5 Active Wildlife Adventures in BC

It’s one thing to spot a whale from a Zodiac with a group of camera-clad travellers. It’s another to paddle at eye level with a surfacing orca—just you, your guide, a friend or two, and the sound of the creature blowing air. Both are exciting, but if you want a more intimate thrill, you might be looking for a more active adventure. Here are a few great options, with tips on where and when to go in BC.

Snorkel with Salmon in Campbell River

First, picture a million salmon fighting their way from the sea upriver to spawn at their birthplace. Now picture you snorkelling alongside. Insane! That’s what TV personality/comedian Rick Mercer said when he tried it in 2011 (above). Mercer recorded the adrenaline rush with a wrist-attached GoPro HD camera, describing the fish rush hour “like last call at a [political] fundraiser.” At that time, Destiny River Adventures was primarily a whitewater rafting outfitter. But after Mercer’s much publicized wild ride, swimming with salmon became Destiny’s, well, destiny.

Pull on a wetsuit and mask, slip into the 15-degree-Celsius (60-degree-Farenheit) crystal-clear water, and prepare to ride the current of the shallow rapids with thousands of salmon ranging from 5 to 90 lbs (2 to 41 kg). The action takes place July to October on the Quinsam River, a tributary of Campbell River. The city of Campbell River, aptly named “Salmon Capital of the world,” is located on Vancouver Island’s east coast.

Walk with Grizzlies in the Cariboo

A grizzly bear standing in the water

A grizzly in the Cariboo Mountains in fall. Photo: K. Breckenridge/Ecotours-BC

Grizzly specialist Ecotours-BC promises “total immersion and connection with nature,” calling its offering “the only place on earth you can walk with the grizzlies.” For a few weeks in September each year, just two intrepid souls join guide and longtime grizzly aficionado Gary Zorn for a Walk with the Grizzlies as he treads lightly in chest-waders up a remote salmon spawning river at the base of the Cariboo Mountains. These solitary beasts are among Earth’s largest predators, and Zorn sheds light on what makes them tick—body language, hierarchy, and habits. Commanding, respectful, witty, and above all, calm, Zorn shows guests how to meet grizzlies on the bears’ terms and on their turf. Take a bucket-list picture—or just take in the moment. Ecotours-BC also offers a “Glamping with Grizzlies” package and a winter adventure snowshoeing package to spot wolves, lynx, and moose.

Have a Female-Only Riding Adventure in the Chilcotin

Two women riding horses through a field with flowers

Riding from Spruce Camp back to Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa. Photo: Andrew Doran

Journeying deep into the backcountry gets you closest to wild animals in their natural environment. Doing it on horseback? The same thing—without all the sweat. Wild Women Expeditions takes small female-only groups to the planet’s most unspoiled nooks and crannies. One of those is the snow-capped peaks and placid lakes of the Chilcotin Mountains, near Gold Bridge in southwest BC.

Floatplane it in from Vancouver to your basecamp: a little prospector-style cabin at the edge of the forest, surrounded by blue lupin and white lilies. Then let your trusty steed lead you for eight days along traditional game trails high up into the glacier-carved alpine tundra. Clocking five to eight daily hours in the saddle, look out for resident black bear, grizzlies, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, eagles, perhaps even a stealthy cougar or wolf. The vibe is playful adventure; don’t be surprised if you and your fellow travellers are BFFs by the trip’s end.

Kayak with Whales off Vancouver Island

An orca jumping out of the ocean off Vancouver Island

An orca off Vancouver Island. Photo: Eagle Wing Tours/Valerie Shore

Magical. That sums up gliding alongside a nine-m (29-ft) orca as its dorsal fin crests the water. Up close, personal, and privileged is the mantra of EcoSummer Expeditions, which leads off-the-grid, bucket-list animal encounters. Paddle around Vancouver Island’s rocky northeast coast July to September on three- to six-day Orca Camp Guided Kayak Tours (beginners welcome); specifically, Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, a.k.a Orca Central. Some 300 of the dolphin family’s largest member live here: the most sizeable population on the planet. Guests overnight in cushy tents tucked into the old-growth rainforest on shore. There’s also the Canada’s West Coast Wildlife Safari hike-plus-kayak-with-orcas and Orca Camp Wildlife Photography. You’re likely to spot giant humpbacks, otters, sea lions, acrobatic Pacific white-sided dolphins, and foraging grizzlies as well. And, it’s all for you—the max group size is 10.

Spend the Night with Dolphins in Vancouver

People in sleeping bags in front of a display at the Vancouver Aquarium

The Vancouver Aquarium hosts scenic sleepovers. Photo: Vancouver Aquarium

If you want to commune with the creatures of the deep, but keep it urban, consider a sleepover at the Vancouver AquariumSpend the night in the hushed quiet after the place has shut down for the day, next to one of the marine displays, drifting off to sleep while dolphins, jellyfish, sharks, and sea lions glide and frolic above. Beforehand, guests get to explore the entire aquarium and illuminated galleries where some sea life, such as the elusive octopus, is more active at night. Guests can handle sea stars, anemones, and urchins at the touch tanks, get a behind-the-scenes view into the shark penthouse, and catch an educational lecture, plus visit the marine lab for a peek behind the action. Offered nine times a year, the nights are themed; for example, “tropical paradises.” Invite a group of friends, make it an adults-only evening, take the family, or bring your Valentine to “Hugs and Fishes” for an extra-special night around Valentine’s Day.

Note on wildlife viewing: BC’s coastline provides opportunities to observe whales and other marine life in their natural environment. Bring your binoculars and follow these guidelines to enjoy watching marine animals safely and responsibly.

When you are hiking, biking, and camping in BC, you are in bear habitat. Make sure you are informed, prepared, and aware at all times. Wildsafe BC is a great resource for making any bear experiences you may have in BC positive and conflict-free. Be sure to keep your distance from wildlife—30 m (98 ft) minimum, and even further, at least 100 m (328 ft), from predators such as bears.

Learn more about where to go wildlife viewing in BC.