Alert Bay, British Columbia

Sep 11, 2018 - National Geographic Quest

We woke to an overcast, blue-tinted morning with a lone humpback whale feeding near National Geographic Quest’s bow.  Flocks of surf scoters flew passed the vessel while low-lying, wispy clouds hung in the mountains surrounding Cormorant Island.   The clouds parted with a shining sun soon after docking at Alert Bay and we visited a cemetery with colorful memorial totems for prominent First Nations chiefs and matriarchal leaders.  We had a pleasant walk along the bayfront seeing bald eagles resting on pilings, and great blue herons wading on the shoreline as we stretched our legs on our way to the U’mista Cultural Center. 

The native art gallery was full of Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial masks, informative videos, and guides that shared the plight of reclaiming their heritage. Afterward, a short walk up the hill toward the tallest totem pole in the world (173 feet high) took us by surprise as artists were actively carving a totem pole.  Friendly First Nations people invited us into a potlatch house to share with us what remains of their culture.  The smell of firewood filled the air inside the smoke-filled Big House as dramatic beams of sunlight pierced through the skylight onto the dirt floor.  This potlatch house is the region’s largest with huge native painted murals and carvings on massive timber; capable of sheltering over 1,000 people.  Dancers today included everyone from the elders to the youngest children, all dressed in traditional designs of red, green, and black fabrics with beads and sequins.  The thumping sound of drums and rhythmic chants from the T’sasala cultural group echoed in the building as dancers circled the smoking fire pit.  A number of different cultural dances were followed by “potlatch” offerings consisting of smoked sockeye salmon and fry bread. 

Johnstone Strait proved its reputation for an abundance of killer whales by giving us views of orcas immediately upon leaving Alert Bay.  Pacific white-sided dolphins joined in on the fun as they swam over to bow ride the ship for a short while.  In the afternoon we gathered in the lounge where David Cothran conducted an informal interview of National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin and his protégé Ralph Pace, drawing out some of their ideas about their work and its place in their lives.  For dinner, the galley crew swapped places with the expedition staff for a fun evening which was followed by a competitive natural history trivia night. 

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About the Author

Jason Jones

Jason Jones


Jason Jones has extensive experience with research and conservation projects. From snails to whales, his interests range widely, including birds, dolphins, fish, insects, seals, sea lions, and sea turtles. His early fascination with fishing, tidepooling, and the outdoors sparked his childhood motivation to maintain several personal aquariums. By high school he was working at the Texas State Aquarium as a guide and animal care technician.

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