Robson BightSouth east of Port Hardy
Located on northern Vancouver Island, about 70 km south of Port Hardy, Robson Bight is a strict ecological reserve set aside for the northern resident orcas that live in Johnstone Strait. It is unique in that it is one of the only sites in BC where the whales will come into the shallow waters to scratch their bellies on the beach’s gravel. The orcas spend a considerable time in the area, providing some of the best whale watching in the world (outside of the reserve), feeding, playing, and lingering in the area before moving on. Aside from the orcas, the Bight’s reserve status makes it an ideal habitat for the rest of the marine life typically found on the Vancouver Island coast.
Location and AccessCoordinates: 50°28’57”N 126°35’01”W
Robson Bight Ecological Reserve is located on the north island, about 120 km north of Campbell River. Immediately out of the bight is Johnstone Strait, and facing it is Cracroft Island, which has a population of less than 100 people.
Access to Robson Bight is strictly prohibited, and the only roads in (logging roads) are marked and gated. Federal marine warnings are posted at the entrance to the bight. Whale researchers are permitted access, but only with permission from the Ministry of the Environment, and are under strict regulations. The closest point at which to depart for whale watching is Telegraph Cove.
Robson Bight is a small bay, backed by high mountains and the Lower Tsitika River. There is a provincial park a few hundred meters up the river which is a remote backpacking destination and also serves to protect the whales by stopping potentially polluting development in the Bight’s watershed. The foreshore is shallow and composed of small gravel and sand and it is this gravel that attracts the whales for their famous belly-rubbing. Outside of the bight, the terrain returns to the typical BC shoreline of craggy rocks, intermixed with sandy bays and shell beaches.
Life in the Bight:
The killer whale is both the focus of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, and its most spectacular inhabitant. The whales that visit the bight are members of the northern resident group of Orcas, the largest group found in Vancouver Island waters. The area is also important for the transient Orcas, which pass through this area on their yearly travels. These groups of whales are red-listed in BC, and Robson Bight is the only whale sanctuary set aside on the entire BC coast, making this an extremely important piece of their habitat.
Robson Bight also protects numerous other species of concern. The red-listed marbled murrelet passes through, feeding in the area surrounding the bight, and the northern goshawk uses the area for both foraging and breeding. All five species of native salmon travel through this area on the way to their spawning grounds, and many spawn in the Tsitika River itself. The river also contains eastern Vancouver Island’s only remaining substantial steelhead run, as well as dolly vardens, cutthroat trout, and eulachon coming upriver to breed. The Bight is also host to an incredible richness of marine life including vast assemblages of seaweeds and invertebrates, due to the strong mixing currents which pass through the area. As the only fully protected estuary and nearshore environment in BC, Robson Bight is of crucial ecological significance.
Unfortunately, Johnstone Strait, just off from the Bight, is a heavily traveled shipping lane, and container ships, cruise ships, barges, and log booms all wishing to avoid the west coast weather all pass through the area. With so much marine traffic, accidents are likely, and in 2007, a barge carrying logging equipment and 10,000 litres of diesel fuel tipped, spilling its cargo into the Bight, which promptly sank and began leaking diesel fuel into the water. Cleanup crews from Vancouver were dispatched and primary containment began, but the orcas had already been seen swimming through the diesel left by the barge, and the fuel slick was estimated at 14 km long. Though not nearly as catastrophic as a large scale oil spill, this incident highlighted the danger of shipping in sensitive coastal waters and showed the vulnerability of the local ecosystem to even a minor fuel spill.