January by the Sea

Connell visits the rocks below the Chinese Cemetery at Harling Point on two separate occasions, once in winter and once in summer. In the winter visit he focuses on bird life and geology and in the summer he befriends two young fishermen and teaches them about marine plant life.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, January 24, 1943 –

Another of those still mid-winter days we so frequently enjoy, when the grey sky is lightened by a sun seen through misty cloud. There is no frost and the path through the woods has a little water on it in low places from the last rain. In a small wild plot partly enclosed by hedges of broom and wild rose and partly by an alder-covered slope a dozen goats are on short pickets taking the air after their warm indoor quarters. As we pass they look at us companionably, especially a small snowy white one. They are used to friendly attention from passers-by on their summer pasture.

The goats at Pemberton Woods near Connell’s home in Fairfield-Gonzales. Drawing by Connell, November 1941.

In the thickets the first signs of spring are now present. The buds of osoberry are distinctly swelling with their double freight of flower and leaf and the Hooker willows are dressed in their young catkins, the pussy willows of childhood, like innumerable little silver bosses on the gaunt and twisted branches. The early flowering of this willow recalls the goat willow of the British Isles whose catkined branches were – I hardly dare to say “are” – worn on Palm Sunday by countryfolk and commonly known as “palms”.

Gardens by the Sea

There seems to be a waiting watchfulness about the gardens below Gonzales Hill, as if the plants are not to be caught asleep when true spring came. Occasionally late flowers linger on and once we see a group of white primroses peep shyly out of bed. Bushes of yellow jasmine illuminate some gardens; like others of the visitors from warmer regions, such as forsythia and camelia, their flowering season comes before the real spring rush. But these gardens by the sea have a great advantage over those a little further inland, for the great salt water has a wonderful influence over climatic conditions, moderating such severity of winter as may occasionally come and always favoring late-lingering flowers and first arrivals. And this is true of both garden flowers and wildlings, and particularly so of course if between the garden and the north and northeasterly winds is interposed a windbreak as formidable as the volcanic mass of Gonzales Hill.

Gardens beneath Gonzales Hill in 1916. City of Victoria Archives image.

The closest contact my companion and I have with a garden is at the Chinese Cemetery. The few small flower beds the aged caretaker maintains are not, however, a confirmation of my remarks above. Saving a few blossoms of stock and marigold, there are no flowers. But the fault is not in the situation nor in the soil – a rich black loam – but in the kind of plant grown.

Along the edge of the land lie piles of driftwood retrieved from the wave-swept rock ledges below. The timber shows every sign of long buffeting by the waves and even of a long sojourn on other beaches, the trunks wholly free of bark and much of the original form lost and replaced by fresh curves and ragged ends. Behind one of the piles and facing the sea is an ancient wicker chair, by long exposure bleached almost white, so that it looks indeed the skeleton of its former self. We picture it occupied on sunny days by some old man, perhaps a retired mariner, who from this quaint outlook watches the slow heaving of the quiet sea. But visitors other than men come here, for the brown figure of a song-sparrow flits like a mouse through another pile of wood and with much flitting of his tail watches us from a projecting timber.

Here where little transverse paths run down to the rocks and where the soil is being slowly eaten away partly by the sea but still more by the winter rains, a protective covering is developing. This is a rich growth of the California tree lupine, the yellow-flowered one that rivals broom and gorse in its spread and in length of flowering season. It has spread greatly in the last twenty years, chiefly about the Uplands and along the Beacon Hill cliffs. Close by we find some plants of grindelia or gumweed, more dead stalks with the ghosts of last year’s flowers grimly displayed, but on closer examination we see green buds already opening. The beach pea‘s rank vegetation has died down for the winter and its rich purple flowers exist only in memory and expectation. And not the least of a botanist’s delights is to put back mentally the flowers in their appropriate places and thus clothe the base and desolate rocks and soil of winter with color and charm. To be able to look at the local habitation of some beautiful species and see it in the mind’s eye as it appears in spring or summer, and even to recall its scent, is one of the privileges and powers Nature bestows on those who study her affectionately.

