The Dirt on Victoria
by Jeff Lewis

Picture yourself taking in the sights and smells of a nature preserve while making small talk with the friendly owner of an RV.  When the conversation turns to San Diego, the RV owner says, “It’s got a great zoo, but it’s very expensive.  We went to Sea World, too. Cost an arm and a leg.”  If this weren’t small talk, you might respond with a description of the impressive urinary feats of that zoo’s mountain tapir or bemoan the stanky slime-water that the orcas spray on the kids seated in the front row of the Sea World killer whale show.  Instead, you say, “The Wild Animal Park is nice,” which merits an “I wish we had time to go to the Wild Animal Park.”  The conversation then briefly veers towards hip replacement surgeries, before abruptly ending with a round of cordial “Good trips.”

In my experience, most people outside of Southern California typically sum up San Diego—AKA America’s Finest City—either with the phrase, “It’s got a great zoo,” or “I’ve heard it’s got a great zoo.”  To be fair, most tourist cities get distilled to a few key sights, and the downtown urban renewal may soon change the nation’s perception of the town.  With a bit more exposure by Hollywood, along the lines of Anchorman or Traffic, San Diego may even shed its zoocentric image.  Well, perhaps those two movies aren’t the best showcase for America’s Finest City, but you get the point.

My feelings about the San Diego Zoo are a mixture of admiration for its role as a research and breeding center, tempered by the uneasy feeling that it is also a prison for all but the dimmest animals (the Madagascar cockroach probably doesn’t suffer from wanderlust).  I feel somewhat better at the Wild Animal Park, where most of the animals get to roam in large paddocks.  Antelopes mill about without fear of lion or hyena, which is OK for the antelopes, but even if you squint and block out the electric fences with your thumb, it still is just a zoo.  As for Sea World, that place is a travesty that can be summed up by this:  in the wild, killer whales have roughly the same life expectancy as humans.  At an aquatic park, they’re lucky if they reach 40.

Like San Diego, out-of-towners sum up Victoria, British Columbia, with a phrase:  “It’s got beautiful English gardens.”  English gardens and zoos:  these are kindred spirits, the former for octogenarians and the latter for the kiddies.  I’ve been known to plant a border of annuals or weed around the roses, and I know my way around Kew Gardens, the famous attractions near London.  Still, the thought of a town defined by beautiful English gardens didn’t move my soul.

Luckily, my wife heard the expanded scouting report on Victoria, which is, “It’s got beautiful sunken English gardens.”  Sunken-ness makes a world of difference.  Few people are intrigued by a “quaint little church house,” for instance.  A “quaint little sunken church house,” though is another matter.  Who sunk it?  Did they escape?  What did they do with the dirt?  Was the Pope involved?  These are the types of thoughts that “sunken” evokes.  Sunken tourist sites may ultimately disappoint, but they sure sound more interesting than their above-ground counterparts, all other things being equal.

The sunken area at Butchart Gardens, near Victoria, certainly didn’t disappoint.  It was stunning and impressive (plus the Dining Room served the best beet carpaccio).  It’s not a stretch to call Butchart the San Diego Zoo of English gardens.  I admit that if I were in my teens and prone to swearing, I may have described it with an expression that included the verb “to blow,” since even sunken gardens aren’t for teenage boys.  They still are gardens, after all.  Also, I was a little sad to find that the Pope didn’t have a black hand in the sinking; because of that whole Henry V business, he didn’t even play an indirect role.  The gardens—built in a spent quarry by cheap labor—were helped along with a dash of exploitation, though.

We augmented our Victoria experience by paying nearly twice the price of a San Diego Zoo admission to go whale watching.  The name of the whale watching company, Prince of Whales, made us wary, but they boasted speedy zodiac boats with underwater microphones and a success rate of over 90%.  I was a little worried that we’d be subjected to a “Jungle Boat Cruise” style commentary, but we got a knowledgeable marine biologist as our tour guide/captain.  We spent over three hours speeding through the San Juan and Gulf Islands at 30 knots, bouncing off wakes and taking in the scenery.

I tried to daydream that I was Jacques Cousteau with my lovely wife Simone at my side, zipping along the living sea, en route to a rendezvous with the Calypso, where we would catalogue the mating sounds of the orca.  Instead, my daydream was curtailed by my intense concentration on the water directly in front of the boat, in what proved to be an unnecessary attempt to keep from being seasick.

When we reached the orcas, they were passing through a strait between two islands.  We were lucky because two pods had joined up and the males were displaying frisky mating behavior.  Our guide positioned us in line with the pods and killed the engine.  About 40 orcas passed under and around our boat, frequently breaching and performing rolls.

After they passed, we moved a couple of miles in front of their path and watched them pass by again.  My favorite moment was when we saw the distinctive serrated dorsal fin of the matriarch of one of the pods, a 94 year old named “Granny,” first photographed at 6 months of age in 1911.  (Incidentally, the orca population in the BC/Washington area is endangered, thanks in large part to Sea World and other similar marine theme parks.  In the 1970s, these parks pulled a significant number of young male orcas out of the population, causing a breeding imbalance—just another reason to forsake Sea World and its ilk for the real thing.)

Chasing after orcas in a zodiac is perhaps not categorically different for riding a tram at the Wild Animal Park, but at least the animals are free to come and go.  This was a rare instance of an overpriced tourist experience that left me fully satisfied.  Victoria, of course, boasts more than fine gardens and orca tours.  There are impressive 19th century buildings, many restaurants and shops, a picturesque harbor and a notable museum.  If Victoria ever comes up in a conversation with a RV owner, I’ll have plenty of small talk fodder.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004