Anyone for a hump?

14 08 2012

So last Thursday was our last full day in Victoria, and we went whale watching. Lived here 11 years now, and never been whale watching. Seen a few up the Sunshine Coast and off Point Roberts, but always at a distance.

We got up at a lazy hour and made our way downtown for brunch at Willie’s Bakery. The food was deceptively tasty for what is essentially a quick order fry up and waffle place. The servers were excellent, but unfortunately the cooking was  s-l-o-w. So much so that our “plenty of time” turned into “only just making it” by the time we’d been served and marched off towards Fisherman’s Wharf. There we were adorned with floatation suits and boarded our 12 seater Zodiac. We had a really excellent hour or so’s ride up to Henry Island, off the NW coast of San Juan Island. The water was mill pond smooth, and the ride was quite exhilarating. Once there we got to enjoy J pod, one of the resident Orca pods, chomping on the local salmon run. In Canada , one is supposed to keep 100m away from the sides of a whale, and 400m away from the front or rear of their direction of travel. Of course, being marine mammals, they’re not averse to the occasional “deep dive”, and it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll surface. This made for lots of “oo” and “ahh” moments when they suddenly appeared quite close to the boat.

After almost an hour of being awestruck with the majesty of these carnivorous beasts of the sea, the skipper asked if anyone was in a rush to get back. Being answered in the negative, he offered to take us to see some Humpback whales off the SE of Victoria, and off we went.

Now this hour of travel was not quite as smooth. Hardly what you’d call a swell, but when hit at speed, even a moderate wave felt like it would shake your teeth out. As we neared the destination, we entered a fog bank, and the temperature noticeably dropped. Out of the gloom there suddenly loomed three or four zodiacs from other whale watching companies, then suddenly the giant Humpbacks appeared. Three in all. If the orcas were majestic, these were truly leviathans. “Huge” just doesn’t do it. Unfortunately I only had my point’n’click camera with me, and the Humpbacks didn’t expose themselves quite as much as the Orcas, so you don’t really get the sense of size from these snaps. Go look on Wikipedia though… these gentle giants are amazing.

Not cheap at $95 a head, but we had a great skipper and we certainly got total value for our money with nigh on 4 hours of excitement and education. I’d recommend the company we chose (there are eight altogether in Victoria!) – Orca Spirit Adventures.

What’s in a name?

13 08 2012

So while we were holidaying in Victoria, I suggested we visited the nearby lighthouse. Its name/location was a bit vague, but good ol’ Google came up with the answer “Fort Rodd Hill“. In hindsight a pretty big clue, but nevertheless it was with some surprise that when we turned into the car-park we saw not a lighthouse (though that was indeed there, tucked away out of sight) but a pretty extensive decommissioned military installation!

Even now, I am sometimes struck by the youth of Canada – especially here in the West. The source of place names are often still very much tangible. Fort Rodd Hill is still quite obviously a fort! I know, I know, it does sound obvious, but if you’re from “The Old World“, the connection between a place-name and its original reason for having that name isn’t always so blindingly obvious. I grew up in a place called Silsden in West Yorkshire, UK. I remember at the age of about 8 being told by a teacher that the name was a contraction of “Sigle’s Dene”, meaning steep sided valley run by Sigle, the local warlord… or something equally unlikely. Nearby Skipton was “Sheep Town” and to this day is a market town. Well, you get the drift of my point.

The armed standoff of U.S. and British forces during the San Juan Islands Pig War of 1859 led to a steady increase in the Esquimalt naval location used by the Royal Navy for its Pacific Squadron.  When Russia declared war on Turkey this sparked the Great Eastern Crisis in 1877-78, which focused attention on the lack of defences for Britain’s only naval station on the western seaboard of the entire Americas. By 1898 a pretty extensive set of battlements was in place including a rather nifty 6″ disappearing gun which used the gun’s recoil to power the gun beneath the protection of the defences for reloading.

With the approach of WWII, the defences were revamped and a more rapid firing gun was put in place to handle the faster modern torpedo boats.

Though much of the building is the original 1890’s concrete emplacements, the place has an eerily modern feel to it. I guess its age is given away more by the quality of the finishing rather than the basic architecture and functional design. Even though this was built only as a military location, the solid concrete walls have neatly rounded edges and attention to detailing around the few inward pointing window-frames.

There’s a lot to see, with three separate gun batteries, a gas-proof targeting command centre, searchlight emplacements, kitchen and barracks. Set in well kept grounds with nature trails too, it’s an interesting way to kill time on a sunny day.