STELLAR SEA LIONS bide their time on Norris Rock waiting for recreational fishers to help them scrounge up their next meal.

A look at wildlife viewing – from the other side

Animals can be just as observant of humans as humans are of them

Viewing wildlife is a growing and important business in many parts of the province, and there are specific rules that guide the activity. One operator found out recently that it can be very expensive to break the rules.

My experience with wildlife viewing goes back some 70-plus years and most of it has been by myself or in small groups, except for a period of several years when I worked with Simon Fraser University assisting  wilderness trips. During the time I was involved with groups we never had a problem, primarily because we gave the wildlife plenty of room to leave the area. It was also a given that we kept a respectful distance from each other except at times of surprise encounters and they were dealt with on an emergency basis that suited the circumstances.

Over the years I have experienced many close encounters with wildlife that had nothing to do with viewing on my part, but in reverse – viewed by wildlife.

One of the most common examples of wildlife viewing people occurs on a regular basis throughout coastal waters when harbour seals and sea lions watch recreational fishers as they practise their fishing activities. These intelligent animals follow recreational fishing boats in coastal waters and take fish off their lines. It leads to many types of defensive activities on the part of the anglers. If you have ever endured the frustrating experience of having a prime salmon, halibut or lingcod taken from your line you will appreciate what I mean by negative vibes from this type of wildlife viewing.

Fly fishing is subject to wildlife viewing from the wildlife side that can be frustrating at times. Northern loons have learned that we fish over shallow shoals that often have cruising fish on them. The loons have observed that when we catch a trout its movements are much restricted, making it an easy catch for the loon. Osprey and eagles are often examples of wildlife viewing to the advantage of the birds involved.

If you spend much time in the outdoors under quiet circumstances you can learn some of the languages of communication practised by most types of wildlife. The common red squirrel of our northern forests is a mouthy little creature that can give you all kinds of information if you take the time to learn.

For example if you are sitting quietly and a squirrel comes along and gets all mouthy and excited about your presence you might just as well get up and move on because everybody knows you are there. Conversely, if you hear one mouthing off at some other creature minding its business, the squirrel serves as notice to be especially aware of what is happening.

Taking it further, squirrels will also tell you if hawks, owls or martin are in the immediate area. Conversely when you hear squirrels singing their happiness songs all is well, or they are young squirrels who have much to learn about keeping their mouth shut – sound familiar?

As I write this column there is a large concentration of Stellar and California sea lions on Norris Rock. They are there to greet the herring when they arrive and I venture if numbers mean anything the herring are in for a rough ride. I get the impression from the constant noise that comes from this large gathering of animals that they have much to shout and yell about. Groups swimming about the local waters are not shy about approaching us, and to date they have not bothered our lines.

There is a two-way exchange of viewing and being viewed, which seems to be mutually interesting. The last time we were in the area a group of orcas had the undivided attention of the seals and sea lions and it was interesting to observe. When the orcas moved on they approached our boat as one of us was playing a salmon and moved on.

Over the years I have been close to all manner of wildlife and I respectfully suggest there is a two-way situation of viewing and being viewed if you go about it by yourself or in small groups that are non-threatening.

Ralph Shaw is a master fly fisherman who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts. In 20 years of writing a column in the Comox Valley Record it has won several awards.


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