Exploring the Salish Sea with youth aboard Achiever 

With the Red Fox Healthy Living Society, we spent five days aboard our research vessel, Achiever, exploring the Salish Sea.

It’s a grey blustery April day in Nanaimo as captain Xander Oldaker, mate John Kelsey and I welcome nine youth and two chaperones of the Red Fox Healthy Living Society aboard Raincoast’s research vessel, Achiever. Making their way from Vancouver, the group is joining us for a 5-day, 4-night Salish Sea Emerging Stewards expedition throughout the Gulf Islands, to explore different habitats, learn about local species, get a taste of life and work at sea, and connect with nature.

As we start our way south into the Gulf Islands, we have a quick look at some California sea lions on nearby log booms. The barking sea lions generate lots of excitement amongst the youth, who have never seen so many so close. It’s a great start to our journey. Despite the mixed weather forecast, I can already tell that this group is ready to make the most out of this unique opportunity.

Sea lions on a rock surrounded by the ocean.
Photo by Pascale Campagna-Slater.
Sailboat, Achiever, on the water with Mount Baker in the background.
Photo by John Kelsey.

Our partnership with Red Rox Healthy Living Society

Raincoast’s partnership with the Red Fox Healthy Living Society, a Vancouver-based non-profit, goes back to 2017. Offering programs and services to Indigenous, racialized youth facing barriers, and families, with a focus on active living, Indigenous culture, skill development and employability, they are a great fit to participate in Salish Sea Emerging Stewards programming In 2023, we delivered land-based programming activities, which included learning about the wildlife of the Salish Sea, a beach cleanup, and a wolf research and conservation workshop. We were excited to welcome some of the most passionate youth back in 2024 aboard Achiever.

“Not only are Red Fox youth passionate about recreation, Raincoast has given Red Fox youth an opportunity to be stewards of our oceans and land. Red Fox is grateful for the partnership and we hope to continue to give youth a diverse range of opportunities to be leaders in their community.” – Suki Chhoeun, Program Manager at the Red Fox Healthy Living Society.

Multiple youth wearing life jackets standing at the helm of a sailboat on a sunny day.
Photo by John Kelsey.
Group of youth sitting around a fire at night.
Photo by John Kelsey.
Sea stars in the intertidal.
Photo by Pascale Campagna-Slater.

Our days aboard Achiever

Our days aboard Achiever with the youth group start bright and early. The youth prepare breakfast in the galley, and everyone squeezes into the salon to eat. Being involved in all aspects of life at sea, including preparing meals and cleaning up, is an important part of the experience, and the youth quickly get into the rhythm. John recruits a few volunteers to help pull the anchor, and we set off to our next adventure.

We spend the five days travelling from island to island, exploring different habitats, observing new species, hiking, and playing games. Xander invites the youth to take the helm to practice steering and learn about navigation. Our first stop happens at low tide, so we explore the intertidal shoreline of Prevost Island. We look in rocky crevasses and tidepools for the marine invertebrates patiently waiting for the tide to rise again. We identify species like ochre sea stars, burrowing sea cucumbers, aggregating anemones, and even a sea lemon nudibranch, and discuss the adaptations that help them survive.

On day 3, we notice blows and little black fins far ahead in the glassy waters of Boundary Pass, and excitedly discover it’s a group of nine Bigg’s killer whales. This is the first sighting of killer whales for many of the youth. We observe them as they travel, hunt, and breach offshore of Moresby Island. As we watch them swim away from us and continue on their way, we stop our engines and lower our hydrophone, and listen to an incredible array of vocalizations, a rare opportunity to peek into the underwater lives of killer whales.

Killer whale surfacing in the ocean.
Photo by John Kelsey.
Killer whale breaching in the ocean.
Photo by John Kelsey.

After spending 3 days at sea with a few short land excursions, we are aching to stretch our legs. The sun has finally joined us and it’s a perfect day for a hike up to the Monarch Head viewpoint on Saturna Island. With spectacular views of Boundary Pass, the San Juan Islands, and even the faint outline of the Olympic Mountains, it’s a great reward at the end of our climb. We relax as we watch the violet-green swallows swirling around us, hoping we might catch a glimpse of an elusive peregrine falcon.

At the end of busy days filled with hikes, short bouts of sailing, and wildlife observation, we find a little cove to drop anchor and tuck in for the night. We spend our evenings playing games, reminiscing about the day’s activities, and discussing our plan for the next day. We share our highlights and lowlights of the day while eating ice cream, a nightly ritual. On our last night, we have a special surprise planned, a campfire at Montague Harbour on Galiano Island, where we roast marshmallows and sing camp songs. 

Group of youth standing on a trail under an arbutus tree.
Photo by John Kelsey.
Group of youth walking along a path along a cliffside by the ocean.
Photo by John Kelsey.

The impact of trips like these

The goal of our Salish Sea Emerging Stewards program is to provide Indigenous and underserved youth with experiential environmental education in order to foster the next generation of stewards. By educating youth on the local ecosystems and wildlife of the Salish Sea, and the conservation threats they face, we hope to inspire them to continue to learn and take action to make a positive impact.

“Seeing all the new animals, like the killer whale, was my favourite thing this week. I enjoyed learning about all the different types of species and their name, and how they provide for the ecosystem,” said Daniel, one of the trip participants.

Our Achiever expeditions are a key part of our program, as it is not only an incredible floating classroom for learning, it allows us to provide a truly immersive experience for the youth. Spending five days in nature, coming face-to-face with incredible species, and connecting with like-minded youth is a transformative and once-in-a-lifetime experience for these youth.

“I am very grateful for this trip…Just seeing new things opened my eyes to how fun it is to spend time with others and to open up to the world,” shared trip participant, Alex.

Raincoast would like to thank our sponsors and supporters who made this trip possible:

  • Glasswaters Foundation
  • The Hamber Foundation
  • Keta Legacy Foundation
  • Fluor
  • KPMG
  • Fortis BC
  • Honda Canada Foundation
  • Vancouver International Airport
  • TD Friends of the Environment
  • Greygates Foundation
  • Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Promoscience (NSERC)

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.