Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Haida Wasgo, from a tattoo image.

Among the pantheon of mythical and legendary animals that populated the belief systems of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest was the Sea Wolf. On July 22, 2012, I published a column titled Native American Astronomy - The Constellation Gonakadet/Wasgo, about the beliefs of North American northwest coast tribes in this creature and concerning a constellation in the heavens that they identified with the sea wolf (Faris 2012). A powerful swimming creature with the head of a wolf and the body of a sea creature, some authors have relegated this creature to the realm of mythology, while others have argued it represents a sea serpent or some other crypto-zoological survivor. 

Cliff at Sproat Lake, British
Columbia. Sea Wolf at lower
left of picture.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

Sea Wolf from Sproat Lake,
Vancouver Island, British
Columbia, petroglyph.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

Gonakadet/Wasgo has the head of a wolf, and a body based upon that of the killer whale. Various other portrayals of him combine these themes, from showing a wolf with fins, to a sea animal with a wolf's head. The sea wolf is one image from the catalog of creatures commonly portrayed in the various media among the tribes of the North American Pacific Northwest. Gonakadet/Wasgo is carved on totem poles woven into basketry and fabrics, shown as tatoos and decoration on tools and utensils, and carved into the rocks as petroglyphs.

Swimming Sea Wolf, i.pinimg.com.

Well, it turns out that there actually are sea wolves and that a few fortunate zoologists (and of course the Native tribes) have always known about them. Known as Gonakadet by the Tlingit, and Wasgo by the Haida, this coastal sub-species of the gray wolf has adapted to a maritime lifestyle and lives predominately on seafood. "Unlike their inland counterparts that hunt deer and caribou, the sea wolves comb the beaches along B.C.'s iconic Great Bear Rainforest and, by and large feed off the ocean. They can swim for miles between coastal islands and eat whatever the sea serves up. They are known to prey on salmon for several months out of the year with fish making up 25 percent of their diet during the spawning season. They hunt seals and sea lions, chew on barnacles, turn up at the herring spawning grounds and feast on whale carcasses. Some even specialize in digging up clams and turning over rocks to look for crabs." (Talmazan 2016)

The sea wolves have been studied for years by British Columbian photdographer Ian McAllister. "We know from exhaustive DNA studies that these wolves are genetically distinct from their continental kin," says McAllister. "They are behaviorally distinct, swimming from island to island and preying on sea animals. They are also morphologically distinct - they are smaller in size and physically different from their mainland counterparts." (Talmazan 2016)

Sea Wolf petroglyphs at Nainamo
Petroglyph Park, Vancouver Island,
British Columbia.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

"Chris Darimont, science director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, has studied the carnivores' unusual lifestyle for nearly two decades. Coastal wolves live with two paws in the ocean and two paws on land, Darimont says. When hunting for food, sea wolves can swim miles between islands and rocky outcrops to feast on seals and animal carcasses found on the rocks. "Our farthest record [of their swimming abilities] is to an archipelago 7.5 miles [12 kilometers] from the nearest landmass," he says. They once roamed all the way down to California in its former temperate rain forests. Now they only go down to just north of Vancouver", he says." (Petri 2016)

The peoples of the Pacific Coast of North America had a maritime lifestyle, roaming the ocean in their large sea-going canoes. Many of the tribes included whaling in their hunting/gathering inventory and they were used to long ocean voyages. Imagine the experience of a canoe crew a few miles off shore meeting a sea-going wolf swimming by. This story would be told and re-told, perhaps getting embellished in the re-telling, until it became a tenet of their rich and creative mythology.  


Faris, Peter,
2012 Native American Astronomy - The Constellation Gonakadet/Wasgo, July 22, 2012, http://rockartblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/native-american-astronomy-constellation.html

Petri, Alexandra E.
2016 Meet the Rare Swimming Wolves That Eat Seafood, August 3, 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/sea-oceans-wolves-animals-science/

Talmazan, Yuliya,
2016 Update: Photo of B.C. Sea Wolf Honoured by National Geographic, Sept. 24, 2016, https://globalnews.ca/news/2239088/national-geographic-puts-spotlight-on-b-c-s-enigmatic-sea-wolves/

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