Lighthouses are one of the most important tools for keeping mariners safe along the Vancouver Island coast. They stand on rocks, islands and craggy look-outs to light the path for ships at sea, keeping sailors from steering their vessels into danger.
Fisgard was the first lighthouse to be built in British Columbia. Begun in 1860, it still shines in Esquimalt Harbour. The beacon of the Race Rocks light was also lit in 1860. These two lighthouses guided ships from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the safety of the harbour of the city of Victoria.
Treacherous and deceptive waters claimed several ships filled with valuable cargo and human lives before lighthouses were placed along the Graveyard of the Pacific. Currents and rough water often pushed boats past the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the breakers, forcing them onto the rocky shore of Vancouver Island. At times, fog and darkness made it impossible for even the most diligent sailors to find their way.
The Cape Beale lighthouse was built at the entrance to Barkley Sound in 1874. Since 1891, the Carmanah Point light has marked the outer entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca from a position about 27 kilometres north of Port Renfrew, the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail. Shipwrecks and increased marine traffic created the need for the Pachena Point light, built in 1907 after the Valencia catastrophe.
The lighthouses of the Trial Islands, Sheringham Point, Amphitrite Point, Lennard Island, Estevan Point, Nootka, Quatsino and Cape Scott continue to serve the Vancouver Island coastline. The protected eastern coast of Vancouver Island is lit by the Chrome Island, Chatham Point, Cape Mudge, and Pulteney Point lights, a series of light stations placed on adjacent rocky islands.
Life in a light station is often romanticised, but the reality is that light keepers face loneliness and the elements. Often, their only contact with the outside world is through their radios and supply ships like the retired lighthouse tender Estevan.
Light keepers are often the first on the scene of shipwrecks and boating accidents. In recent years, many lighthouses have become automated. Light keepers and mariners protest that lighthouse staff saves countless lives and keep the lights shining at all costs, something electronic lights could never do.