Wild Pacific Wonders Thrive in Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s West Coast
“She’s pretty shy, but if you look right there in the shadow behind the pipe, you can see her,” the docent at the Ucluelet Aquarium says.
I peer into the 5-foot-deep saltwater tank. Sure enough, there in the low light in back of a water-pump pipe, I spy the tentacles and hooded eyes of a giant Pacific octopus, largest of its kind. These marvelous ocean denizens can reach up to 30 feet in spread; this one is much smaller than that, though still sizeable at about 4 feet. It’s amazing to see her up this close—and equally amazing that she is not condemned to spend her life in this relatively tiny tank. Like me, she is just a visitor to this charming and quirky town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, though she’ll stay longer than I.
Perched on a peninsula whose northwest shore is a wilderness of rugged headlands, emerald-water coves and ancient forest lashed by Pacific storms, Ucluelet, about 4 hours from Victoria by car (and about 40 minutes south of Tofino), is a fascinating town on a beautiful shore. Once strictly a blue-collar hamlet devoted to fishing and timber production, it gained a few jots of fame in the 1970s as the embarkation point for kayak trips into Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s Broken Group Islands. Today, though it treasures its industrial past, Ucluelet has cast its lot with a burgeoning visitor business that brings travelers here to hike, fish and surf year-round, to enjoy the beach and sunny days in the summer and watch storms in the winter.
The Ucluelet Peninsula’s oceanside shoreline is memorably rugged, with rocky headlands, thickets of Sitka spruce and salal, towering ancient forests and tiny coves of pebble and sand beaches. It was virtually impassable until longtime resident and former shellfish grower “Oyster Jim” Martin conceived the notion of creating a walking path ringing the town along the peninsula’s perimeter. At first the Wild Pacific Trail was an “if you build it, they will come” community project whose eventual success seemed far from certain when work began in 1999. Today, people stroll the the coastline south of Ukee on the gravel path that’s become one of the most popular attractions on the whole island. The trail allows users to wander past immense old-growth western red cedar, snap postcard photos of a classic red-roof lighthouse, stroll through the scraggy, wind-whipped clifftop woods known locally as the “spruce fringe,” and duck down into peaceful coves where tempests and turmoil, both natural and human, are serenely distant. Eventually the trail is expected to compose a complete loop around Ucluelet, but it’s already a marvelous amenity for all.
The peninsula’s First Nations people lately increased their presence in local tourism, working alongside Parks Canada at the interpretive center at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, where visitors may marvel at a hand-carved canoe and other cultural artifacts.
The Ucluelet band also operates Wya Point Resort, tucked into the spruce woods north of town. The resort’s marvelous lodges overlook one of the island’s best small beaches, and lie beneath the canopy of massive old-growth spruces so ancient that their spirits are a palpable presence.
The Ucluelet Aquarium opened a new building in 2012 with two dozen or so tanks that hold sea creatures from local waters. One can see anemones, nudibranchs, salmon, rockfish, decorator crabs, sea fans, sea cucumbers and much more. Visitors may even touch several of these saltwater residents in a special tank. But the cosmically inventive facet of the facility lies in the manner in which it obtains its display animals each spring, when aquarium staff and divers collect them in nearby waters. Each fall, every single creature in the aquarium is returned to the sea, set free forever. In other words, they are guests here — just like all of us, really, in a still-wild, ever-mesmerizing stretch of Pacific coast.
–Written by Eric Lucas
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey, and was updated in November 2019.