As the skiff rounded the rocks into Harlequin Bay, we saw them. Two wolves standing together on the rocks near shore. At a distance, they almost looked like German Shepherds: sandy and cinnamon colored with darker spots at their necks and tails. They seemed a bit smaller than what I imagine a timber wolf to be, and we momentarily considered that they might be adolescent pups. They stared at us, and we stared at them. We were so stunned that we didn’t have the presence of mind to kill the motor. They watched us go by in the skiff and we watched them head away from the water into the woods.
We had heard that there were wolves on the island, and indeed on many of the small islands that dot the Queen Charlotte Sound here in British Columbia. They can go from island to island, swimming, looking for prey. They also are known to be resident on these islands, many of which no longer have a deer population, the typical prey for timber wolves. We have been told about seeing wolf prints and scat, and about the sounds of howling, but never sightings on the island. I was awestruck.
I’ve seen wolves in the wild twice before. Years ago, on a cross-country ski trip in the back country of Yellowstone National Park, a group of us watched a pack of wolves stalk elk at dawn. Several years ago, in Banff National Park in Alberta, driving on a side road at dusk in mid-October, I saw a very dark animal trot across the road about 100 yards up and head into the woods. I remember it vividly, and even then yearned to see more of it. I thrill to see these wild animals and birds: I get excited with every eagle sighting, although there are many each day, and with each harbor seal and every otter sighting. (Admittedly, I’m not so taken by sea lions, in part because I’ve had some exposure to them both above and under water.) I am awed and excited by and interested in seeing all these creatures in their natural habitat, much the way I catch my breath each time I see a hummingbird outside our place in San Francisco. It just never gets old. Admittedly, I am in a remarkable part of the world right now, surrounded by natural beauty. Still, I am filled with wonder and amazement at what is often right in front of us if we look.
Back at the house, I geeked out a bit online. There are 40 subspecies of wolf– canis lupus -in the world, including the Australian dingo (canis lupus dingo) and the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris). I learned three important facts about local wolves:
1. A Canadian study completed in 2014 showed that island-based wolves in British Columbia had enough different DNA to be (potentially) considered a separate subspecies from either the timber wolf, the Vancouver Island Wolf (canis lupus crassodon), or the British Columbian wolf (canis lupus columbianus). They don’t interbreed much.
2. First Nation people have long considered them separate: they speak of sea (or coastal or marine) wolves at the coast, and timber wolves inland…
3. Sea or marine wolves have evolved to lead permanent lives on islands and near the shore, hunting salmon, digging for clams and mussels, and eating the occasional seal or sea lion.
So it is highly probable that the two wolves we saw are sea wolves, permanent residents of Hurst Isle. And when we saw them, they were most likely out looking for something to eat at the shore.
For readers interested in geeking out a bit more, here are several links:
• A link to the story about the DNA research and First Nations’ knowledge of marine wolves (it is a quick read):
• A link to a CBC story about a National Geographic story on sea wolves that includes some great (composite) video footage of the animals:
And last but not least for even more amazing pictures and video of the sea wolf as well as bear, orca and other marine life, a link to PacificWild.org, a Canadian non-profit that does great work to protect and preserve the BC coastal environment.
The sea wolf that lives in coastal British Columbia doesn’t yet have its subspecies designation or latin name. So today, I’m taking the liberty of bestowing a proper name in honor of the two we were lucky enough to see: canis lupus mare reginae charlotte, also known as the Queen Charlotte Sea Wolf.
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