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Botanical Beach Provincial Park is one of the most amazing places on the entire West Coast, particularly at low tide. This is when visitors can walk a long way out across flat sandstone and granite outcroppings to view tide pools filled like jewel boxes with brightly coloured marine animals.


A fascinating world is on display at low tide

Purple, red, and orange starfish and sea urchins, blue mussel shells, white gooseneck barnacles, and green sea anemones and sea cucumbers only begin to hint at the spectrum of intertidal life that thrives here. So significant is this location that a research station was first established here in 1900 by a team from the University of Minnesota. Visitors find their way to the beach along the same rough road used for most of this century.

The distance from the dock in Port Renfrew to the beach is 5 kms Only four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance should attempt the rough road past the parking area close to the 3 km point. Beyond here the road narrows, parking is limited, and turning around is all but impossible. Better to bike or walk in. Allow 45 minutes on foot from the parking lot. As you near the beach the trail divides: take the right fork to reach Botany Bay; go left for Botanical Beach and the tide pools.

Ridges of shale and quartz jut up through the basalt at Botanical Beach to create immense tableaus in places such as the awe-inspiring Devil's Punchbowl. The Punchbowl, flanked by smaller bowls on either side, features a gallery of caves rising above two huge cedar logs and a field of driftwood kindling. Although you wouldn't want to be anywhere near here at high tide, it's staggering to imagine how conditions must boil in there during winter storms. There formations are located at the north end of the sandy beach and require some scrambling to reach. Wear rubber boots, as the going is always wet. Even during the lowest tides of year - December and January, June and July - the prospect of being caught out here will make your adrenal gland flutter.

Plan ahead so that you visit here when the tide is falling. At this point on the coast there is often only one major tide per day, and you can spend several hours waiting for it to recede if you arrive at the wrong time. The best local tide chart to consult is the one issued for Tofino. The store at the Port Renfrew Hotel is a good local source; so is Parks Canada's West Coast Trail office in Port Renfrew, as well as the Sooke Info Centre (contact details at the foot of the Sooke town page).


Orcas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Killer whales (or orcas, the largest members of the dolphin family) and grey whales are often seen swimming offshore from French Beach, China Beach and Botanical Beach Provincial Parks.

Although orcas live in these waters year-round, the best time for spotting grey whales is during their annual migration in March and April, when they are en route to Alaska from their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico.

California and Steller sea lions appear from August to March as they follow migrating fish stocks. You'll almost always spot from these beaches the smooth-domed head of a curious harbour seal bobbing offshore.

It's not unusual to spot black bears in early spring on some of the beaches as well, particularly around China Beach (Juan de Fuca Provincial Park) and Mystic Beaches. Bears are unpredictable creatures, especially when they emerge hungry from winter denning. If you see one, back away slowly. Do not leave food or garbage lying around: a fed bear is a dead bear!

Spring and fall present remarkable opportunities to view birds as they travel along the Pacific Flyway. Some of the protected areas where they pause and refresh themselves include Hecate Regional Park in Cowichan Bay, 3 kms east of Hwy 1, about 50 kms north of Victoria; Art Mann Park on Quamichan Lake near Duncan, and nearby Somenos Lake, where the Nature Trust of BC maintains a waterfowl nesting and wintering habitat. Not to be outdone, BC Wildlife Watch has a viewing station at the Morrell Wildlife Sanctuary in Nanaimo.

Wildflowers don't return in the fall like birds, so you must be on site in the spring to appreciate them. The south side of Cowichan Lake is a particularly pretty place to be, including the Honeymoon Bay Wildflower Ecological Reserve, where pink easter lilies begin blooming in late April, surrounded by dozens more blossoms that continue to perfume the air and colour the landscape throughout the summer. The reserve is located 9 miles west of Cowichan Lake on South Shore Rd near Gordon Bay Provincial Park.

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