Documenting the Lives of BC’s Coastal Wolves

Adapting to a new way of life by the ocean

With information from Brian Harris

The ability to adapt is what keeps all species, including human beings, moving forward. Unfortunately, an ever-growing human population means our lives are encroaching more and more into the animal world, sometimes resulting in conflicts.

The story of BC’s coastal wolves is one for Darwin’s books. These are grey wolves that, in an effort to adapt, have moved to the coast and even swim to nearby islands in search of habitat, food and family. These wolves are only found west of the Coast Mountain Range and have earned the nickname “sea wolf.”

Coastal wolves are a distinct population found only along BC’s coast. Photo by iStock.
Coastal wolves are a distinct population found only along BC’s coast. Photo by iStock.

A recent study that involved examining many thousands of wolf feces found a dramatic difference in diet between inland and coastal wolves. While wolves on the BC mainland focus on ungulates, especially deer, those on the coast eat seafood, such as salmon, seals, clams and mussels. On the outer islands, seafood can comprise up to or even more than 90 percent of a wolf’s diet. Even on islands closer to the mainland, wolves may have a genuine “surf and turf” diet, of 50 per cent meat and 50 per cent seafood. This study also found that BC’s coastal wolves are genetically different than their inland family members, creating a distinct genotype.

One sea wolf in particular that has been receiving some media attention is Takaya, and the woman following his footsteps and advocating for him and other wolves like him is local resident, environmentalist and nature photographer Cheryl Alexander.

Cheryl first spotted Takaya on a small, uninhabited archipelago off the coast of Victoria, known as Discovery Island, about five years ago. Through her relentless research to find out more about Takaya and his life, Cheryl discovered he must have come over to the island about seven years ago. Given that wolves tend to leave their packs to establish their own around two or three years of age, Cheryl estimates Takaya to be about nine or 10 years old – an old man, for a wolf. Other grey wolves in BC and into Alaska live to be about five to seven years old.

But Takaya is not like other grey wolves. Far from it, actually, and he comes with a pretty remarkable story. Takaya swims between a few different islands and Cheryl explained that with no natural prey in the area, such as deer or elk, his diet is about 95 to 100 per cent marine based. Takaya has learned how to find and fish for prickleback fish in the ocean, he has learned how to take eggs from Canada geese nests on the islands, he has learned how to hunt seals and manages to take quite a few seal pups, and most remarkably, his islands don’t contain any consistent source of freshwater. He does have access to vernal ponds, and in years of drought Cheryl has found evidence of Takaya digging deep into these ponds to try and strike water farther down. Cheryl estimated Takaya may get a lot of his fluids from the seal pups he eats.

Another unusual fact about Takaya is that he lives on these islands all by himself, and he has since he first arrived about seven years ago. Lone wolves are rare among these pack animals, and it’s even more rare that Takaya has stayed alone for so long.

“I think he has stayed alone for so long because he has found territory that’s his and that’s safe for him, and he has been able to figure out how to survive, food wise,” Cheryl explained. “If you see him, you’ll note that he’s extremely healthy. He is strong and has a glossy coat.”

Cheryl went on to explain that usually only the strongest wolves leave their pack to form their own, and when they embark on this journey to start their own pack, they’re looking for territory, food and a mate. Takaya has found two of his three requirements, but there aren’t any other wolves nearby.

“He howls like crazy,” Cheryl said. “Maybe he’s hoping another wolf will hear him and come.”

And after all of these years, maybe Takaya’s relentless howling has finally paid off. Cheryl said a female wolf has been spotted on her own, coming near Takaya’s territory. She hasn’t ventured across the water to his islands yet and has so far stayed fairly urban.

“Maybe she heard him howling?” Cheryl suggested. “We don’t really know how she’s come to be here, but something has drawn her here.”

After so many years of documenting Takaya’s life, Cheryl said he definitely knows her.

“I’m really the only person to see him regularly,” she explained. “He’s grown to learn that I’m not a threat to him, and to trust me. He demonstrates that by being comfortable and allowing himself to be vulnerable by rolling on his back in my presence.”

Although Cheryl and Takaya certainly know each other, she was careful to explain that he is still very much a wild animal.

“He is not a pet,” she said. “He keeps a very clear distance, and I do not go up to him. If he moves towards me, that’s his choice.” Takaya is not habituated to humans, no one feeds him, and when people get too close Cheryl said he’ll move away.

“He does see humans in his territory, usually in a kayak or small boat, but he doesn’t get himself into trouble with people.”

Documenting Takaya’s life and learning more about him has taught Cheryl a lot about coastal wolves in general.

“I’ve learned about their ability to adapt and their resiliency,” she said. “They’re carrying on their lives in ways we have maybe not traditionally thought of wolves living. They have adapted to living a coastal life. The most remarkable thing is this amazing ability to learn how to live in a new environment and adapt their behaviours.”

Cheryl said Takaya is the most extreme example of a coastal wolf, but other wolves have learned to make the most of their surroundings, such as fishing in rivers alongside bears or scavenging marine life that has washed up on shore.

In addition to the aforementioned project that studied wolf feces, Cheryl explained that the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is also undertaking a study, examining stomach contents to determine prey of coastal wolves, and also examining and testing the DNA of coastal wolf carcasses provided by trappers. All of this information should give researchers a better idea as to the coastal wolf population on Vancouver Island, as well as their distribution.

“Understanding our carnivore populations is very important,” Cheryl said. “They’re a keystone species, and they’re important for maintaining ecosystems. We need to figure out how to co-exist with them.”

For more information on Takaya, you can view the CBC documentary that was recently published about his life and all of the information Cheryl has gathered: https://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/takaya-lone-wolf. And you can follow Takaya’s adventures through Cheryl’s Instagram page, @cher_wildawake. Cheryl is also working on a book about Takaya that will be published in the fall of 2020.

To read more about BC’s grey wolf population, be sure to check out Brian Harris’ Game Profile in this issue.