Campbell River has long had a reputation as a place for sighting exotic marine mammals. While visitors and residents alike often spot pods of Killer Whales making their way through Discovery Passage, from time to time another type of large fin has broken through the surface of the water that doesn’t belong to a whale but to another kind of marine mammal that is more closely related to human beings.
Locals have dubbed these creatures ‘Mermaids of the Passage’. Although today the public is quite skeptical about the existence of mermaids, in earlier times the existence of mermaids was an accepted fact. Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, they were said to lure many a sailor to his death with their siren songs. In fact, this could account for the large number of curious shipwrecks along our coast that can’t be explained by poor navigation or inclement weather.
One of the first documented sightings was in 1792. On sailing past Quadra Island, Captain Vancouver wrote in his journal “Numberless mer-maidens, enjoying the season, were playing about the ship in every direction.” This was corroborated by Captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who wrote that many of his fiery blooded Spanish sailors were so enthralled by the sight, that they willing threw themselves into the sea with the purpose of cavorting with these maidens, only to drown in the whirling waters.
The local native inhabitants too, have a very old related story. Long ago, when young men reached puberty, they were encouraged to ‘take the long swim’ from their village to a nearby small island where these maidens were said to cluster. And from time to time, children with webbed toes appeared in the village who were said to be able to hold their breath under water for extended periods.
More recently, Ken Blackburn, Director of the Arts Council, whose office at the Sybil Andrews Cottage is located at the shoreline, had his own experience to relate.
“I was in the cottage, and thought I heard singing coming from outdoors. Curious, I stepped outside. It was hard to describe, it seemed to get right inside me. Before I knew it, I was standing knee deep in the cold water, and I could have sworn I saw a silhouette of a naked woman sitting out on a rock. It definitely wasn’t a cormorant. Luckily, my assistant called me before I went out any further. It was an eerie experience, and I don’t know what might have happened if I hadn’t been called.”
Blackburn is now advocating that Campbell River erect a monument to the Mermaids of the Passage in the spirit of the famous statue at Copenhagen, and he generously donated this photo that was given to him by a fellow artist who had a similar experience.
Anyone with a related sighting is encouraged to get in touch with the author.
By Catherine M Gill-Bert
Author of Shipwrecks and Polynesians on Our Shores.