Trains and Boats and Planes

Victoria Harbour–including Ogden Point–is a busy place. During the summer season dozens of cruise ships visit, several a week and sometimes three at once. They’re on their way to or from Alaska.

The regular vessels, though, are the two pilot boats that go out and meet the large freighters travelling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to and from a Canadian port. The Pacific Pilot 2, shown here with the Wave Venture that also used to be a regular for years, braved all types of weather in its efforts to ensure safe passage of vessels through the Strait. Just last year, it was joined by the more modern Pacific Scout and the Pacific Pilot 1 was retired. The Wave Venture left to work on the University of Victoria’s Neptune Project, helping to lay down the many kilometres of underwater cable that send images and other data from the ocean floor to labs at several universities for analysis.

Going by the tip of the breakwater each day are the MV Coho that connects Victoria to Port Angeles in Washington State, and the Victoria Clipper passenger catamaran that plies the waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Victoria and Seattle. The Coho is part of the Blackball Line, which makes it sound like a pirate ship and adds a little excitement to the experience. The Clipper travels very fast and the weather in the Strait can make the crossing somewhat bumpy. The Clipper is not without its romance: We know of a couple who actually met several years ago on the Clipper when each was travelling to and from Seattle and Victoria on a regular basis to visit relatives.

Canada’s Pacific Fleet is actually posted in Esquimalt, just around the tip of the peninsula across from Ogden Point to the west, so it’s not uncommon to see some of our naval vessels in the waters.

Many sailboats also pass by, usually on a sunny day with just the right amount of wind. This one with red sails caught our eye, as did this flotilla of small boats being towed by a motorboat.

Finally, you may see something totally unusual such as this oil rig that came by mysteriously one day heading east to who knows where…

The skies over Ogden Point are also busy, with helicopters taking off and landing from the Helijet Terminal almost every hour. Float planes also fly by as they take off and land on the water in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Oh, and about those trains. The single-car Malahat (formerly known as E&N or Esquimalt and Nanaimo) train leaves Victoria every morning up-island for Courtenay first thing in the morning, and returns about suppertime every evening. It delights in making its presence known by generously sounding its horn as it leaves or arrives at the station in downtown Victoria. It is easily heard from the Ogden Point breakwater. The E&N is the only train to enter Victoria, in contrast to Greater Vancouver, which has both passenger trains and frequent freight train traffic.

Viewing Fish from the Top of the Breakwater

There’s no shortage of spectacular fish awaiting those lucky enough to SCUBA dive at Ogden Point. Wolf eels, kelp greenling and rockfish alone are some of the wonders waiting among the 10,000 granite blocks and forests of bull kelp. But even for those just walking out to the point, there is much to see.

Chinook salmon go by many names, including spring salmon, king salmon or tyee if the specimen is over 14 kg (30 lbs). In a saltwater twist on the hatchery concept, a local group has proposed pens to rear fry of the much smaller pink salmon, which would be released and hopefully return in two years.

Peering into the water you may also see schools of fish making their way around the breakwater. Herring are not uncommon. There are usually many hundreds of young herring (as shown below), readily identified by the flash of silver made when one or more suddenly changes direction in the group.

Other schools of fish you may see include the Bay pipefish, a long pencil-thin fish, and the three-spine stickleback, which is interesting as it’s also common in freshwater as well as along the shore in marine coastal habitats.

Seeing Seals..and other marine mammals at Ogden Point

You’re likely to see a harbour seal in the water any time you walk the Ogden Point breakwater. They are pretty tame and come close for a good look at you. The harbour seal is the common seal found around Victoria or Vancouver, the western counterpart to the harp seal in the east and the ringed seal in the north. They eat fish and cause some distress for people fishing for salmon from the breakwater. One time a seal was seen swimming along the harbour side of the breakwater with an octopus in its mouth. The pair in the photograph on the right were swirling around and chasing each other back and forth for several minutes – we supposed they were on a play date. At nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, seals will jump up to grab seafood scraps that one of the seafood stores sells, making for some interesting photos for tourists to take home.

