The paddle-through cave at Jesse Island is a must-see side trip from Newcastle Island.

Ask an expert – paddling

Newcastle Island is consistently recognized as THE place to paddle in the Nanaimo area. Why?

Newcastle Island is consistently recognized as THE place to paddle in the Nanaimo area. Why?

The island isn’t known as the jewel of Nanaimo’s harbour without good reason.

The 336-hectare island was first used by the Coast Salish First Nations people as a home base for fishing the spring herring run.

The first Europeans arrived in the early 1800s and sunk a coal mine – the first of two – in 1852. Remnants of the heady mining days are easily visible on the island.

As are the marks left from several years during which thousands of tonnes of sandstone were removed, including one massive pillar originally lost when the Zephyr sank en route to the U.S. Mint in San Francisco in 1873, later located and recovered by the Underwater Archeology Society of B.C.

Those are just a few of the many historical tidbits associated with Newcastle Island, which went through several owners, including the city, before the province took ownership in 1960 and it became one of the first designated marine parks. Today it is managed for the province by the Snuneymuxw First Nation.

And it’s a paddler’s dream.

“We are blessed to have a provincial park within two minutes of a launch site,” said John Kimantas, editor and publisher of Coast & Kayak magazine, and the author of the popular Wild Coast series of guide books.

“It’s perfect for recreational paddlers, with beautiful beaches and the cliffs on the outside – that’s probably the prettiest spot and is best viewed from a kayak.”

Even better, pull ashore and experience the coastal bluff ecology from both perspectives. One of the most interesting formations is known as Old Man and Old Woman rocks, appropriately named for their appearances, located near Nares Point.

The island can be fully circumnavigated in about two hours, with calm, easy water for beginner paddlers in the protected water of the harbour and Newcastle Channel, and a bit more challenging conditions on the more exposed outer shore. The whole trip is about eight kilometres.

But the adventure often takes longer than a couple hours, Kimantas says, because there are so many elements and side trips that can be added.

Those elements include the Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island, if in need of some refreshment, and Jesse Island, which is a privately owned island (currently for sale) that includes the only paddle-through cave in the Gulf Islands.

It’s located just off the north end of Newcastle in Departure Bay. If you’re going to check it out (and you should), be sure to pay attention, as you’ll be crossing an active B.C. Ferries route in and out of the Departure Bay terminal.

Despite its many attractions, including on-island camping, Newcastle Island isn’t the paddler’s mecca it probably should be, Kimantas says.

“It’s probably not as well-known as it should be. It’s just an amazing place,” he said.

For more information about Newcastle Island, please go to Or check out Nanaimo author and naturalist Bill Merilees’s book Newcastle Island: A Place of Discovery (Heritage House, 1997).

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