06 Jun

Tuesday, 23rd May 2023 -The Gas Steam Clock

For my firsrt day in Vancounver I had decided to largely give my legs a rest´. I had walked up so many steep inclines in Seattle that my legs had taken the brunt of the exertion. Now it was time to give them a little respite. Throughout my travels, I have found that the best way to explore a location while not doing so on foot is to use a hop-on / hop-off bus ticket and sure enough Vancouver offered such a service with a total of 14 map locations to leave and later re-join the bus service. I picked the stop closest to me which happened to be Chinatown and made my way there with the Rapid Transit Bus service. It is worth noting at this point that while the rapid buses are hybrids, the neighbourhood bus services use a pair of poles which connect the bus to overhead powerlines, the electricity from which powers the buses.

Just two further stops from Chinatown and we arrived in the nighbourhood known as Gastown. The name comes from a former denizen of the neighbour, effectively the original core of Vancouver, called "Gassy" Jack Deighton a steamboat captain and barkeeper from Yorkshire in the North of England. Deighton was known for the length of his story-telling known as "gassing" and the area first become known as GassyTown and later Gastown as a result. Nowadays, the most famous symbol of Gastown is the so-called Steamclock, though this was installed many years after the neighbourhood got its name. Intended to cover a steam grate, part of Vancouver's steam heating network, the clock is designed to emit the so-called Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes (https://youtu.be/U9SI5PEoUBQ?t=57)

The next stop on the route takes us to the main passenger terminal for the cruiseships leaving for and coming back from their 7 day excursions to Alaska at 1 Canada Place. During several of my tours whether in Vancouver or previously in Seattle, I met a number of people who were either about to embark on one of these cruises or had just returned from one. While some of these people were native Canadians or Americans, a large number were either from the British Isles or India.

Subsequent stops were located either in the heart of Robson Street, the main shopping district, Stanley Park, a vast region of natural beauty and Granville Island, a shopper's paradise and location for 80% of the city's Whale Watching operators. As I would, be visiting these places in the coming days, walking throughout to do so I decided to remain on the bus and take in the city while being chauffered around. I ended the tour where I started it, in the centre of Chinatown just to the east of the main gate into the area.

There was just enough time to head into a market shop and pick up some T-Shirt with native imagery on them as one of several souvenirs I would end up acquiring while in the city before heading to a pizzeria near my hotel and enjoying the Canadian version of a Calzone di Carne. Delicious!

Wednesday, 24th May 2023 -"Admiral, there be whales here!"

To begin with, well done to those of you recognised the above quote as coming from the 1986 movie "Star Trek - The Voyage Home". The plot of film revolves around an alien probe trying to make contact with earth's humpback whales and finding none left in the 25th century proceeding to drain the energy from the planet. In a last ditch attempt to save the earth, Admiral Kirk and his crew travel back in time to 20th century San Francisco to bring back two humpback whales to communicate with the probe and avert a catastrophe.

While the plot of the film is of course pure Hollywood, the premise it was based upon, namely the wholesale eradication of an aquatic species was very real. It took the combined efforts of Greenpeace, the Anti-Whaling League and various other conservationist bodies to convince countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland to limit whale hunting to sutainable levels. Hunting still goes on today, but there are safeguards in place to ensure that the species is not hindered from making a comeback. It is a slow process however and this was evident the day I set out to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

The whale watching vessel "Prince of Whales" (you gotta love the pun) set out from Vancouver's Granville Island with a contingent of roughly 60 passengers onboard. They came from all around the world, as did the crew, with conservationists from Ireland and the UK and one of the photographers hailing from Germany. The captain wasted no time in heading out into the Salish Sea, south towards the 49th parallel and the border with the USA. Passengers were given a brief overview of the kind of whales we were likley to encounter, namely humpbacks and orcas and what creatures they would be hunting. The guides explained that not all whales were the same and that there were rules regarding which type of marine wildlife we were allowed to get close to and therefore disturb.

The native species are those whales which have effectively made their home on a particular part of the coast. These limit their food intake to marine algae and other indigenous fish stocks. By law, it is forbidden to disturb these mammals as they work towards replenishing their numbers which were decimated by commercial overfishing and hunting. The second group are the transients - these are whales who are effectively "passiing through" and they are the more active and aggressive of the two groups. Their prey are made up of sea lions, harbour seals and porpoises of which the waters around Vancouver are teaming. The guides explained that these smaller mammals have learned to tell the difference between the native and the transient whales, often swimming in close proximity to the former while keeping a healthy distance to the latter species.

The boat had been travelling for at least an hour when the captain abruptly cut the engines and our guide announced a family of orcas off the starboard bow, two males and a female. This she explained was a mother with her two sons and these were transient whales as the other day, this same group had been spotted further north of this location. The guide explained that male orcas stay with their mothers until they meet and start their own pod with another female orca from another family. Each family has a unique language of clicks and sounds throuigh which they can tell one another apart, ensuring that there is no inbreeding among the species. We watched as the whales either followed or stayed within sight of their mother as they emerged on different sides of the boat throughout the encounter. Apparently, the males are so heavily dependant on their mothers that were they to lose them, their life expectency decreases to only 20%. The whales stayed with us for a good 45 minutes or so until they submerged and we did not see them again.

