The Southern Gulf Islands are the Canadian islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia in the Strait of Georgia. This area comprises around twelve inhabited islands, and several hundred more smaller islands and islets. The Gulf Islands are part of a large archipelago that includes Washington State's San Juan Islands. Many of these islands, and the waterways around them, carry the names of the Spanish and English explorers who arrived in the area in the 18th century.
The Gulf Islands afford almost limitless opportunities for boating, kayaking, cycling, diving, hiking, or just communing with nature.
The Southern Gulf Islands that are regularly visited are:
- 1 Gabriola Island — a short ferry from downtown Nanaimo, it is known as the Isle of the Arts because of to its many working artists, and cultural events include annual festivals of art, poetry, gardens, music, boating and fishing
- 2 Thetis Island — connected by ferry from Chemainus, it is a small community with a couple of marinas
- 3 Penelakut Island — connected by ferry from Chemainus, home of the Penelakut First Nation
- 4 Salt Spring Island — the largest and most populated Gulf Island, it has the most services for visitors
- 5 Galiano Island — long and narrow, Galiano is a good base for island-hopping to visit the other Gulf Islands
- 6 Mayne Island — directly across Active Pass from Galiano Island, it is home to gardens built during World War II by Japanese prisoners
- 7 Pender Island — two beautiful islands, North and South, connected by a bridge, with an interesting mix of merchants, sailors, artists, musicians, writers, and artisans
- 8 Saturna Island — remote and unspoiled
- 9 Valdes Island — popular with kayakers and boaters, it has been the site of several historical human settlements
- 10 D'Arcy Island — part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
The islands and surrounding ocean are rich with ecologically diverse plants and sea life including Garry oaks, wild lilies, kelp beds and Orcas.
The Gulf Islands are home to one of the last remaining pockets of Garry oak ecosystems. The unique Mediterranean characteristics of the islands' climate supports the Garry oak ecosystem. Garry oak ecosystems are home to more plant species, such as the camas, than any other terrestrial ecosystem in coastal B.C. and are one of Canada's most at-risk natural habitats. Today, Garry oak meadows exist in the shallow and exposed soil of valleys, rocky foothills and southern slopes—areas that the settlers of the past 150 years have found unsuitable for agriculture or development.
In most parts of Canada, olive trees cannot thrive; the long, harsh winter and short, humid summer and spring make it difficult for olives to grow comfortably and properly, but Pender Island, Saturna Island, and Salt Spring Island have a Mediterranean style climate that permits olive production.
The area experiences the warm air from the Pacific Ocean jet stream, but the surrounding mountains of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Mountains strips that air of moisture creating a rain shadow effect. The summers are dry with only a few cloudy days which is classified as a Mediterranean climate. The winters, however, are influenced by Arctic air mixing with Pacific air flows resulting in heavy precipitation and cool temperatures. The area experiences an average of 838 mm (33 in) of precipitation each year, with over half of that falling in the four month period between October and February.
BC Ferries, toll-free: . Connects coastal British Columbia communities. Operates the following vehicle ferry routes:
- Routes connecting the larger of the Southern Gulf Islands (Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Salt Spring, and Saturna) with Vancouver (Tsawwassen) ferry terminal in Delta and Victoria (Swartz Bay) ferry terminal near Sidney. Traveling between these five Southern Gulf Islands sometimes requires first taking the ferry to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island, then changing ferries and doubling back to your destination.
- Route between Salt Spring and Crofton (between Duncan and Chemainus) on Vancouver Island. Free reservations are strongly recommended, especially in the summer and can be made online or by phone.
- Route between Chemainus, Thetis Island, and Penelakut Island.
- Route between Nanaimo (Nanaimo Harbour) and Gabriola Island
BC Ferry's ferry terminals on the Southern Gulf Islands include:
- Galiano Island (Sturdies Bay)
- Gabriola Island (Descanso Bay) - See Nanaimo
- Mayne Island (Village Bay)
- Penelakut Island (Telegraph Harbour) - See Chemainus
- Pender Island (Otter Bay)
- Saturna Island (Lyall Harbour)
- Salt Spring Island (Fulford Harbour)
- Salt Spring Island (Long Harbour)
- Salt Spring Island (Vesuvius).
- Thetis Island (Preedy Harbour) - See Chemainus
Some of the Southern Gulf Islands are connected by an inner-island ferry service. However, you may have to travel to Vancouver Island to get from one island to another.
There are also passenger only water-taxi services which can be used to travel between the islands.
The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve safeguards a portion of the gorgeous Gulf Islands archipelago. It is comprised of lands and marine areas spread out over 15 islands, as well as numerous islets and reefs. The larger islands of Saturna, Mayne and Pender are serviced by BC Ferries, while smaller islands are accessible by private watercraft, or chartered vessel.
The Japanese gardens on Mayne Island were created by prisoners-of-war, and are now maintained by volunteers.
Hiking, sea kayak tours, kayak rentals, trail-biking and swimming are available on many islands.
Whale-watching, scuba diving, yoga retreats, golfing....
There are art studios and craft shops on the populated islands, and in summer local produce is available direct from the farmers. Look out also for the local seafood.
Eat, drink, sleep
See the island articles for restaurants, bars, hotels, B&Bs, and campgrounds. Availability varies by island.