. My wife and I are from Alberta and we’ve vacationed out here but we had no clue.”

Indeed, it’s likely every guest on the Swell walked away with new knowledge about the Gulf Islands, even those of us who are lucky enough to call B.C. home.

How could you not with such informative guides?

Jackson, a former Victoria science teacher, knows everything there is to know about British Columbia’s coast, from its birds, rocks and tides to its marine life. And ethnobotanist and Metchosin seed farmer Fiona Hamersley Chambers provided expertise on the region’s plant life and the history of the First Nations people. She’s the author of Wild Berries of British Columbia, while Jackson is the author of a guidebook called Galapagos: A Natural History.

Jackson spends about 200 days at sea, in places as diverse as the Galapagos Islands, Canada’s High Arctic, Iceland and the Antarctica when he’s not guiding for Maple Leaf Adventures.

If cruises are like summer camp for adults, our trip is up a notch. It’s more like a university field trip as we gain a better understanding of Coast Salish history, culture, plants, and wildlife.

“We’ve got this beautiful backyard. It’s naturally rich and also rich in culture” says Jackson, who often has binoculars on hand, ready to point out passing birds.

After leaving Sidney’s harbour our first lesson is on seabirds as the Swell passes by Mandarte Island, the largest sea bird sanctuary in the Salish Sea.

Jackson helps us identify three different cormorants who are nesting on the sandstone, cliff face. These include a Double-crested cormorant, Brandt's and Pelagic cormorant. There were many Glaucous-winged gulls and a few eagles, of course, and while I didn’t pay them much attention at the time I later realized I had inadvertently snapped an eagle attacking a seabird. I was too intent on trying to see the Rhinoceros auklets Jackson had identified earlier to even notice the drama happening in front of me.

Another takeaway from the trip is to always stay alert on an expedition cruise.

You never know whose path you might cross.

Like the bull grazing on Penelakut Island — formerly known as Kuper Island and renamed in honour of the Penelakut First Nation’s people, some of whom reside on the reserve here. The island is not open to the public but it turns out the Swell’s ethnobotanist has a connection here.

There is only one privately owned lot, which Hamersley Chambers’ father bought in the 1970s, so our group is able to go ashore to visit and see where she spent part of her childhood.

This is where the bull alert comes in. Not sure of the bull’s disposition our group changes direction, opting not to cross its path.

We do stop to see the former Anglican Church, on the south end of Penalakut Bay, which was the site of a battle on April 20, 1863, when a British gunboat came to apprehend three warriors they wrongly believed were responsible for the murder of a British soldier. When the villagers refused to surrender the warriors their village was shelled.

That history is why a property known as Lot 1 came into existence.

Anthropologist Colin Grier, from Washington State University’s Department of Anthropology, shared this fascinating history with us during a zoom call the evening before our visit.

Grier works with local indigenous people helping excavate village sites and research settlement patterns. Currently, he’s using ground penetrating radar to try to find the houses that were shelled in the battle of 1863, without having to do an invasive dig.

“There’s all these incredible places on the Gulf Islands and there’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye,” he says.

Again, another takeaway on the incredible history of the Salish Seas — one I had no idea about until the expedition.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Maple Leaf Adventures, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.