The Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island are connected to the mainland by BC Ferries, the largest ferry line in North America and the second-largest in the world, that provides passenger and vehicle transportation among coastal and island communities in British Columbia. The Gulf Islands are in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The name was originally intended for the island archipelago at the southern end of the Strait of Georgia from Gabriola Island in the north to Saturna Island in the southeast and D’Arcy Island in the southwest. However, during the 1990s the name was applied locally to all the islands in the Strait of Georgia. The Gulf Islands are part of the Insular Belt, a geological region that consists of three major island groups including Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, Haida Gwaii, and the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska. In addition to these island mountains, the Insular Belt includes the rocks flooring the submerged regions of the continental margin and the Strait of Georgia. The Insular Belt is a complex of tectonostratigraphic terranes that accreted to the western edge of North America during the Late Cretaceous to Eocene on the geological time scale. The terranes consist of a series of volcanic intrusions and sedimentary rocks formed during the tectonic collision of an ancient island arc with North America. Most rocks in the southern part of the Insular Belt formed between mid-Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic times, between 350 and 180 million years ago. Sandstones mostly on the east side of Vancouver Island and submerged below the water around the island, and local igneous rocks, are mainly of Late Cretaceous and Early Tertiary ages from about 85-40 million years ago. Low relief areas on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are underlain by marine and non-marine sediments formed during the Cretaceous age and belong to the Nanaimo Group which consists of sandstone, siltstone, shale, conglomerate, and often coal. Differential erosion of weak siltstone and shale form the valleys while resistant sandstone and conglomerate form the ridges. Glacial scour and sediment deposition during the Vashon Stage of the Fraser Glaciation greatly altered the landscape between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. Low-lying coastal areas in southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are covered by glaciomarine drift, beach materials, till, and glacial or fluvial sand and gravel.
The Strait of Georgia is the traditional territory of First Nations belonging to the Coast Salish language group. This territory includes the entire coastline of the Strait of Georgia, the Fraser River up to and incorporating the western canyon, as well as parts of northern Puget Sound. Coast Salish groups consist of the Nooksack and Northern Straits, a Salish language that includes the dialects of the Lummi, Klallam, Saanich, Samish, and Songhees dialects. In 1791, the Spanish Captain Manuel Quimper explored the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the islands in northern Puget Sound. Later that year, Francisco de Eliza made the first charts of the islands and named them Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan. José María Narváez, an officer under Eliza’s command, was the first European to explore the northern islands that were named ‘Gran Canal de Nuestra Señora del Rosario la Marinera’. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver explored the area and at the same time, a Spanish expedition under Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores was also exploring the area. Shortly after leaving the San Juans the British and Spanish ships met and cooperated in exploring areas to the north. Vancouver knew of the names given by Eliza’s expedition and tended to keep them, although he renamed some features, like the ‘Gulf of Georgia’ after King George III. Vancouver defined the Gulf of Georgia to include all the inland waters beyond the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Puget Sound, Bellingham Bay, the waters around the San Juan Islands, as well as the Strait of Georgia. Vancouver designated the mainland in this region as New Georgia and areas farther north as New Hanover and New Bremen. In 1843, Britain leased the entirety of Vancouver Island to the Hudson’s Bay Company and James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading post on the southern tip named Fort Victoria.
BC Ferries was the creation of Premier W.A.C. Bennett who first announced in 1958 the intention of building and operating a ferry service. This was the result of labor unrest at the American-owned Puget Sound Navigation Company, also known as Black Ball ferries, which ran the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo service, and Montreal-based Canadian Pacific Railway ferries that provided service between Vancouver and Victoria. Workers at Canadian Pacific had been on strike for over two months that summer and the federal government was unwilling to intervene to end the strike. Workers at Black Ball threatened to go on a sympathy strike, and Bennett invoked the Civil Defense Act, which empowered the province to seize the ships and operate them in the event of a strike. In 1960, BC Ferries started providing service with two specifically built ships, MV Queen of Tsawwassen and MV Queen of Sidney, both of which were based on the MV Coho which was built for Black Ball ferries in 1959. The new ships operated out of two new ferry terminals, the Tsawwassen ferry terminal located south of Vancouver, and Swartz Bay ferry terminal located north of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula. In 1961, BC Ferries purchased the Canadian assets of Black Ball ferries, and Canadian Pacific ferries ceased its Vancouver to Victoria service in 1962. In its first full-year of service BC Ferries carried 2.04 million passengers and 697,000 vehicles. In terms of governance, initially, BC Ferries operated as a division of the British Columbia Toll Highways and Bridges Authority and was subject to a relatively high degree of political interference in its business operations. This would include the setting of its schedules and its fares as well as capital expenses for building new ships and terminal infrastructure. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, BC Ferries expanded its service area through the development and acquisition of new routes and new vessels, as well as the necessary terminal infrastructure. In 1977, BC Ferries officially became a Crown corporation with its own board of directors, an official legislated mandate, and more independent of the government. In 2012, it carried 20.1 million passengers and 7.84 million vehicles over its 25 service routes, 47 terminals, and the 36 vessels of its fleet. British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. now operates as an independently managed, publicly owned Canadian company. Read more here and here. Explore more of BC Ferries and the Southern Gulf Islands here: