The new owner of the shuttle service between Sidney and the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve says it is not clear yet when the service will start against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That is the big question everybody is working on at the moment,” said Mike Child, owner and operator of Sidney Whale Watching. The company assumed the contract to run the shuttle in March. “We don’t have a definite answer at this point,” he said. “I’m pretty optimistic that we will get some kind of season. Again, I don’t know when, but barring any drastic changes, we are pretty hopeful that we will be running.”
The company is currently working closely with Parks Canada, Transport Canada, and provincial health officials, he added. “Hopefully, in the next week or two, we will have a start date that we will announce,” he said. “But at the moment we don’t have a definitive start date, because of the pandemic and just all the uncertainty that surrounds it.”
Historically, the service to the park reserve runs from the middle of May to early September, with a 50-foot catamaran shuttling several times daily between downtown Sidney and a landing dock at the park. The vessel can carry up to 41 passengers and a small crew.
Child said in an ideal world he would like to start the service as soon as possible after receiving the necessary approvals. “We are hitting summer now and I know there is a demand for people to get out to the park. It is a beautiful way to spend a summer day,” he said. “We are getting all of our ducks in a row now. So as soon as we get the green light, we will be ready to rock.”
Laura Judson, public relations and communications officer, said Parks Canada cannot yet confirm when the passenger ferry service to Sidney Island will be running again. “But we look forward to the resumption of this well-loved service when it is safe to do so,” she said. “The operation of the passenger ferry depends on several factors, including Transport Canada regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The federal government plans to lift its ban on marine vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers on June 30, officially handing over health and safety clearance to the provincial government. In early April, the federal government prohibited all commercial marine vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers from offering non-essential services, such as tourism or recreation.
That ban obviously impacted the ferry service and Child said he has already been working with provincial officials. “We are kind of working on a health and safety plan and trying to arrange the seating on the vessel itself for social distancing as best possible,” he said.
It is not clear yet how many passengers would be allowed on the boat. “Anything under 70 per cent generally with a passenger vessel doesn’t make financial sense, so we are hopeful that we can keep a higher capacity, obviously with the necessary safety standards,” he said.
Alpine Group previously operated the service and it is not clear why the company divested itself of the vessel and the service. Several calls for comment have remained unanswered.
Child did not want to disclose his company’s investment in the service. “Boats are expensive, docks are expensive,” he said. “I will say though that starting a new business or taking on a new business and then having the pandemic hit, both on the whale watching end of things and as well as this ferry, it has been a huge financial burden.”
Like the ferry service, Child’s whale-watching business remains docked. In a non-pandemic year, it would have been open since March and experts are warning that the industry will take a significant hit.
This said, Child feels excited to offer the service, which will complement the whale-watching business. “We are pleased this local business is prepared to provide this important service that is a highlight for many visitors who travel to Sidney Spit,” said Judsom.
If the timing of the ferry service resuming remains uncertain, the park itself has been offering limited visitor services since June 1.
“The day use area on Sidney Spit in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is currently open but the pit toilets and campsites are not available,” said Judson. “All front-country and back-country camping facilities remain closed until at least June 21, 2020, while Parks Canada assesses whether and how these services might resume,” said Parks Canada in an earlier release.
All potential visitors are asked to check ahead before travelling to the park to see what is open.
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