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SATURNA ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA TOUR

Story and photos by

If you love nature, you'll love Saturna Island. The 96-square kilometer island is home to deer, otters, seals, sea lions, orcas and more than 180 species of birds.

East Point Road
East Point Road
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One of 200 Gulf Islands and islets basking in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and British Columbia, Saturna Island is sparsely populated and known for its quiet roads and spectacular scenery.

Saturna was named after the Spanish navy schooner, Saturnina, commanded by José Maria Narvaez, who explored the area in 1791. First Nations people occupied the island until settlers arrived in the 1870s.

Thick ice covered the region 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. The hilltops were islands. Today, you can find shells and sand bars on their peaks.

Saturna Island weather

The climate is Mediterranean. Saturna Island receives only 64 centimeters of rain a year, compared to 147 centimeters in Vancouver and 203 centimeters a year in North Vancouver.

Our favourite drive was the 25-km-long East Point Road, which begins at the Lyall Harbour BC Ferry terminal and skirts Georgia Strait to the opposite end of the island.

The scent of salty air enveloped us. Waves crashed on the sandy shore to our left, while a doe and her fawn grazed in the lush vegetation on our right. Cedars and Douglas firs arched over the road. It was like driving through a cathedral.

Tidal pools

Halfway along the route, we stopped the car to explore the beach and search for marine specimens in tidal pools. We picked up some strands of long green eelgrass.

When British Columbia began oyster aquaculture in the 1950s, eelgrass came with it. Prawns use it as a meadow. Ducks feed on eelgrass in the winter. It's equivalent to a rainforest, in terms of carbon removal from the atmosphere.

Around the blue mussel-covered rocks, we found several shells, including a large weathervane scallop, the largest scallop in the world. The tidal pools also sheltered tiny acorn barnacles, limpets and pretty butter clam shells. Manila clams are a big commercial crop here, but butter clams are the tastiest.

Examining seaweed and shells in tidal pool on beach
Examining seaweed and shells in tidal pool on beach
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sea lettuce

Tiny hermit crabs scuttled over flat green dulce. Locals call it sea lettuce. Asians dry it for soup and wrap the seaweed around sushi.

The hermit crabs scurried away as we walked along the sand. We could distinguish between male and female hermit crabs by the shape of their carapaces.

We examined long tubes of bull kelp that had washed up on the beach. Kelp provides food and shelter for a variety of animals.

"It can grow the length of my forearm in a single day," explained a Saturna beachcomber. "We preserve the stalks with dill and vinegar, and eat them like pickles. Each bulbous float contains enough carbon monoxide to kill a chicken."

Killer whale watching

A short drive later, we arrived at East Point Lighthouse, a well-known orca whale-watching spot. With its 270-degree view, the public park is a spectacular setting for a picnic.

Earlier that day, we had stopped at Saturna General Store, just past the BC Ferry dock, to buy some local treats for our picnic. We indulged in locally smoked salmon and freshly baked whole grain bread from the Saturna Island Haggis Farm Bakery.

To complete our meal, we added fruit and wonderful basil and pepper chevre cheeses made by David Wood, who raises goats on neighboring Salt Spring Island. (Wood used to own a gourmet food shop in Toronto.)

The view from our picnic table encompassed Mount Baker, in the distance, and Tumbo and Cabbage Islands, across water patrolled by orcas. We saw no killer whales, but observed dozens of harbour seals on the rocks below.

Gulf Islands National Park

Both islands are part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, which was established in 2003. The land and marine reserve encompasses 15 islands, several islets and reefs and nearly 50 per cent of Saturna Island.

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is the seventh and smallest national park in British Columbia. It protects the Strait of Georgia Lowlands, one of Canada's 39 natural regions not yet represented in a national park. Its wetlands are havens for waterfowl.

Hiker peeks into rock hole at East Point. Note orca petroglyph on top left.
Hiker peeks into rock hole at East Point. Note orca petroglyph on top left.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After lunch, we explored the East Point section of the park, with a walk below the lighthouse. On the sandstone cliffs, we discovered sea urchins, purple sea stars hiding in rock crevasses, a fish petroglyph and honeycomb weathering.

"Sea water penetrates the porous sandstone, then dries and leaves salt crystals in the pores," explained a local hiker. "The crystals grow and pry out sand grains, creating the holes." One hole was so large, that it resembled a whale's open mouth. We couldn't resist poking our heads inside.

Eager to explore more of Gulf Islands National Park, we drove to Mount Warburton Pike, which has the second-highest summit in the Gulf Islands (400 metres). Feral goats grazed on the grassy ridge, as we looked south over the U.S. San Juan Islands.

Saturna Island winery

At Saturna Island Family Estate Winery, also in southwest Saturna, wild roses surround 60 acres of vineyards. After touring the winery and vineyards, we enjoyed complimentary wine tasting in the shop.

Saturna Winery produces several wines, including Pinot gris, Gewurztraminer and award-winning Pinot noir and Chardonnay. The Bistro is open for lunch from May to September.

Saturna Island lamb BBQ poster.
Saturna Island lamb BBQ poster.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lamb BBQ

There are limited accommodations on Saturna Island (bed and breakfasts, cabins, cottages, chalets and lodges), so you should make reservations in advance. This is especially important on July 1, when the island's population of 350 swells to more than 1,500 for the annual Saturna Island Lamb BBQ.

The Canada Day celebration, held in Winter Cove Park, merges a country fair with a massive outdoor picnic. After enjoying lamb (barbecued on spits around a fire pit) and served with homemade mint sauce, coleslaw, Spanish rice, coffee, tea and cookies, attendees enjoy live music, a beverages tent, games and craft stands. Event proceeds fund community projects.

Saturna ferry

You can get to Saturna Island by BC Ferry from Tsawwassen on the BC mainland and from Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. BC Ferries also travel to Saturna Island from other BC Gulf Islands, like Salt Spring, Galiano, Pender and Mayne.

For BC ferries between Tsawwassen and Saturna, reservations are recommended. You can also travel to Saturna on water taxis and on chartered and regularly scheduled float planes. The Government Wharf, next to the BC Ferry Dock, is available for visitors traveling to Saturna Island by private boat.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Saturna Island Tourism: www.saturnatourism.com

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve: www.pc.gc.ca/gulfislands

Tourism BC: www.hellobc.com

Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel

More things to see & do in the BC Gulf Islands:

B.C. Gulf Islands Honeymoon

Galiano Cycling Tour

Hiking BC Saltspring Island Tsawout Native Reserve

Hiking Ruckle Provincial Park Saltspring Island