Vibrant, colourful, filled with restaurants, fishing boats, pleasure boats and floating homes. Rent kayaks, go whale watching, feed harbour seals. All this and more is Victoria’s Fisherman’s Wharf. And it’s just a 10 minute walk from Victoria’s Inner Habour or can be accessed by a Harbour Ferry from in front of the Empress Hotel. You also enter and park off Dallas Road.
So how did this area evolve? Historically, it had been used by the Coast Salish peoples to harvest shellfish. European settlers named it Major Bay in the 1850s. From 1859 to almost 1900, Major Bay functioned as a shipyard named Laing’s Ways, building and repairing vessels. It built paddle steamers for the Cariboo Gold Rush and then sealing schooners as the demand for seal fur boomed. Coast Salish were part of the sealing crew as they were skilled traditional seal hunters. Victoria Harbour was home to nearly 100 sealing vessels in 1895. In 1889, Laing’s Ways built the Lorne, a 157-foot steam tug for the Dunsmuir coal interests which stayed in service until 1936.
After Laing’s Ways closed, Major Bay became the host of small fishing boats, transient barges and float home dwellers for almost the first half of the 20th century. Float homes were built in B.C. on log rafts to house coastal loggers but became a form of affordable housing in Victoria Harbour.
In 1947, the federal government built Fisherman’s Wharf to facilitate larger fishing vessels as the fishing industry boomed from this time to around 1990.
Salmon was king and the shellfish industry was thriving, especially in the production of crabmeat. For many years, there was a blessing of the fleet by a clergyman when the fishing fleet would depart in late spring and not return till the fall brought bad weather.
Although a multitude of fishing vessels were moored at Fisherman’s Wharf, from the 1970s to 2000 two docks were home to a diverse, eccentric and often transient community of people. They were boisterous and local police were often breaking up fights. Some of these dock occupants lived in float homes but others occupied a sundry array of vessels including trimarans, Chinese junks and even boat moulds. Supervising this motley group was someone called a wharfinger who tried to collect moorage fees and create some order.
As the fishing industry began to decline in the 1990s, more space was allotted to float homes and “live aboards” occupying a variety of vessels. In 2002 Fishernan’s Wharf came under the auspices of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA). The float home owners had become well established, and 33 berths were set aside for them by the GVHA. However, the relationship between the GVHA and the residents of the float homes was not at all positive. Then in 2011, a new head of the GVHA was appointed, began a dialogue, and offered the residents a long-term occupancy agreement that made life easier for everyone. Today, the float home owners are known as a tight-knit, friendly community. There are 33 homes moored at the 33 berths spread over three piers, from one-storey cottages to homes as high as three storeys. The homes are eclectic, colourful and can sell at a range of $175,000 to $400,0000.
Even the restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf have a flair to them. Barb’s Fish & Chips has been rated as one of the top 10 seafood spots by the sea in North America. It has been part of a film set for the series Sea Hunt and been featured on the TV Food Network. Grilligan’s BBQ is not only tied to a dock like a float home, but is the only restaurant in Victoria where kayakers can enjoy a “paddle-thru” window to get their food!
If you’re looking for an exciting spot to visit in Victoria, pick a sunny day and Fisherman’s Wharf will not disappoint.