Mike Walsh and Sarah Pillon want to have the coolest adventure company in Sooke
Introverted photographers on starting an ecotourism company, and wildlife watching industry
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Introverted photographers on starting an ecotourism company, and wildlife watching industry
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Mike Walsh and Sarah Pillon are proudly a pair of Happily Introverted Photographers, or HIP for short.
They’re also a couple leading an adventure tourism business in Sooke that features whale watching tours and hiking shuttles.
Originally from Windsor, Ont., Walsh and Pillon travelled across the country in a camper and moved to Victoria seven years ago.
They were immediately taken aback at the abundance of wildlife in the south Island. Sea Lions. Sea Otters. Orcas. The couple became obsessed with photographing the outdoors and wondered how they could make it their full-time job.
In 2016, they traded in their camper for a sailboat and began taking images of animals along the Saanich Inlet and Gulf Islands to sell at local markets. It wasn’t something they planned on getting rich from, Walsh says, but rather a fulfilling job to express their creativity.
One year later, looking to combine their love of photography with the sea and create a more fruitful business venture, Walsh and Pillon purchased a powerboat and launched Adventures by HIP.
“Once we got here and away from our hometown crowd, we realized we’re more introverts than we knew that we were,” Walsh said. “I guess the Happily Introverted Photographers was a way of expressing in a polite way how we enjoy the company of each other and nature.”
Working in the ski tourism industry in Lake Louise, Pillon noticed there was a strong connection between hotels and tourism opportunities, such as shuttle buses that took folks from their accommodation to the outdoors.
In Sooke, however, she says there wasn’t the same kind of harmony between adventure companies and accommodation operators.
“The access to outdoor activities in general, not just whale watching—considering Sooke has so much access to trails and the water—there was a need for something like that,” Pillon said.
“We wanted to work closely with [local] hotels to be able to tie everyone together and form a community.”
Located at the Sooke Harbour Resort and Marina, Adventures by HIP has partnerships with other hotels and bed and breakfasts in the city to promote their business.
While the number of customers they took on tours was down last year as a result of the pandemic, Pillon says they saw an increase in their private tour sessions.
Rather than a heavily marketed, big-box whale watching company, Walsh believes they were able to stay in business during COVID-19 because their company was a smaller and more intimate option for customers looking to escape the city.
On average, before the pandemic, Walsh estimates they took eight people on the boat at a time. After the pandemic though, they booked only four or five guests per trip.
“The fact that the whale watching market in Victoria is there is an advantage to us,” he said. “We ended up having fewer [overall] guests, but more tours and we kept busy.”
The whale watching industry doesn’t come without its controversy.
In 2018, to no avail, the state of Washington attempted to put a three-year ban on whale watching. Scientists supported the proposed recommendation, citing motor noises as a cause that was interfering with their ability to hear and find food.
In BC, according to a 2018 news conference from CEO and president of the BC Chamber of Commerce Val Litwin, marine tourism brings about $1.2 billion to the province’s economy every year.
In 2019, meanwhile, a Victoria man hoped to deter whale watching in the Salish Sea with a 75-foot former navy vessel.
Walsh and Pillon recognize the importance of respecting wildlife on tours.
Boats cannot legally come within a certain distance from whales, Walsh says, such as 200 metres from transient orcas and 100 metres from humpback whales
“We run smaller boats with less horsepower behind them than the majority of the whale watching fleet out there,” he said. “And we always aim to find our own whales.”
What Walsh means by that is Adventures by HIP are not members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a Washington-based conservation organization consisting of 29 marine businesses in Washington and BC.
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The organization and its members use an app that allows vessels, researchers, and government departments to know the location of whales.
Walsh doesn’t like the idea of being able to track whales and potentially having a crowd of boats around one. Instead, he prefers to respect the whale's space while still maintaining an intimate experience for his passengers.
“When you get into these large groups of boats everyone kind of gets in this chain-formation, and they stay the minimum distance away,” he said.
“But what we find when we get into these areas west of Sooke, we can stay 300 or 400 metres away from the whales and [customers still] feel like they’re in the scene because they can hear it and see it everytime it comes up for a breath.”
He adds that they haven’t had a harder time finding whales on their own without the app, but they do rely on help on certain days from other boaters to find wildlife.
“Not to say everyone in the Whale Association is bad, we do communicate with some of them, but we are not members of it and, therefore, do not put the information in the app for all to see and draw people to that scene when we do find whales.”
New to this summer, Adventures by HIP added a water taxi service to take customers from Sooke to the Coast trail in East Sooke Park.