At the Chinese Cemetery by Connell

I am glad that the cemetery has also preserved to the naturalist and geologist a piece of very interesting shore. Entering by the gate and proceeding along the rude track you come to the little bridge and cross it as the best approach to our goal. Bare indeed and rugged are the rocks here except where near the retreating soil of the banks or high enough to be above the reach of the sea they retain the marks left on them by the moving ice-cap. This is where the light-colored yellowish-weathering volcanic rock appears. Only at a few places like the east end of Ross Bay is there to be seen the fine grooving, polishing and striation that the Harling Point rocks show, especially about the end of Crescent Road.

It is not only a matter of the eye’s general view; you can test the smoothness with your hand. But below this protected or recently-covered area and particularly where you now stand with me between the bridge and the shed is where there is a violent contrast. We see the breadth of the rock between the waves and high-water mark gashed and excavated in the most interesting manner. Here have been at work forces quite other than those of ice with its armament of rock debris; this is the work of the waves on an unequally resistant shoreline. It is not a bad parable of what we have been seeing of late in Europe and which has been repeated once and again in history when a people, attacked by one foe, are in turn rent by internal strife and the defenders stage a war within a war.

Glacial grooving on the rocks at Harling Point, 2019

But to return to our rocks. As we clamber down we see that they are of two kinds, one the hard-resistant volcanic, the other a fissile and comparatively soft shale. The deep erosion has been almost entirely done as you would expect in the soft rock, and it is interesting to recall that some of our best rock pools occur in districts where sedimentary rocks such as sandstones, shales, and limestones abound. But not all of these natural aquariums are found in excavated pools; the numerous crevices and cracks in the rocks are deepened and widened not only by the sea but also by animal life of various kinds and in these, even where they lie above the level of the low tides, there are almost always cool shadowy places in which a host of organisms high and low in the scale of life find a home or a temporary hiding-place. I always remember with pleasure the low sandstones, cliffs and gullies along French’s Bay, this side of Point No Point, because of the wealth of creatures found on them at the low tides of summer. Similarly in the neighborhood of Nanaimo on the sandstone points the clefts in the rock are really extraordinary in their display of marine life, largely because of the very great tidal range in the surrounding waters.

Tide pools on the rocks below the Chinese Cemetery in 1953. Cunningham Archive photo.

Longshore Birds

On a rock lying just above the surface of the water a harlequin drake is busily engaged with his toilet. I am afraid the customs of civilized man are largely responsible for the necessity for the quaintly patterned bird appears to be ridding himself of oil. At any rate he finishes to his satisfaction and then takes a peaceful rest on his little island. It is unusual to see a single harlequin; usually there are one or two pairs at least.

“Where the Longshore Birds Foregather” by Robert Connell, 1943.

Some little distance away a number of longshore birds float or swim slowly about, all of them from time to time diving. Only one is a “diver” or grebe, so far as we can make out, but there are diving ducks in the floating community. The scaup or blue-bill is one species present, though only one or two individuals can be seen. It is one of the diving ducks and as such prefers naturally deep waters, but in the autumn hundreds of them are frequently to be seen on the wet farmlands of the Island. A number of scoters, another group of diving ducks, are made out by their heavy appearance, but the sun is not behind them relatively to us and the color distinctions are difficult to make out.

Sea birds off the coast of Oak Bay. Cunningham Archive photo.

But the coldness of the water in which I have been dabbling, and the chilly wind and light showers make further researches too uncomfortable, so I climb up the rocks and the bank and turn homeward, all the better for my hour or two among the rock pools.

Where the Surf Grass Grows

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, August 18, 1940 –

Last winter I looked forward to the coming of the low tides of spring and summer day to re-taste the pleasure of studying the life of the narrow belt of shore lying for so great a part of the year hidden beneath the sea. Only when the lowest tides fall in the daytime do we get a glimpse of it. But for one reason and another the weeks have slipped by, and so on Saturday I took the last chance of the season with the tide a little over one foot above the zero line. Foul [Harling] Point – a proper nautical name for it – is a capital place for the purpose. Two lads were fishing with hand lines from the rocks; otherwise the point was deserted. The sea stretched away to the shores of Washington without a wave in sight, smooth and gleaming in the sunshine.

Harling (Foul) Point from Gonzales Hill in snow, c1880s.

