Adventures Aboard the Colmbia III Mothership on the
West Coast of British Columbia

by Dr. Robert Berdan
May 4, 2012




Mothership III moored in bay by Robert Berdan ©

The Mothership Columbia III moored in Mussel Inlet on the west coast of British Columbia

By chance in 2006 I was invited to be a photo-guide aboard a boat called the Columbia III which offers a variety of tours for kayakers, artists and photographers.  I served as a photo-guide for 6 to 10 days during the summers of 2006 to 2008. On my first trip into the Broughton Archipelago we met at Port McNeil on Vancouver Island. On subsequent trips I drove to Bella Coola and hitched a boat ride to a small island community called Shearwater where I waited to join the crew on a trip into the Great Bear Rainforest. The boat can accomodate up 8-10 people. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me and one of the most enjoyable photo excursions I have ever had. Anyone can sign up for a variety of adventures aboard the Colubmia III, many of the trips offer kayaking, but they also offer other trips for artists and naturalists - see web site link at the bottom. The west coast of BC is an amazing place with numerous opportunities to see and photograph wildlife both on land and in the water. There are also opportunities to view First Nations totem poles, pictographs and visit some of their villages to meet the people. The west coast is steeped in history that goes back 10,000 years or more. Below are are just a few of my favorite photographs from my journey aboard the Columbia III also called the Mothership since it carries with it at least a half dozen kayaks.

Mothership III crew by Robert Berdan ©

Ross Campbell, Luke, Miray and Fern formed the crew on my trips.

The Mothership is operated by a family run business / dedicated to providing wilderness adventure tours along the West Coast.  The boat has 4 certified captains and kayak experts.  The ship hosts up to 12 people transporting them to remote locations and inlets.  Photography can be done from the boat, land and within a kayak . We photographed a wide variety of sea creatures including: Orcas, right whales, sea lions, purposes, sea otters and on land we watched grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, eagles and countless invertebrates in the many tide pools.  My only disappointment was not having the opportunity to see and photograph a Spirit bear, but see the article and photographs of the Spirit Bear by Steve Williamson. In some places along the coast we explored steep fiords and when it rained the rock walls formed sheets of waterfalls. The coast line is covered in giant Sitka spruce trees and red cedars many of which are estimated to be 1,000 years old or more. It's a special place and if it were up to me I would make the whole north coast into one large National Park for future generations. The area is being threatened by a pipeline - The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project is a proposal to construct a twin pipeline running from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, British Columbia. This will bring with it large oil tankers into the west coast and its fragile environment and an inviteable oil spill - how stupid we Canadians can be to permit this atrocity for a few jobs. If you would like to speak out against this pipeline learn what you can do at Pipe Up Against Enbridge.

Mothership III moored in Shearwater, BC by Robert Berdan  ©

Columbia III moored in Shearwater with moon overhead. Shearwater is a small island that serves as a marina and jumping off spot for fishermen. Across the Bay I was lucky to see and photograph a wild-wolf feeding on salmon (see my article on Canadian wolves).

 Captain Ross Campbell in the mothership III by Robert Berdan ©

Captain Ross Campbell steers the ship using the latest GPS guidance systems and he keeps a watch for wildlife. Ross was a helicopter-logging pilot who gave up the work to lead tours aboard the Columbia III - the boat having been used as a hospital ship in its earlier days.

Fern in the kitchen of the Mothership III by Robert Berdan ©

Fern Campbell in the kitchen preparing one of her many specialities. Photographed with a 10.5 mm Wide angle lens, hence the distorsion.

Mothership III dining area by Robert Berdan ©

Dining area and main meeting place for guests. The boat has a small library of books. Photographed with 10.5 mm wide angle lens. Photographers can recharge their batteries when the generator is on. On one occasion we moored in a quiet bay and in the morning the boat was surrounded by thousand of moon jellies rising to the surface.

Moon jellies by Robert Berdan ©

Moon Jellies rising up from the bottom of the bay in the morning - photographed from the Mothership III

In one of our trips we travelled to Mussel inlet and aboard a small zodiac watched as many as 12 grizzly bears catch salmon. Food was so plentiful that even mothers with cubs would wander into the area with large male bears .See video section. On another occasion we visited a foggy bay where eagles congregated in the trees. We watched the eagles expand their wings and battle for the highest perches.

Grizzly sow and cubs in Mussel Inlet by Robert Berdan ©

Grizzly Sow and two cubs in Mussel Inlet

Immature bald eagle by Robert Berdan  ©

Immature bald eagle photographed from a zodiac boat in Mussel Inlet - 300 mm F2.8 lens.

Bald eagles in trees by Robert Berdan ©

Island bay where we saw a hundred or more Eagles roosting in the trees (composite image)

On most days we would spend 4-7 hours kayaking, stopping for lunch before heading back to the Mothership. We usually travelled in quite inlets at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops to view wildlife and take pictures. A

Kayker photographing the Mothership III by Robert Berdan ©

Photographing the Mothership III from a kayak

Jackie in front of Kayak in the Broughton Archipelago by Robert Berdan ©

Kayaking among the islands - my camera is stored in a small Pelican case lashed to the bow of this two-person kayak. Jackie was from Australia and a serious kayaker - she brought her own paddle and often wanted to see how much distance she could cover. The two person kayaks have a lot of room and are very stable and make an ideal platform from which to take pictures. The person in the rear of the kayak also controls the steering.