That move stems from the couple’s desire to diversify their business and expand their adventure tours from solely focusing on nature watching.
Currently, they’re contemplating whether to start backcountry trail tours in the mountains around Sooke or take their boat to areas further up the west coast of Vancouver Island, yet nothing is imminent.
At the end of the day, Walsh and Pillon want to be recognized for more than orcas.
“Whale watching tours are fun, but everyone’s doing it,” Walsh says. “We just really want to make this the coolest adventure company on the Island.”
Capital Daily: What does Victoria or Sooke need to make it easier to run a business here?
Walsh: Parking. The number one nemesis we deal with is parking. There is no support from the town when it comes to getting people situated once they’re here, it’s left on the laps of all the businesses running here. We’re operating out of a marina that was designed for sport fishing boats and has a resort, there’s no parking there either.
You go to other towns like Cowichan, Campbell River, Parksville, they have these public launch ramps with giant parking lots that are free. We don’t have anything like that here.
What worries you most about your business?
Pillon: Probably location, that ties into parking, because we have grown and our reputation has grown and we are attracting a heavier customer base. So making sure we can accommodate them. We’re right in between the Prestige Hotel and the Sooke Harbour Resort, so folks are able to walk to us from there, but making sure we can keep business streaming in from Port Renfrew, Jordan River, and Victoria clientele that might not necessarily be walking distance from us.
What excites you the most about your business?
Walsh: What’s around the next bend. I was so hyped about whale watching for so long, and now I really want to put energy into getting people on the hiking shuttle. Then wherever it goes from there excites us about it.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
Walsh: Our friends at West Coast Outdoor Adventure. [The] owners Allen and Cath, like us, moved to Sooke to set up a tourism related business. They set up with their family in Sooke with a vision to bring something new and unique to the community. West Coast Outdoor Adventure has now been around for 12 years and offers a range of services for activities both on the water & land which includes their Hobie kayaks, bikes, SUP's & Eclipse pedalboards.
They still maintain their focus on providing a personal experience to their guests while helping 'get them into nature'.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
Walsh: A bar and grill.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
Pillon: New photography equipment and a hydrophone.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
Walsh: We got all the inspiration we need here, you just have to look around. It’s all the beauty we have. Outdoors, beautiful, natural surroundings are the inspiration.
Pillon: I think it’s also rewarding that we get a lot of returning guests now. To see we’ve made connections with people and provided an experience, I find keeps us going.
What is the first thing you’ll do when we can all stop with pandemic protocol?
Pillon: Hopefully more tours. Most of our activities involve being outside and being in nature.
Walsh: To be honest, it hasn’t changed our lifestyle that much. Living out here, we don’t rely on going and hanging out in tight spaces.
Pillon: Maybe one day we’ll get to travel by ourselves.
What do you consider your biggest failure, and how did you overcome it?
Walsh: The failure to have our business resonate and find its place within the community of Sooke. People from all over the Island, and the world for that matter, travel to Sooke to join us on our tours and witness the beauty of the Salish Sea. Here in Sooke, the locals have a lifelong connection with fishing and hunting (and not so much to tourism), and wildlife is often seen more as something that belongs on the dinner plate, rather than in a framed picture on the wall.
While our Ocean Wildlife Tours are not frequently utilized by Sooke-born locals, we are a fast growing community with people joining us here from across the country and we often find that our new Sooke residents are eager to explore the Salish Sea. As far as developing a service that would be of appeal to our long-time Sooke neighbours, we have introduced the HIP Adventure shuttle. We hope the shuttle service will become a staple service of the Sooke Harbour for years to come, and establish an important and permanent place for Adventures By HIP within the community.
What do you wish you knew before starting Adventures by HIP?
Walsh: You wouldn’t think that running a business like this would be so nasty. It has been somewhat nasty.
Pillon: That’s a good answer, because I’ve been in tourism for a long time and the reason I wanted to stay in it and do something on our own is because I always loved it. Overall, it was a good atmosphere for me, but I guess being ‘the faces of’ or ‘the owners of’ we were exposed to another side of people’s behaviour in general. I’ve definitely gotten thicker skin. It’s still hard some days, but that was an eye-opener to see a new perspective as opposed to being someone who works in tourism to someone who’s trying to run their own business.
Walsh: We’ve faced challenges with the town, competitors, businesses who aren’t our competitors but don’t like what we do because it’s a fishing town and we don’t do fishing. It was a big eye-opener when you’re doing something you’d think would be pure and natural by viewing wildlife, but how much adversity there is to it.