California sea lions are also a common sight by the breakwater, especially in early spring when they are following the herring north. Sea lions expel air very loudly when they surface, like a whale, which is one way to distinguish their behaviour from that of a harp seal. Another difference is that harbour seals tend to bob in and out of the water, slipping inconspicuously below the surface of the water when they dive, whereas sea lions will arch into a dive so you can see the crest of their back. They’re also more likely to see a group of sea lions.

These handsome fellows were photographed from a boat on Steveston Jetty at the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver–they often hang out on the river in April and early May, following the herring and oolichans up towards New Westminster.

River otters create a lot of excitement when they show up. Many people think that they are sea otters because they are in the sea, but river otters will readily go into the ocean. Caught by surprise, visitors flip open their cell phones and try to catch a picture before the otter slips off the blocks into the water. There is often a group of river otters in the water off the point of Mayne Island that can be seen as the ferry to Vancouver from Victoria enters Active Pass.

On rare occasions people have seen whales from the tip of Ogden Point. Both killer whales and Minke whales have been observed. Usually, though, you just see the whale watching boats speed by during the tourist season on their way out to Haro Strait, Active Pass or wherever else the whales were known to be that day.

Alluring Algae

Algae are an interesting group of organisms. They have typically been classified in the Kingdom Plantae but are now sometimes considered to be in the Kingdom Protista, better known for single-celled microscopic organisms. Algae occur in three general groups named after their colour – green, brown and red.

Shown above is some algae soup, actually a mixture of bull kelp, rockweed and surf-grass. Although it looks like an algae, surf-grass, found on rocky sites, is actually a vascular plant as is its mudflat counterpart, eelgrass.

Some green algae are single-celled and some green algae occur on land; you can see them on the sides of buildings or fences. Most algae are larger though and occur in freshwater and marine environments. Larger algae, especially the brown algae in oceans, are called kelp.

Floating on the surface of the water on either side of the breakwater is bull kelp. The ones on the exposed side of the breakwater are probably still attached to the bottom of the ocean and are part of an underwater forest that is teeming with life. The bull kelp on the harbour side of the breakwater have probably been torn away from their homes and were brought here by waves and currents. Bull kelp have a bulb-like floatation device that helps to keep the photosynthetic blades closer to the water’s surface. Usually the long blades of the kelp that were attached to the bulb have been torn away. The blades look like leaves but every cell is pretty much the same as every other one so the blade looks more like a long sheet of paper. It is attached to a long stalk called a stipe and is anchored to a rocky bottom by a clump of tendrils called a holdfast. The holdfast, stipe and bulb are often seen washed up on the beach.

Here’s a mat of bull-kelp that’s surrounded a diving ball. Ogden Point is a popular diving spot in Victoria.

The brown alga Fucus or rockweed has an antler-like appearance and has air bladders as well. Children sometimes like to stomp on the air bladders and make them pop much like they would with plastic wrapping material that has air pockets.

At the far end of the breakwater around the lighthouse are mats of feather boa kelp. They are also usually anchored to rocks with a holdfast. These algae are true to their name and if you are up for a seaweed wrap experience, you can take one from the water and wrap it around your neck, as Anny is below (taken at Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew).

One of the more stunning algae can be seen about two-thirds the length down the breakwater on the harbour side deep in the water. You might see something that looks like the iridescent flash of the side of a fish with a suggestion of neon. This is actually a type of red algae called iridescent seaweed and it is best seen at low tide on a sunny day. Two other types of red algae that you might see washed up on the beach by the breakwater are branching coralline that is white when bleached in the sun (it looks like little bits of rubbery coral) and laver (also called porphyra) which in Japan is called “nori” – you’ve probably eaten some of it if you like Japanese cuisine.

