Breeching humpback whale © Parks Canada
Within Gwaii Haanas’s marine realm there is an extraordinary diversity of ecological features, habitat and creatures. Under the waters of the Hecate Strait lie the contours of a former tundra-like plain, with meandering rivers, lakes and beach terraces - a landscape drowned when sea levels rose after the last ice age.
Off the west coast of Gwaii Haanas, the Queen Charlotte Shelf drops away abruptly to 2,500 metres, transitioning dramatically from the up thrust landmass of the islands, to shallow shelf, continental slope and deep ocean abyss. These "ecological edges" make for great biological richness.
Only a fraction of the complex interrelationships between marine plants, animals and their surroundings can be witnessed from the surface.
Wonders of the underwater world
A diver in kelp © M. Heibert
Pacific salmon by the tens of thousands jostle their way up coastal streams to spawn, die and feed the forest each fall. Millions of herring return to spawn, turning protected shorelines and inlets a frothy milky blue. Decades old rockfish meander among hundreds-year old coral forests in the deep sea. Sablefish, a deep water dweller, spends its adult life at depths greater than 1,500 metres.
Kelp forests are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. They provide habitat for many species, from sea stars and marine worms, to fish and marine mammals.
The Intertidal secrets
Bat stars © Andrew Wright
Twice a day, the receding tide reveals a kaleidoscope of life – limpets, periwinkle snails, mussels, chitons, and more.
Turn over a rock at low tide and see shore crabs shuffle for cover. Lift the shelter of seaweed and discover a juvenile octopus awaiting the flood tide.
Witness a nudibranch hidden in the eelgrass meadows. Or enjoy the colourful array of bat stars in a sheltered zone.
Pacific White-sided dolphin
© Parks Canada
Steller Sea lions
© Parks Canada / Debby Gardiner
Twenty species of whales and dolphins have been recorded in these waters. Grey and humpback whales’ spring migration routes pass through Haida Gwaii on the way to summer feeding grounds further north.
Orca and Minke whales are also seen regularly in Gwaii Haanas, along with dolphins, porpoises, harbour seals, and Steller sea lions. Sei, fin, and other whale species are occasionally sighted.
Marine Mammal Watching
The Land and Sea Connection
Black Oyster Catcher © Parks Canada
Tufted Puffin © Parks Canada / D. Gardiner
These islands are a birdwatcher’s paradise. An estimated 1.5 million seabirds nest along some 4,700 km of shoreline of Haida Gwaii. Approximately half of these seabirds can be found in Gwaii Haanas.
Rhinoceros auklets, ancient murrelets, tufted puffins, horned puffins, Cassin's auklets, pigeon guillemots, Leach's storm petrel and fork-tailed storm petrels are among those most frequently spotted on the water.
Common murres, black oystercatchers and pelagic cormorants, bald eagles and Peale's peregrine falcons also nest along the coastline. Because the islands are situated along the Pacific flyway, dozens of species of migrating birds stop here in spring and fall. The shorelines and forests provide critical food, shelter and breeding habitat for a great diversity of seabirds.
Common Murres © Parks Canada / Barb Johnston