The Curious Case of the Opitsaht Cows of Vancouver Island

To be fair, the cows themselves don’t rouse all that much curiosity.

I am, after all, talking regular mooing livestock commonly found roaming in herds across green fields or dusty plains.

Opitsaht, cow, clayoquot, canada

An Opitsaht Cow, Meare’s Island, Claoquot Sound

It’s where you find this particular little group of cattle, and what brought them there, that adds the hefty pinch of intrigue.

If you ever find yourself heading off in a Zodiac or Cabin boat on a whale-watching excursion from the laid-back little haven of Tofino on Vancouver Island, make sure that you cast eyes across the water towards a white sandy beach at Meare’s Island, Clayoquot Sound.

Tofino Sea Shanty Restaurant Clayoquot Sound

View from Tofino’s Sea Shanty restaurant towards Clayoquot Sound, with Opitsaht in the distance

Bovines ‘n’ Beaches

You may first notice a small number of brightly coloured wooden chalets lining up across the beachfront. Got them? Good. Now look a little closer, between the buildings and the sea. Look for some movement. See those large brown/white patches shifting along the waterfront? Those are the cows. Yes, bovines on beaches. What’s this all about then?

This beach marks the coastal frontier of the Opitsaht Reserve, one of several communities of the Tla-o-qui-aht people of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation. With just sixty homes and around 174 people (at last census in 2006) this tiny hamlet is the oldest continuously occupied village in British Columbia.

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Since the late 18th century foreign explorers began to take advantage of the area’s natural wealth and valuable resources, and over the decades exploitation and colonization increased.

Still, despite enforced limitations on the use of their land, the Opitsaht maintained their customs and way of life.

A life defined in part by its reliance on the sea for sustenance and a livelihood.

Presents With A Purpose

So when missionaries arrived at the turn of the last century bearing generous ‘gifts’ of several cows in an attempt to make good, solid farmers of the indigenous folk, you can imagine how mystified and unimpressed they must have been.

Cow beach Opitsaht Vancouver Island

A Cow on a Beach, Opitsaht, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

If your ancestors have flourished for over 5,000 years on a plentiful diet of salmon, crustaceans and molluscs all on your doorstep, why would you re-evaluate your culture to satisfy a bunch of unwanted visitors?

Needless to say, roast beef did not become a staple meal in this corner of the world.

Consequently, the cows were left alone, and decades later their descendants form one of the oddest legacies of the early days of foreign invasion.

Clayoquot Sound

Stunning aerial view of Clayoquot Sound, courtesy of Leigh Hilbert

One-Way Trip

The Opitsaht understandably chose not to change their way of life, but what about the cows themselves? They had very little choice in the matter.

Happily, these relocated bovines found a way to adjust to an oceanside existence. No need to mow the village lawns here every weekend, the Opitsaht cows graze the community turfs to a grade 1 crop.

But these traditional greens are only part of their diet. The chances are that when you see them, they’ll be grazing nonchalantly on the beach, feasting on sea lettuce and eel grass (also known as tape grass), an aquatic plant with ribbon-like leaves which grows abundantly in the intertidal zones of this region.

It’s a unique example of survival through adaptation to a new habitat.

Munching on eel grass

Vancouver Islans Clayoquot

The waters around Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island

Zodiac, boat whale watching

Light Hawk, our first trusty Zodiac ride with Remote Passages Marine Excursions.

New Predator, New Prey

Diet aside, the herd has had other challenges over the years. Numbers dropped dangerously low in 2008 when wolves hunted down one of the 2 males. Opitsaht residents, despite not officially holding any responsibility for the herd, tried to seek advice on what to do. None of the cattle experts consulted had much idea of how to deal with this intriguing yet unprecedented situation.

The good news is that the following May two calves, one of them male, were born, thus restoring the balance somewhat. Today, as our guide summarises their unique history en route to our whale-watching location, I’m not sure what their numbers are, but they look carefree enough as they graze away (is ‘graze’ even the right term in a beach context?!).

It’s a cow’s life in Opitsaht

Thankfully wolves and cougars rarely prey on the herd. The main nuisances are the resident dogs who frequently hassle them and nip at their haunches. When that gets too much, these docile, out-of-place creatures do what all cows do very well indeed….

They wander off somewhere else for a while.

Disclosure: Our whale-watching excursions with Remote Passages Marine Excursions were arranged for me and Kathryn (from Travel With Kat) courtesy of Destination Canada, as part of Travelator Medias Explore Canada RV Road Trip. Thanks to our guides Tim and Randy for their expert knowledge and guidance.

Sara Dobak

Hi, I’m Sara, founder and writer at Travel Continuum, where I write about my global travel experiences, with a special passion for the stars and sustainability. I believe in the power of education through travel, and here I share the tales and tips that I find interesting and inspiring. I hope that you do too. continuum /kənˈtɪnjʊəm/: a sequence of elements where the extremes are very different, but each individual stage is barely distinguishable from the next. Something that keeps going, changing gradually over time…like the seasons.

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14 Responses

  1. What a great story Sara. I loved visiting Tofino, but can’t say I ran into the cows. They look so healthy, island life must suit them. then again, I think living in Tofino would make me pretty happy too.

  2. Such an interesting story – an unusual to see the cows happily grazing on the beach

  3. The ‘do-gooders’ obviously didn’t think this one through very well. I once woke after a little nap on a beach in Vietnam to find a herd of cows ambling past like they were out on a day trip.

  4. Anna Parker says:

    These cows are gorgeous! I remember being very surprised when we saw cows ambling down the beach in Goa – clearly it is something that happens in the right place over the world!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Aren’t they?! Seems like quite a few folks have seen cows on the beaches of Goa, though. I feel I ought to visit so I can make a direct comparison between the two experiences 😉

  5. Lucy says:

    How bizarre! Cows on the beach always reminds me of Goa in India where they used to wander past our sunloungers, but it’s not something I’d expect to see in Canada.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Indeed! The story tickled me for sure. I guess the Goa cows are there for divine reasons rather than through colonisation…but either way it does seem out of place 🙂

  6. I well remember those cows from our trip! Just two males must mean they are dreadfully inbred. They could do with a visit from a frisky male or two from a totally different gene pool. Great story though. It’s staggering how little thought is so often put into ‘charitable’ acts around the world to this day.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Great point – we’ll smuggle one in next time we visit 😉 On the charity side, when I stayed with a host family on Lake Titicaca, our guide advised us to buy grain and other food staples as gifts- so much more appropriate, I feel!

  7. Cows on the beach, eh? Wow I have really learned something – I have spent a fair bit of time on the island and I didn’t know about these cows!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Do you know, they were only briefly mentioned at the beginning of a whale-watching excursion, but I found the story so quirky I couldn’t resist passing it on!

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