Takaya and the Salish Sea

How the Discovery Island Wolf helps protect our local waters

Where the land and the Salish Sea meet, one of the south Island’s most notorious animals stands watch over what are regarded as some of the most biologically diverse and important waters in the world.

Takaya, also known as the Discovery Island Wolf, has been inhabiting the Discovery/Chatham Islands – just off the shores of Oak Bay – for the last five years or so. Not only is he an anomaly in his choice to remain a lone wolf, but also in his choice of habitat – a rocky shoreline rather than the forested habitat of choice for many B.C. wolves.

“Takaya is an amazing and incredibly unique representation of the relationship between the terrestrial and the aquatic,” explains Cheryl Alexander, an environmental consultant and former lecturer in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Victoria.

Through her photography, Alexander documents Takaya’s (the Coast Salish word for wolf) life on the islands. Now, she embarks on a mission to help the Salish Sea become a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site – with the help of the wolf.

“Three-and-a-half million people live around the Salish Sea. We rely on the health of the environment and the sea as humans, and so does Takaya. He’s really quite symbolic of the need to maintain the integrity of the ocean and the surrounding land, and he’s become incredibly well known for his presence in this unique area,” Alexander said.

Once every decade, the Federal Government opens applications for UNESCO World Heritage Site designations in Canada. A short list is developed and sent in for consideration to the United Nations before any final decisions are made. The process is currently in the public engagement phase, with many local organizations and individuals backing the proposal including SeaLegacy (founded by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier), the Salish Sea Trust and recently, the City of Victoria. The proposal was initiated by Vancouver Island resident Laurie Gourlay and the application went in at the end of January to Parks Canada where it will be reviewed by a team of experts before it goes to UNESCO later in the year.

“This is an important step in celebrating and acknowledging the importance of the inner ocean’s outstanding cultural and natural heritage,” Alexander said.

Her passion for wolves began when she took a camping trip to Desolation Sound with a friend and wildlife biologist.

“We looked for wolves on Cortes and didn’t see any, and it was a bit disappointing. Then the next morning, I woke up to a wolf howling next to my tent. It was phenomenal. It was life changing and it triggered a whole bunch of curiosity in me about wolves.”

Alexander began photographing Takaya after his arrival to Discovery Island in 2012.

“He’s been there for about five years now, and he’s probably about seven-years-old. We’ll never know where he came from but the best guess is from somewhere out in the Sooke or Shawnigan Lake areas,” Alexander explained.

She says one of the most unique things about Takaya is his diet and how he’s adapted to living in this region.

“He feeds on seal, river otter, mink and goose eggs. If you look at photos of him compared to other wolves from around B.C., he looks incredibly healthy. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact he’s eating so many healthy fats in his diet,” Alexander laughed.

She says his presence in the area can teach us all a thing or two about the biodiversity our local ecosystem offers.

“He’s lived there for five years very successfully. He’s habituated to the presence of people in his territory – it’s not remote from human contact – but he’s figured out how to co-exist in proximity to people,” she explained, adding that he generally avoids them. The island was closed in 2016 after a family and their dog encountered him, without issue.

“From my perspective he’s figured out how to co-exist, but it’s the people who haven’t. The negative aspect of having people out there is that they don’t understand him. They want to feed him, which will habituate him. Luckily, people going out there hasn’t been detrimental to him so far. I understand why the park was closed, but I don’t think the solution is to keep it closed,” she said, adding it’s a complex issue.

Alexander admits she was very protective of Takaya in the early days, but says she realized the more people know about him the better protected he will be.

“It’s very unique and very rare to have a lone wolf living in such close proximity to a city. And it’s so special because we can actually observe him. It’s a real gift that we’ve been given and I hope as humans we can cherish that.”

She believes spreading the word about Takaya will help the bid to have the Salish Sea added to the UNESCO Heritage Site list, and she hopes he becomes the poster child for the project.

“We’ll never know how he came to be, that’s part of the mystery, but perhaps, as some of the Songhees believe, Takaya is the embodiment of their Chief Robert Sam who died around the same time as he appeared in the islands. He was an advocate for maintaining the ecological integrity of the Salish Sea.”

“I view Takaya as a sort of sentinel, positioned at the gateway to the Salish Sea, reminding us that our very existence is irrefutably bound up with the health of the ecosystem. Either way, the main point is that if he can survive here, so can we. If he can’t, we might not either.”

For more information on the UNESCO application, see wearethesalishsea.eco or follow Alexander on Instagram at cher_wildawake.

editor@oakbaynews.com

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