The tops of the nearer Olympics bore light clouds, but the central mass stood up clearly defined, purple pinnacles and sheeted snow. Hardly a gull was in sight, or any other bird for that matter. The distant vessels seemed magically propelled, thought they were by prosaic tugs and scows. It was a dead calm. But in the Port Angeles region the smoke of the mills showed a westerly wind that spread it in long horizontal layers from the smoke-stack tops. Had a sail been in sight it would have hung as motionless as those of the poet’s “painted ship upon a painted ocean.” To the west a mirage played its curious pranks with the coast line and with Race Rocks and its lofty lighthouse.

Where Land and Sea Meet

The Chinese Cemetery encloses a little corner of the raised shore, unchanged or changed but very little since that day in 1842 when Douglas and his little company landed at Clover Point. The salal grows along the edge, stunted in growth but full of purple fruit. Rein orchids are still blooming in the browning grass. Clusters of an interesting catchfly, a member of the carnation family known as Scouler’s pink, Silene scouleri, attract the eye by their thickly clustered flowers, each with a conspicuous purplish striped calyx and with white flowers whose petals are each cut into two narrow lobes. The whole inflorescence is thickly beset with tiny glandular hairs with a sticky secretion. A touch will show why these plants are called “catchflies”.

Scouler’s pink or catchfly (Silene scouleri). Wiki image

At a step the land plants are left for the bare rocks and the plants of the rock pools. These last are small seaweeds, brown and red and green, under which hide tiny fish and shell animals, but most of the latter are not the builders of the homes they occupy but temporary squatters, the various species of hermit crabs. Dropping to hands and knees and gazing down into the clear water, preferably where it is shadowed by an overhanging rock, the activities of the little salt lakes are clearly visible. Perhaps that needs modification, for the protective coloration of the animals and their abodes commonly conceals them while they are motionless. The hermit crabs are in the majority and some of them today are rather ludicrous objects as they have not yet succeeded in getting a large enough shell and are rather like a bather who has lost his clothes.

Amazing hermit crabs

The pools chiefly lie in a shallow hollow excavated by the waves in a broad band of black shale much less resistant to their action than the light colored siliceous lava which rises on every side in smoothly glaciated ridges. It is along this belt of mingled sedimentary and igneous rock that sea and land may most properly be said to meet,

At the Low Tides Edge

The rock pools increase in number and size as the level of low tide is approached, and in fact that level is found in miniature sea lochs that run back from the long frontal line. In these the false eel grass of surf grass makes a marine pasturage of delightful greenness. It is narrower than the common or true eel grass and also differs on the form and arrangement of its flowers for, strange as it may seem, the eel grass and the surf grass are both flowering plants and are thus separated by a wide interval in the botanical genealogical tree from the lowly seaweeds. A thing that has always puzzled me about the surf grass in these channels, gullies, inlets or whatever you like to call them is that the shining green blades all lie in a position reverse to what we might expect. As the tide runs out it would be thought that the blades would be left sloping outward and downward towards the sea, but actually they lie upward and away from the sea.

Scouler’s surf grass (Phyllospadix scouleri)

It is not difficult to pull up a handful of the surf grass by the roots or, more correctly, with a portion of the stout rhizome or running rootstock from which the blades spring. I do not know that any use has been made of the surf grass root stock, but the Kwakiutl Indians are said to have used that of the true eel grass for food on a special day annually, calling it “the food our fathers ate”, as if in commemoration of some special circumstance in tribal history such as perhaps a first meeting with it on the seashore after a time of famine. While I am examining a piece of the torn-off plant I am joined by the two young fisherman who, as usual, want to know “what I am looking for”; it is difficult to understand that perhaps the best part of our knowledge comes to us casually, without deliberate search, since we can hardly look for what we know nothing of. However, I am able to show them one or two things of interest. One of these is a flowering spike of the surf grass. The staminate and pistillate flowers are borne in separate spikes, and this is a pistillate one already ripening. This occurrence of flowering plants in the sea where they are wholly immersed and even exposed boldly to the beating of the water is quite curious. Land plants are generally supposed to have come like other forms of life from the sea, but here we have a land form returning to its ancestral home as certain mammals like the whales and manatees have done.