Green algae algae you mights see on the rocks along the shore at low tide include sea hair (Enteromorpha) and sea lettuce (Ulva). You can identify the sea hair because some of them have been bleached white in the sun.

Ogden Point Breakwater: Starting with invertebrates

Countless invertebrates float in the water or on the rocks of the breakwater. This time around we’ll look at just a few of them. A guide book such as The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest by J. Duane Sept (Harbour Publishing) can help a lot. Remember: Just look!

Often, moon jellyfish and lion’s mane jellyfish (the spectacular fellow below) are swept into the harbour side of the breakwater.

If you see what looks like a gargantuan fried egg floating in the water, it’s probably a Fried Egg Jellyfish (Phacellophora spp.).

Also floating in the water may be the exoskeletons of dungeness crabs (right). The skeletons of crabs and other arthropods need to be shed as they grow because they are on the outside of the body and most of the “dead” crabs seen on beaches ar actually just cast-off empty bodies.

The Moon snail is another oddity. Its shell is about the size of a coffee saucer and sports what looks like an eye in the middle of the spiral (when seen through a foot or two of water from the top of the breakwater) but its body is about the size of a soccer ball. It’s been spotted somersaulting in the calm inner bay.

Orange Sea cucumbers and long white anemones sprout from the rocks. Although they are plant-like in appearance, anemones are in the same group (Division or Phylum) as the jellyfish and have sting cells in their tentacles as well.

Chitons are prehistoric-looking critters that you can spot on the rocks. The most common is the Black Katy Chiton; sometimes there’s an aptly named Gumboot chiton (below) —about a foot of orange or pink amorphous-looking goop.

Commonly known as starfish, you can see various types of seastars including the purple seastar (which may be orange), the Sunflower seastar (the pink spiky thing in the middle of the picture, below) and the Sunstar, the giant pink star—all can be very large. Also leather stars and blood stars.

On the granite blocks of the breakwater are numerous barnacles. The gooseneck barnacle (below) is particularly striking with its leathery stalk Barnacles are crustaceans (related to crabs and shrimp) and can withstand the extreme conditions of driness and wave action high up in the intertidal.. When covered with water they can be seen filtering the water with their legs.

The hidden landscape: A bit about birds at the Ogden Point Breakwater

Most of the people who walk the kilometre or so out the Ogden Point Breakwater (seen here from The Coho ferry from Port Angeles, WA as it’s entering the Inner Harbour of Victoria) in James Bay, Victoria, BC notice the boats, helicopters and view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Peninsula from the point. They may not realize that a hidden landscape lies beneath them. All you have to do is stop awhile and stare do
wn at the rocks and gigantic granite blocks edging both sides of breakwater, or scan the waters. And wait awhile.

If you’re lucky, you might spot an octopus, a mink or a river otter. Some have seen orcas this close to the Inner Harbour, as well as sea lions, not to mention all manner of invertebrates. Today though we’ll just talk a bit about birds, one of our favourite subjects.

In the summer you might see
the Rhinoceros Auklet—so-called because of the ‘horn’ on the base of the bill. She is easily spotted both by her silhouette and her behaviour as she floats along seemingly placidly then suddenly splays her wings and quickly ducks under the water in hot pursuit of a tasty fish. Here’s a silhouette of one landing on the water–if you look closely you can see the little horn.

Great Blue Herons can be seen “floating” on flotsam and jetsam, from stray logs to bull kelp.

You might also see a Cormorant swimming under water on the calmer side, chasing her lunch.

In wintertime, Sanderlings scour the large rock blocks looking for snacks or sipping biofilm slurpees by the seaside as the tide laps onto them. Biofilm is a slimy layer of algae, bacteria, other microbes and other organic matter and is an ecological ‘hotspot’.

With their raucous calls Black Oystercatchers are VERY noticeable even when you can’t see them and even more so when you can with their bright red bills and eyes and pink feet.

Two Kingfishers gaze into one another’s eyes on a post near the Pilot boats.