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BC Ferries hopes for whale-free weekend to handle expected crush of traffic

BC Ferries has a few sailing tips if you're planning to travel this long weekend.
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BC Ferries Skeena Queen travels to Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island. A pod of orcas disrupted ferry service at the terminal on Saturday.

BC Ferries is hoping for a little cooperation from the Salish Sea’s whale population as it prepares for the busiest weekend of the season.

With reservations already booking up for the August long weekend, BC Ferries is hoping to avoid any repeat of the sailing cancellation it had to make due to orcas frolicking in Fulford Harbour on the weekend.

In order to give the pod of orcas a wide berth, the captain of the Queen of Skeena cancelled an afternoon sailing, missing a single round trip between Salt Spring Island and Vancouver Island. The vessel added a sailing at 9:35 p.m. Saturday to make up for the disruption.

“The captain made the right decision — it was a great thing to do,” said BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall, who noted it’s “really unusual” to have to cancel a sailing as a result of whale activity. “I’ve been with the company for longer than I’d care to say and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of us cancelling a sailing due to whales in transit.”

Marshall said it’s normal for the ferries to slow down or alter course for whales, but being penned in because whales are in a harbour is something new.

“Normally we see them in Active Pass or closer to Tsawwassen, so it’s unusual to see them in Fulford Harbour,” she said. “We always want to make sure we give them a wide berth. And I think our customers understood we were doing it [Saturday] to help the whales.”

It’s unclear which pod of orcas caused the cancellation.

Sean MacConnachie, who oversees marine mammal research for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said while the southern resident killer whale population remains fragile with just 75 at last count, the Bigg’s orca and northern resident populations, which are now spending more time in the southern Salish Sea, are quite healthy.

He noted the J-pod of southern resident whales have not come into the region yet this year, which is unusual.

The southern residents have been affected by a lack of chinook salmon, pollutants and disturbance from large vessels.

Michael Weiss, field biologist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, said it’s difficult to say how healthy the southern resident population is right now as they haven’t been seen in three weeks.

“But the transients, the Bigg’s, the mammal eaters, all seem to be doing very well — they’re fat and healthy looking and have plenty of food to eat,” he said.

Weiss said he takes BC Ferries’ sailing cancellation as a good sign that the message to boaters of the importance of watching out for whales is getting through.

This weekend, the corporation will be hoping for whale-free harbours.

Marshall said the long weekend and middle weekend in August are the busiest of the year for BC Ferries, and with wildfires burning in the Interior, the coast has become a vacation hot spot.

“I think some folks are ­probably avoiding the Interior right now and that seems to be driving some traffic our way and we were already busy,” she said.

In fact, Marshall said it feels like a typical summer already.

Last weekend, fleet-wide, BC Ferries was down just 14 per cent in terms of passengers and up three per cent in vehicles compared to 2019. “Our staff were ready for it — we know there is plenty of pent-up demand [for travel],” she said.

Before travel restrictions were lifted July 1, BC Ferries had already switched to its summer schedule and hired extra summer staff.

Marshall said everyone should once again expect sailing waits on the weekends, noting reservation numbers are about typical for this time of year.

The corporation has also added sailings mid-week, with 6 a.m. departures Monday to Thursday between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay to accommodate commercial traffic and take some of the load that builds up through the day.

BC Ferries has offered a few sailing tips ahead of the long weekend.

It said typically, the most popular travel times are Thursday and Friday afternoon, as well as Saturday morning from Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay.

The busiest times from the Island are on B.C. Day Monday and Tuesday morning.

It advises travellers to book in advance to secure a spot or consider alternate ferry routes — suggesting it’s better to travel to the Island via Tsawwassen rather than to try your luck on the Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route without a reservation.

BC Ferries will have mobile check-in options — staff walking the lines with payment machines to take on the crush of cars and passengers — at Langdale, Horseshoe Bay, Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay terminals to speed up processing and reduce the backup of vehicles at ticket booths.

BC Ferries also suggests showing up early and bringing plenty of water and sunscreen to handle the sailing waits.

aduffy@timescolonist.com