Alert Bay & Johnstone Strait

Sep 08, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Bird


Continuing south through British Columbia, National Geographic Sea Bird transited Queen Charlotte Sound overnight to arrive at Alert Bay, Cormorant Island. Initially built as a fishing community, the town is presently home to most of the ‘Namgis tribe, Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations. Our visit began in the community’s 1,000-person-capacity Big House adjacent to the world’s tallest totem pole. Among carved figures of whales, eagles, and bears, with wood fire smoke drifting skyward, dancers of all ages—from toddlers to elders—shared traditional potlatch songs and stories. In First Nations culture, it was not how much a person had that defined their status and wealth, but rather how much they gave away. We were truly honored to receive the gift of this experience and ensuing conversations with children and dancers.

For many decades, the British Columbian government prohibited a host of First Nations traditions, including potlatches, language, arts, and dress. In 1921, following an illegal potlatch, Alert Bay families surrendered multitudes of ceremonial masks and dance regalia to the police under duress. After the government ban was lifted in 1951, the Kwakwaka’wakw fought tirelessly for the return of their sacred items from museums and private collections. The U’mista Cultural Centre, the name of which means “the return of something important,” was constructed specifically for the homecoming of a fraction of these masks and related artifacts. Housing not only this community’s treasure but also regalia archives and rotating exhibits, U’mista celebrates the powerful, living culture of the ‘Namgis and was our afternoon destination. 

The ever-present desire to view and photograph the region’s charismatic wildlife brings staff and guests alike to National Geographic Sea Birds bow and bridge during all daylight hours while the ship is under way. This morning we delighted in a few moments with a pod of orca as they traveled and hunted the waters along northeast Vancouver Island. Dall’s porpoise played in our bow wake late into the afternoon, capturing the attention of a lucky few who braved the rain and wind to keep a sharp lookout on the foredeck. Tomorrow is our final day in British Columbia and all are excited to see what else we will discover!

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About the Author

Deb Goodwin

Naturalist

Following her first wilderness paddling expedition as a teen, Deb recognized the power of immersive experience in motivating individuals to value and protect the natural world. She is passionate about creating opportunities for the inquisitive of all ages to engage with remote places and underexplored marine environments. Over the years, Deb has worked as a sailor, educator, and research scientist in the North and South Pacific, the North and equatorial Atlantic, and the Caribbean.

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