Rich tidal pools, a shoreline full of life, and fantastic geological features attract visitors to Botanical Beach, northwest of Victoria.
Botanical Beach offers one of the best opportunities to view intertidal marine creatures and plants on Vancouver Island. Botanical Beach has 251 hectares of upland habitat, but it is best known for its abundance of intertidal life. The area is a protected zone, so please take nothing but photographs from Botanical Beach.
It is one of the most amazing places on the entire West Coast, particularly at low tide. This is when visitors can walk a long way out across flat sandstone and granite outcroppings to view tide pools filled like jewel boxes with brightly coloured marine animals. Purple, red and orange starfish and sea urchins, blue mussel shells, white gooseneck barnacles, and green sea anemones and sea cucumbers only begin to hint at the spectrum of intertidal life that thrives here. So significant is this location that a research station was first established here in 1900 by a team from the University of Minnesota.
The organisms that live here must be able to handle a wide range of conditions. When the tide is out there are significant changes in temperature, predators, food sources and salinity. Each creature has adapted to contend with these variable conditions.
Organisms that cannot cope with drying will survive in the tidepools or in shaded crevices. There you will find congregations of seastars, chitons and anemones, the seastars often piled together to reduce moisture loss. Barnacles, snails and mussels are able to survive by closing up tightly with a small amount of water inside their shells. Purple sea urchins have established a particular niche in the soft sandstone. Their sharp, hard spines help to wear away the indentations in which they live.
Highway 14 is a spectacular coastal route that ends in Port Renfrew, 104 km from Victoria. Visitors find their way to the beach along the same rough road used for most of this century. The distance from the dock in Port Renfrew to the beach is 5 km. Only four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance should attempt the road past the parking area. Beyond here the road narrows, parking is limited, and turning around is all but impossible. Better to bike or walk in. Allow 45 minutes on foot from the parking lot. As you near the beach the trail divides: take the right fork to reach Botany Bay, go left for Botanical Beach and the tide pools.
Ridges of shale and quartz jut up through the basalt at Botanical Beach to create immense tableaus in places such as the awe-inspiring Devil’s Punchbowl. The Punchbowl, flanked by smaller bowls on either side, features a gallery of caves rising above two huge cedar logs and a field of driftwood kindling. Although you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near here at high tide, it’s staggering to imagine how conditions must boil in there during winter storms.
These formations are located at the north end of the sandy beach and require some scrambling to reach. Wear rubber boots, as the going is always wet. Even during the lowest tides of the year – December and January, June and July – the prospect of being caught out here will make your adrenal gland flutter.
Plan ahead so that you visit here when the tide is falling. At this point on the coast there is often only one major tide per day, and you can spend several hours waiting for it to recede if you arrive at the wrong time. The best local tide chart to consult is the one issued for Tofino. The store at the Port Renfrew Hotel is a good local source; so is Parks Canada’s West Coast Trail office in Port Renfrew, as well as the Sooke Visitor Centre.
Killer whales (or orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family) and gray whales are often seen swimming offshore from French Beach, China Beach, and Botanical Beach. Although the orcas live in these waters year-round, the best time for spotting gray whales is during their annual migration in March and April, when they are en route to Alaska from their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico. California and Steller’s sea lions appear from August to March as they follow migrating fish stocks.
From these beaches along the southern coast of Vancouver Island you’ll almost always spot the smooth-domed head of a curious harbour seal bobbing offshore. It’s not unusual to spot black bears in early spring on some of the beaches as well, particularly around China Beach and Mystic Beach. Bears are unpredictable and potentially dangerous animals, especially when they emerge hungry from winter denning. If you see a bear, back away slowly. Do not leave food or garbage lying around: a fed bear is a dead bear.
Botanical Beach is located in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, near Port Renfrew on the south coast of Vancouver Island. There are four main areas to the park: the China Beach Campground, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, the China Beach day-use area and Botanical Beach.
Botanical Beach is the northern terminus for the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail . The community of Port Renfrew is the southern terminus of the rugged and remote 77-km West Coast Trail, which challenges hikers from around the world each summer.
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