When imagining a west coast escape, Barkley Sound and all it has to offer is almost exactly what comes to mind. Waters protected by outcrops of breathtaking yet rugged shoreline allow for relatively calm explorations of the area compared to the turbulent conditions of the open waters of the Pacific. The Sound, which forms the mouth of the Alberni Inlet, possesses incredibly nutrient-rich waters, a mecca for marine life – if seafood is your thing, you certainly won’t starve. Below the surface of the Sound, some of the best dive sites in British Columbia, and the best cold water diving in the world await. Fishing boats can be found abound, as the area still remains one of the top fishing spots for salmon and halibut on the entire coast. A passing whale, or pod of whales, may even interrupt your adventures, and seals, sea lions and porpoises are known to pop up to say hello, while eagles soar protectively above.
Dip a paddle or a toe into the waters of Barkley Sound or try your hand at landing the big one on a fishing charter – the full West Coast experience can be found in this one, stunning location. Barkley Sound reminds visitors and locals alike every single day how incredibly powerful the coast is, and just how lucky we are to be here.
Aboard the Imperial Eagle, a British trading ship, Charles William Barkley first crossed the threshold of Barkley Sound in 1787 with his 17-year-old bride, Frances Barkley. Hers is a name you will come to be familiar with should you spend any amount of time in the area. There is a passenger ferry that bears her name and allows visitors to sail between Port Alberni and Ucluelet and out into the Broken Group Islands. She was the first European woman to reach the shores of British Columbia. Due to the healthy waters within the Sound, there’s no doubt the Barkley’s and their crew were treated to a show of whales, porpoises and seals, as well as the bobbing bodies of the sea otters, whose furs would become the pinnacle of the trading system on the West Coast.
The name Barkley Sound survived despite the area being further explored and renamed “Archiepelago de Nitinat o Carrasco” by the Spanish captains Juan Carrasco and José María Narváez in 1791. The namesake also survived a misspelling on the 1863 and 1865 Admiralty charts, where the famous waters nearly became “Barclay Sound.” It’s funny to know that the man who made the spelling mistakes, William Eddy Banfield, also had his name misspelled on the charts and it never recovered. You can now visit the town of Bamfield across the sound from Ucluelet, close to the Deer Group Islands.
Traditionally, Barkley Sound is part of the lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations – a group of 14 nations that span the western coast of Vancouver Island. They were hunter-gatherers who survived the harsh environment thanks to the wealthy abundance of the lands and, more importantly, of the seas. Today, some islands of the Broken Group, contained in Barkley Sound, are still home to a number of the nations that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth, such as the Tseshaht on Benson Island.
The Broken Group Islands:
The Broken Group Islands are the scenic and protected emeralds of Pacific Rim National Park. The park’s 10,607 hectares of Barkley Sound between Loudoun Channel and Imperial Eagle Channel is interrupted by hundreds of islands, islets and rugged outcrops that make up the group. The 1,305 hectares of landmass are one of the top-rated kayaking destinations in British Columbia. Self-guided or as part of a tour, colorful kayaks can be found silently navigating the waters and currents of the Sound. Paddlers can be seen hopping off at a whim to explore the beaches and tide pools of a self-designated, private island for the day. Because of the abundance of nutrients, there is often plenty of green-tinted sea foam to play with, making for a unique paddling experience and a whole lot of fun. Foggy days, on the other hand, create an eerie, yet serene atmosphere where the silence can feel as heavy as the clouds that rest along the waters.
Some of the islands are more developed with established campgrounds and recreation sites, while others satisfy the cravings of the more adventurous – wilderness camping and rugged shoreline with no toilets in sight. While in the area, explorers need to be wary of wolves and other animals that call many of the outcrops home, and be conscious about food, trash and other waste they may trek to the islands.
The Deer Group Islands:
Less known than their co-islands, the Deer Group Islands of Barkley Sound are one of the best-kept secrets of the West Coast. Closer to Bamfield than Ucluelet, the desolate islands of this group allow for that same, breathtaking Pacific Northwest experience, but without the crowds. Although still nestled within the Sound, the Deer Group is a little more exposed to weather conditions of the Pacific than the neighboring Broken Group. Therefore, the area is more challenging and not necessarily recommended for beginner paddlers. The islands and waters of the area, however, will still delight with the same magnificent sea life and rugged coastal scenery. A number of charters run from Bamfield and will take eager explorers on excursions into the islands. There’s even an added bonus: sea caves and sea stacks have been carved out of the coastline by years of harsh winter waves playing artist, sculpting these magnificent features into the face of the islands over time.