New whale-watching outfit sails into Telegraph Cove

A Prince of Whales boat follows a pod of transient killer whales, including a young calf, off Clover Point. The company has signed on to operate at the Telegraph Cove Resort for at least the next five years | Photo: Bruce Stotesbury, Times Colonist

Troubled waters in Telegraph Cove have resulted in the oldest whale-watching outfit on Vancouver Island shutting its engines down and a Victoria-based enterprise expanding its operations.

A dispute over a lease between Telegraph Cove Resort and 38-year-old Stubbs Island Whale Watching has forced Stubbs to close and start selling its assets, while Prince of Whales has signed on to operate at the north Island resort for at least the next five years. It’s a situation that has created resentment and distrust in the small community 210 kilometres north of Campbell River.

“I am extremely disappointed,” said Stubbs owner Heike Wieske, who was “shocked” when she got the letter telling the company it would have to vacate its offices at the resort by the end of this month after more than 30 years.

Stubbs has been operating at the resort on a month-to-month lease for years.

What seems to have poisoned that deal and any chance of a long-term agreement is Wieske and her partners putting the company up for sale last fall.

“There were too many life-changing events ... long-term we couldn’t do it in Telegraph Cove,” she said, noting they intended to make sure they found a buyer that would be a good fit for the company and a good fit for the resort.

While there was some interest from whale-watching outfits and other groups, nothing came to fruition, so Wieske planned to operate for the coming year as usual and buy some time until they found a buyer.

But Telegraph Cove Resort owner Gordie Graham said that wasn’t good enough. “We have 70 employees here and we take that responsibility seriously, and we realized that we had to get an operator that would offer security, because always at the back of our minds was [Stubbs] are going to go anytime,” he said.

The Grahams established a campground and marina at Telegraph Cove in 1979 and over 40 years that site has grown into a resort that can accommodate 500 guests. It includes a restaurant and pub, general store, hotel and Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretative Centre. Graham said they sunk a lot of money into a new lodge at the resort last year, and wanted the security of long-term operators.

“That’s when we approached Alan McGillivray [owner of Prince of Whales] and we came up with a long-term lease for them to operate out of here,” he said.

Graham said it’s unfair to suggest the resort kicked out Stubbs. “They were going to go anyway, we didn’t ask them to leave.” he said. “We realized we had an excellent operator that was going to come in we got the long-term deal.”

Wieske said she understands the business-case argument and the need for long-term security, but she doesn’t understand why they couldn’t have worked out a smoother transition.

“I’m personally very disappointed in this scenario; we trusted Gordie,” she said.

The result, she said, is Stubbs will not be able to cash in on any good will established over its history, and only has its assets — two vessels — to sell. They are contacting 2,500 customers who had booked tours for 2019.

Wieske, who also owns Discovery Marine Safaris in Campbell River, doesn’t think the vessels would suit the Campbell River market, but said there has been good interest in the boats.

Prince of Whales is gearing up to start operating out of Telegraph Cove Resort May 1. Prince of Whales manager Ben Duthie said the company will relocate the 74-passenger Ocean Magic II, which has operated in Victoria since 2006, to Telegraph Cove.

That vessel will be replaced in Victoria by a 95-passenger catamaran this spring.

They will also be relocating the Ocean Magic I to Telegraph Cove from Vancouver in mid-summer when another new catamaran is ready for service.

Duthie said the appeal of Telegraph Cove is obvious, given it’s the birthplace of whale watching in B.C. “The accessibility and biodiversity are also unmatched on the West Coast,” he said. “Operating conditions are ideal.”

Stubbs Island Whale Watching was founded in 1980 by Jim Borrowman and Bill McKay. Wieske and partners Geord Dunstan and Roger McDonell bought the company in 2011.

Times Columnist