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By Ethan Shaw
Since he first materialised five years ago, a lone wolf on a little Salish Sea archipelago off the Canadian coast has become quite the celebrity. The Songhees, a First Nations people whose lands compose the core of the canine outlander’s seashore range, have named him after their word for wolf: Staqeya.
Photos by Cheryl Alexander
Staqeya’s appearance on British Columbia’s Discovery Island was so improbable that authorities initially assumed locals were mistaking free-roaming dogs for a wolf. After all, the Chatham-Discovery archipelago – partly Songhees land, partly a provincial park and other government-owned acreage – lies just off the most built-up corner of Vancouver Island: metro Victoria, home to nearly 400,000 people. The closest known wolves roam some 20 to 30 miles west of the city.
It’s not clear why or how Staqeya navigated greater Victoria to the shores of Oak Bay and beyond, but wolf is what the shaggy beast of Discovery Island turned out to be. In the spring of 2012, residents reported a roving canid around Elk Lake to the north of the city; in May, he was seen at Albert Head to the southwest. At some point soon after, he disembarked for the Chatham-Discovery Islands, though from where exactly is unclear.
Since then, Staqeya has dazzled more than a few boaters by slipping out from maritime woods and posing wolfishly on shoreline rocks. Victoria locals claim to have heard him howling (listen here!).
In a recent article in Maclean’s Magazine, University of Victoria professor Chris Darimont, who’s done much research on British Columbia’s coastal gray wolves, speculated about Staqeya’s journey. “He dispersed from his family group and took some wrong turns. Instead of finding a place with abundant prey and few people, he somehow wound his way through the suburbs of Victoria through parks and backyards. Then I imagine he saw a patch of green on the horizon and swam for it.”
Meanwhile, some in the Songhees Nation drew a connection between the wolf’s arrival and the death of Chief Robert Sam, a beloved advocate for aboriginal rights, education and traditional culture. “A lot of the band members find it interesting that Chief Robert Sam passed away in about the same period that the wolf appeared,” Trevor Absolon, a member of the Songhees, told The Victoria Times back in 2012.
The sense that Staqeya could be connected to Sam, and more generally their deep cultural associations with wolves, led the Songhees to argue against initial efforts by conservation officials to trap and relocate the animal. (Staqeya managed to elude his would-be captors anyhow.)
“Meanwhile the lone wolf trots through the island forest, pays unwelcome visits to hauled-out harbor seals, and occasionally slips into the saltwater of the Salish Sea.”
Victoria’s backyard wolf has surprised many by sticking around. Not long after his arrival in the archipelago, Staqeya swam from Discovery Island southwest to Trial Island, whose lighthouse keeper saw him come ashore. Then, he vanished. Some conservation officers assumed he’d keep swimming and sneaking his way west back to wilder haunts, perhaps aided by tidal currents. But the wolf reappeared on Discovery just weeks later.
“We didn’t expect [Staqeya] would stay there this long. We thought that biological urges to seek the company of other wolves would be strong enough to make it leave the island,” noted conservation officer Peter Pauwels in an article in Oak Bay News last year. “I do think it would probably like to be off the island and be with other wolves, but it hasn’t been able to do it.”
Flying solo he may be, but Staqeya doesn’t appear to be struggling to eat in his island hangout. Scat analysis suggests he’s handily hunting harbour seals, as well as occasional waterfowl (and perhaps even river otters).
A wolf pouncing on seals? Not so odd as it sounds: the coastal wolves of southeastern Alaska and mainland British Columbia are known to feed heavily on marine resources – from pinnipeds and whale carcasses to salmon, clams, crabs and even barnacles. (Where available, they’ll also pursue black-tailed deer, more “typical” wolf fare.)
Research suggests these “sea wolves” are genetically distinct from their interior relatives. Certainly their unique homeland – a mountainous rainforest coast that, with its deep fjords and myriad islands, looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece – has them acting and eating in unique ways. As their brine-flavoured diet suggests, these canids aren’t afraid of saltwater: they swim freely between islands, able to “dog paddle” (the wolves might resent that verb) for miles at a stretch.
In other words, Staqeya’s island-hopping and seal-munching ways are not without precedent, even if his adopted turf within view of Victoria’s waterfront is surprising. As Darimont told The Victoria Times in 2012, “This is an example of our coastal wolves in action. He […] is doing exactly what coastal wolves do, but in a bizarre place.”
Cheryl Alexander, a Victoria-based conservation photographer who’s observed Staqeya from the water quite extensively, has seen the wolf moments after he killed a seal, but it’s not entirely clear what his predatory strategies are. “The treeline isn’t close to the main seal haul-outs, so for [the wolf] to get near them must require quite a bit of stalking,” she said.
Interestingly, according to Alexander, the wolf didn’t scavenge the gigantic carcass of a stricken Steller sea lion that washed ashore on Discovery Island a few years back. (Steller sea lions – the biggest sea lions in the world, with bulls weighing up to a ton – roam the Salish Sea and occasionally haul out in the Chatham-Discovery archipelago, but they’re likely too large and formidable for a lone wolf to try tackling.)
Alexander, intimately familiar with the Chatham-Discovery Islands and intrigued by the lone wolf’s habits in this unusual setting, has been watching and photographing Staqeya for about three years. Until recently, she’s kept her insights and images mostly to herself to avoid publicising the wolf, who hadn’t been generating many headlines since his much-hyped appearance in 2012.
An incident last September, however, put Staqeya back in the spotlight. The wolf trailed a family and their dog on Discovery Island, prompting them to take refuge at an abandoned lighthouse, and call the Coast Guard for rescue. Though the wolf hasn’t acted aggressively towards people, park officials opted to close Discovery Island Provincial Park for the winter pending “behavioural assessments on the animal to determine if there are any public safety concerns.”
Alexander notes that the wolf is familiar with human beings, but not overly comfortable with them. “He’s figured out how to live in close proximity to people, but he doesn’t approach them,” she said.
The best way to keep the wolf from becoming truly habituated, she stresses, is for people to give him space and avoid feeding him. She’s found dog kibble left on the islands, apparently from misguided well-wishers. (Park officials have placed food-storage caches in the Discovery Island campground to minimise the chances of Staqeya associating people with snacks.)
“The safety of this wolf and his ongoing life on these islands are really dependent on people and their behaviour,” Alexander said. In the interest of boosting awareness, many of her photos of Staqeya are scheduled to go on display at Victoria’s Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea.
As of now, the provincial park remains closed to visitors as officials continue to evaluate the situation.
Meanwhile, the lone wolf trots through the island forest, pays unwelcome visits to hauled-out harbour seals and occasionally slips into the saltwater of the Salish Sea – doing his solitary thing just a howl or two from B.C.’s capital city.
About the photographer: Cheryl Alexander is a conservation photographer living in Victoria, BC, Canada, working worldwide to ensure protection of wilderness and wildlife. Through visual documentation and storytelling, she hopes to inspire passion and action that will protect the wild in our world for future generations. She has been studying and documenting this lone wolf of the Salish Sea for three years, and is working on a film and book about his life and her experiences.