Cougar goes for fast ocean swim off Vancouver Island

Fishing guide Graham Nielsen had seen wolves and bears swim between islands around Nootka Sound but never a cougar, and never at such a clip as he witnessed last week.

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On July 15, the operator of Nielsen’s Lodge in Tahsis — a village on Vancouver Island’s west coast, about three hours from Campbell River — took three guests fishing on his 24-foot boat. After reeling in four halibut and eight salmon, they motored back in the late afternoon.

As their boat turned into the gap between Nootka Island and Vancouver Island, the group spotted something in the water.

“One fellow saw something near the shore. He said, ‘Hey, it’s an otter. Weird. It looks like it’s paddling.’ So I say, ‘Otters don’t paddle,’ ” Nielsen said. “We got a bit closer and saw it was a cougar — not full grown, but big. Probably 10 feet, nose to tail. It was moving real fast, too. It swam nearly halfway across — about a quarter mile. I didn’t know they could swim like that.”

Todd Culos, one of the men on Nielsen’s boat, captured video of the big cat swimming just a few feet behind the vessel.

“I have no doubt it would have tried to climb onto the motor pod, given an opportunity,” Nielsen said.

It’s rare to see a swimming cougar, but the behaviour is completely normal, said Danielle Thompson of Parks Canada.

“Cougars are great swimmers,” said Thompson, a resource management officer at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve who specializes in cougar-human conflict management and public safety.

“They’ll commonly swim between islands in search of prey. Their preferred prey is deer, which also swim well,” she said.

Cougars also hunt mink and raccoons — and sea animals such as otters, seals and sea lion pups. “They’re a highly adaptable predator.”

Thompson doesn’t believe cougars in the water pose a significant threat to swimmers or boaters. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Give them lots of space. Animals are very vulnerable in the water. They do drown.”

Still, their swimming abilities mean trying to escape a cougar on land by heading into the water is not a good response.

“I’ve seen deer do this and it didn’t go well,” Thompson said.

Instead, stand your ground. Maintain eye contact and back away. If the animal lingers, pick up a stick and make yourself appear bigger. Shout, and fight if you must.

Information from the Conservation Officer Service about safety and cougars can be found here.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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