Kayaks on island by Robert Berdan ©

Lunch stop on a misty island with sea stacks.. During lunch we would explore the tide pools and adjacent rain forest.

Orca breaching by Robert Berdan ©

Orca photographed from the Mothership. Determining when and where an orca will breach is more difficult then it seems. These fascinating animals are exciting to watch - sometimes they Spy hop or simply stick their heads out of the water to look around. One of the pods swam under our boat.

Orca spy hopping by Robert Berdan ©

Orcas - spy hopping. Spy hopping among orcas may be to view prey species or boats - no one knows for sure.

On on night we moored in a small bay. It was a moonless night and I could see green sparkles coming from the water. When I flicked water drops into the ocean they sparkled even more - bioluminescence. This was incredible, something I had read about in the Kon Tiki voyage but never imagined I would have an opportunity to see it for myself. When one of the visitors mentioned he could see sparks due to the bioluminescence when he flushed the toilet I had to see this for myself and try to capture it with my camera. It was very difficult to photograph, but with a little bit of help from Photoshop you can see what bioluminescence in the ships toilet looks like. The crew had a good laugh when they saw me set up my tripod in the boats bathroom.

Bioluminiscence in the toilet by Robert Berdan ©

Bioluminescence due to dinoflagellates in the ships toilet

Totem pole from Alert Bay by Robert Berdan ©

Totem pole in a graveyard in the village of Alert Bay.

Pictograph on the West Coast with kayakers by Robert Berdan ©

Kayakers stop to admire a First Nations Pictograph on the Rock face. We found several of them.

Moss covered totem pole Broughton Archipelago by Robert Berdan ©

Fern views one of several rotting Totem poles in the Broughton Archipelago.

Grizzly sow and cub in Mussel Inlet by Robert Berdan ©

Grizzly Sow and cub fishing for Salmon in Mussel Inlet

Kayakers return to the Mothership III by Robert Berdan  ©

Kayakers return to the Mothership III shrouded in rain and fog in the Great Bear Rainforest .

Black bears in Great Bear Rainforest by Robert Berdan ©

Blackbear Sow and cub feeding on Salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Beach on outer island on the West Coast of BC by Robert Berdan ©

Beautiful beach on one of the Outer Islands - a great spot to have lunch and explore the beach and tide pools. We did
encounter a few sunny days when we visited the outer islands.

Group of hikers holds hands around the trunk of a red cedar by Robert Berdan ©

Our group joins hands around a giant red cedar tree in the Broughton Archipelago.

Mothership III in Mussel Inlet by Robert Berdan ©

Mothership III in Mussel Inlet - the estuaries are amazing places to view wildlife from the boat

Camera Gear - What to Bring

On the west coast you can expect to encounter rain anytime, but particularly if you go in the Autumn. The temperatures are cool so dress in layers and bring some warm clothes for lounging around in late in the day. A pair of compact binoculars is a must as is your camera gear. To protect your gear I recommend bringing either a medium to small Pelican case that you can strap to the bow of the kayak. Alternatively, you can bring or use more compact dry bags available at most kayak and outdoor stores. For photographing wildlife a 70-200 mm zoom lens or a lightweight 300 mm telephoto lens with a teleconverter is ideal. I also like to have a wide angle lens along to include the kayak in the pictures. If you can only bring one lens - an 18-200 mm zoom lens is a great all round lens to have. Be sure to bring a UV or Skylight filter for the front of the lens to protect it from Salt Spray. Clean and dry you camera after a day out in the kayak. When its raining consider bringing some plastic bags, elastics or special waterproof protectors so you can continue to shoot. My digital cameras survived the humid and wet environment of the rainforest, but my Canon XHA1 - $5,000 video camera did not. Avoid bringing any kind of video camera that uses tape. If you would like to photograph the beautiful life in tide pools or even off the side of your kayak bring along a small waterproof compact digital camera such as one of the Pentax Optio or Olympus cameras (see my article on underwater photography with a compact digital camera). I would also recommend you bring a lightweight tripod for low light and macro photographs.

Photo taken with a waterproof Pentax Optio compact digital camera off the dock.

West coast islands by Robert Berdan ©

Early evening in the islands

Crew plays music aboard the Mothership III by Robert Berdan ©

Miray playing the flute, Luke the banjo and Fern the violin.

Trips vary in price depending on the duration and location of the each of these adventures - see the Mothership III web site for details. The crew is friendly, knowledgeable and I felt very safe and secure in their hands. The crew are also very talented guides, biologists, photographers and musicians who entertained us in the evenings and educated us during the day. If you are looking for a photo-adventure on the water and don't mind a little bit of exercise then this is one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on - they provide the kayaks, food, shelter and although Ross won't promise you any specific wildlife, I assure you that you will see lots. RB

Links & Additional Resources

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