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Howe Sound island hopping

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Fishermen on the Sunshine Coast avoid seals and sea lions like the plague. They've usually scared or eaten the best fish and, to quote my wife's uncle, "they're a bloody nuisance."

But to the average landlubber like me, the sight of whiskers twitching atop several thousand pounds of blubber is cute.

Maybe I don't get out enough but in two years of living on the Sunshine Coast I've seen almost as many seals.

Until last week.

A few minutes out of Gibsons harbour on a two-hour boat tour of Howe Sound's islands and inlets, I discovered where they had been hiding. After we'd negotiated the shallows through Shoal Channel and entered Barfleur Passage, they appeared – dozens of harbour seals covering a few exposed rocks at the southern tip of Keats Island.

I assumed my kids would find this spectacle as interesting as I did.

"Quick, come and see the seals, you gotta see the seals," I told Ryan and Emma, who were still wrestling with oversized lifejackets and half a Gravol each.

Kids these days. Even at four, they don't believe the hype.

"I don't want to see the seals," screamed Ryan, struggling against my grip. The silence shattered, the seals grudgingly vacated their rock and headed for more tranquil waters.

Two-dozen bobbing heads in the water didn't look nearly so impressive.

The wildlife here is used to man's attentions. No doubt the Sechelt and Squamish First Nations had their own names for the islands that litter the entrance to Howe Sound. Then Spanish explorers like Jose Narvaez came and changed the names, only to have Englishman Captain George Vancouver change them all again.

Given that Narvaez originally christened the Strait of Georgia, "El Grand Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera," perhaps we should all be thankful Capt. Vancouver came after.

On a cloudless day only a passing B.C. Ferry appeared whiter than snowy Diamond Head, looming in the distance. The 38-foot, custom-built passenger boat steered us at 10 knots through islands with names straight out of rural Britain: Popham and Little Popham, Keats and Pasley.

Past Mickey Island we slowed respectfully at tiny Ragged Island. It's a popular place for local boaters to pay their last respects to loved ones by spreading ashes in the inky blue waters. It would be hard to find a more peaceful spot.

While a bald eagle spied us from a distance we pulled into Keats Island at Plumper Cove Provincial Marine Park for a little beachcombing and a stroll around an empty campground. We sat at a picnic table and looked across the water to the town of Gibsons.

It was here that George Gibson, a retired Royal Navy lieutenant in search of land to call his own, was blown off course as he tried to cross Georgia Strait for Vancouver 115 years ago. With his sons George and Ralph, Gibson waited out the night on Keats Island before crossing Howe Sound the next morning to find exactly what he had been looking for. He laid claim to District Lot 686, known today as Gibsons Landing. George Junior claimed a neighbouring lot and Ralph took Pasley Island.

The town of Gibsons is thriving these days with a waterfront park opened last week, a new boardwalk-style pier and an eclectic mix of stores in an undercover market known as Molly's Lane. Next weekend (July 28) sees the town host the annual Sea Cavalcade.

And they won't be stopping to admire the seals.

If you go:

From Gibsons harbour, Sunstar Charters runs several tours around the islands of Howe Sound, including sunset cruises, half-day trips and two-hour jaunts like the one described here, which costs $30 per adult. Call 1 866 886-6699 or visit www.sunstarcharters.com for more information.

Visitors can also combine a boat trip with a tour of artists' studios in Gibsons and Gambier Island by contacting Gibsons-based Artworks Tours at 604 886-1200 or www.artworkstours.com

B.C. Ferries service to the Sunshine Coast runs roughly every two hours from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and takes about 40 minutes. Call 1 888 BCFERRY or visit www.bcferries.com for more information.

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