Curious Forms of Animal Life

It is interesting to note that the root stocks of the surf grass grown in soil, a limey and strong smelling soil. The lime is the more or less finely broken fragments of shells and other hard parts of animals as well as of lime-secreting plants, and a geologist will notice the resemblance between this marine soil and some limestones composed of similar materials. For example, the shoreline below the Biological Station at Departure Bay is a limy sandstone in which broken bits of animal and plant organisms are very conspicuous. The odor of the soil is due to the products of animal decay and the chemical changes they are in process of undergoing. To what I may call a good sea nose it is not as unpleasant as its history might suggest, for the salt water has antiseptic properties of its own. Very conspicuous among the surf grass roots are the curious stony fronds of one of the coraline algae or seaweeds. The fronds are of a reddish purple color when moist, but become a pale lilac-pink when dry. They are made up externally of small segments flattened and tending in form from the oblong to the squarish and broadly triangular. Each averages about an eighth of an inch in length, but they vary in size as in form. Thus there is plenty of variety within the general type. The segments are pierced like the beads of a necklace and are threaded on a line which is the true plant, combining the whole together and making the necessary provision for growth and reproduction. The plant repeatedly divides by paired branches springing from the outer corners of a segment. Intergrown with this species is another of slighter habit and pale pink in which the main frond is bordered with branches of one or two of more segments at every joint, these being longer than the central ones.

Common coral seaweed (Corallina officinalis) growing with surf grass.

To the young fisherman I point out these oddities, though I am well aware that it is difficult for the novice to get more than the merest glimpse of the wonderfulness of it all; that wonderfulness increases with knowledge. But I show them with the limited aid of a low-power magnifying glass some of the animal colonies that spread themselves like beaded silver over the surf grass roots and the stems of the corallines. Looking at these with what simply makes them a little plainer to the eye but fails to bring out the intricate detail, the gazer has, of course, to take a great deal of the explanation offered on trust. But even then I think most people, young and old, get a glimpse into the wonder of life when they see these collections of animals, each in a solitary cell, yet all united by their colonial home which is, one may say, a living apartment house. The structure of the minute animals is far more complex than might be expected from their size, and in the animal world they are placed next the molluscs, the family to which our clams and periwinkles and devilfish belong. They are sometimes called “moss corals“, a quite misleading name which is perpetuated in part in the usual scientific name of “bryozoa“, which means literally “moss animals”. Some of the colonies are very plant-like in form and are often mistaken by amateur collectors for seaweeds and are thus sometimes found in collections they have made. A magnifying glass will, however, show the difference at once. An older name is that of “polyzoa” which expresses by its literal meaning of “many animals” the idea of a colony.

Larger by far than the bryozoa is a small animal of the sea cucumber family. It is creamy white with reddish purple tentacles and with its inch-long body marked by the rows of tube-feet which remind us of its connection with the starfish. Zoologists call it a holothurian. Popularly these animals are known as sea slugs as well as sea cucumbers, and attention has recently been directed to them in the press as a material for “chowder”. In the Orient certain species have long been a great article of commerce as “trepang” or “beche-de-mer”. Our commonest species are several inches long and dark red.

Giant Red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus

A little higher than the sea slug are the worms of which several species are easily seen or found in this wet soil about the surf grass roots. They wind in and out in a manner which has made them next to snakes an object of aversion to nervous people. My young companions have, however, no feeling of that kind for they are familiar with them as bait and can tell me which are useless and which are useful for that purpose, a kind of lore to which I must confess great ignorance.

Two fishermen trolling near the kelp beds off of Harling Point by Connell.


Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

4 thoughts on “January by the Sea

  1. Great local detail and most interesting to compare to today’s shoreline. Question: Oak Bay offshore — does anyone know the origin of the name “Fiddle Reef” ? I don’t mean just the name itself on early charts or about the family that lived on that rock. Why “Fiddle Reef” ?


    1. Thanks for the comment Jurgen, and good question re. Fiddle Reef. Unfortunately I can only speculate as to its origins with my best guess being an association with early OB settler John Tod who as you likely know lived in sight of the reef and was himself an avid and skilled fiddler. Perhaps I’ll pose the question in the OB History facebook group and see if anyone else has any thoughts…


      1. Thanks for your reply. The John Tod the fiddler connection, however tenuous , sounds plausible. But if someone in the OB history group has confirmation, that would be great.


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