Moving on futher along the coast, our guide explained that we were now on the lookout for humpback whales which had been reported by another vessel earlier that day. Ships and Boats in the area report whale sightings to ensure that there are no tragic incidents on the open water. Also, it helps conservationists track the path of the whales as they head from one hunting ground to another. Again, we were travelling at a steady pace when the captain first reduced speed and then cut the engines entirely. Out in the distance, we caught sight of what looked like a huge splash wave and a giant whale launching itself out of the depths into the air. We had found the humpbacks and while there were only two of them, they appeared to be frolicking in the early afternoon sun. Dozens of cameras tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to catch a good image of the whales at the same time. Thankully, we had some professional photographers onboard with camera lenses so good, they could capture the goings on in the water much better than anything the guests had brought with them. This is why the images uploaded in this blog comes directly from the tour organizers and not from my own recording device.

We watched the whales excitedly blowing the water out of their spouts for some time, but soon it was time to make our way back to the harbour before the sun went down. The boat was cuising along at steady pace when it suddenly slowed to a very slow crawl. In the distance, we spotted a harbor buoy and on it something was moving. When we got closer we realised what it was! 4 harbor seals had chosen the buoy to catch some of the afternoon rays - sunshine rays that is - and as they lay there, occasionally raising their heads to stare either at us or into the water - remember, they are potential prey for passing orcas - they inevitably reminded me of me, lazying about on a deck chair on the balcony of my flat during the sommer months! We left the seals to their nap and headed back into the harbour, another memorable excursion having found its conclusion. What an experience it had been!

Thursday 25th May 2023 -"Exploring Granville Island Market and a cornucopia of wares!"

To anyone, who has never visited the USA before, the concept of a Farmer's Market will be unknown to you. Think of it as cross between a tradeshow and the market stalls you find in local towns and cities on the weekend or sometimes on a Wednesday. Only here, the stalls are open 7 days a week until late in the evening. Having visited Granville Island the day before to see the whales, I knew that exploring this trading mecca would take me all of the morning and most of the afternoon and so I made sure that I arrived there as early as possible. To do so, I availed myself of a 2 Day Hop-On / Hop-Off Bus Pass which would not only get me to where I needed to go, it would also afford me the time to pay a visit to some of the other notable stops along the way, but more about those later.

Granville Island is sandwiched between Downtown Vancouver and the neighbourhood of Kitsilano. To reach it, you have to use one of two bridges and then walk under the bridge you used to reach the island. As such, it is well hidden away and were it not for the bus driver, I would like not have found it so easily. The front end of the island has a number of smaller resurants and stores, however what really attracts so many visitors to the island every day is the huge structure that lies tucked behind them, the Granville Island People's Market.

Apart from local handicrafts like candles, sarapees or ponchos, sombreros and other head wear, there are craftspeople working with iron, puter, tin, precious stones and all manner of wood. Next to them are sculptors and painters, charicaturists and glass blowers, not to mention the stalls with the more esoterik items for purchase. Yet this is but the tip of the iceberg with whole sections of the market reserved for fresh foods like all manner of pasta, confisserie, charcuterie, fromagerie, boulangerie and wines and spirits. All that shopping giving you an appetite? No problem, interspersed with the stalls are vendors offering foods from pizza to fish and chips, thai noodles to beefburgers, chinese dim sum to mexican street food, etc Basically, there is something there for everyone. In my case, I could not walk past the stall with the fresh cheesecake infused with pistacchio nut paste and topped off with a sprinkle of marzipan flakes, followed by a slice of chocolate ganache. Lucky for me, I was not paying attention to calories on my travels!

Friday 26th May 2023 -"Stanley Park - Totem Poles and the Miniature Railway"

With my train back to Seattle not due for departure until 5.30pm, I had all morning and most of the afternoon to visit and wander around Stanley Park located to the North-West of Downtown Vancouver and I had the perfect weather conditions to do it in. Until then, the weather had been a little blustery, but on the Friday, the wind subsided somewhat, so that the sunshine was out in force and strong head wear was no longer optional if you did not want to risk a sunburn up top. Luckily for me, I had my Stetson to keep the sun off my head and my neck as I made my way, first by bus and then on foot to and through Stanley Park.

Now let me say that Stanley Park has a surface area of roughly 400 hectares and can be split into the west and east side. Knowing that the majority of the sites I wanted to see where located on the Eastern side, I made my way as quickly, yet leisurely as I could to that part of the island. Stanley Park is almost entirely surrounded by the waters of English Bay and the Burrard Inlet. The park borders the nighbourhoods of Coal Harbor and West End and is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, whatever the time of year. Its Aquarium draws many school groups as they use the opportunity to study and learn about the different species housed there, including sharks, seals, otters and even a beluga whale. In front of the aquarium stands a sculpture made by indigenous craftsmen representing an orca with its large dorsal fin protruding from the water.

As you head further east towards the small historic lighthouse at Brockton Point, you soon come across a further example of indigenous craftsmanship. There, nestled in a small wooded area stand a number of totem poles, each individually carved and each evoking a different impression on the visitor. These totem poles are in fact reproductions of the originals most of which were moved to other locations where they would not be as exposed to the elements as the ones which stand in the clearing today.Naturally, they draw the attention of any visitor to the spot, making it extremely challenging to take a good picture. However, I think you will agree that my patience was ultimately rewarded!

Following the Northern Sea Wall west, we next encounter the structure known as "Lumberman's Arch" effectively a children's play area / water park, greatly visited on a day such as this. Yet what really draws the attention of the young folk is the miniature railway a little further to the west of this spot. A must for an amatuer railway enthusiast, this takes you through the west end of the park, the rose garden and the Western Sea Wall areas and I wished I had had time to explore this attraction myself. Sadly, by the time I arrived there, it was close to the time I had to get back to the hotel to pick up my bags to head to the station. Still, I intend to return to Vancouver some day in the not too distant future and then I will be able to enjoy this attraction as well.

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