Note: This story was originally published on November 28, 2017.
Whales! There are few sights more thrilling than whales in their natural environment. The spray as they come to the surface for air, the splash as they propel themselves out of the water in a full-body breach, or the slow roll of their backs and extension of their tails as they dive deep.
The waters off the coast of British Columbia are rich with marine life. BC’s whale watching vessels seek out orcas, humpback whales, grey whales, and minkes, and along the way often come across seals, sea lions, porpoises, and bald eagles. Chances are excellent that you will encounter whales on a guided tour—companies here report a success rate well over 90%, and most offer a guarantee. If you don’t see a whale, come back for a free tour until you do.
The whales are found in the Salish Sea, the body of water that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. They swim among BC’s Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Many tours leave from Victoria on Vancouver Island, but if you want to see whales from Vancouver, you have options.
When: April through October
Granville Island is one of the city’s most popular attractions. It is home to a bustling public market, a huge range of artist studios, live entertainment venues, and excellent waterfront dining. You can also board one of four vessels owned and operated by Wild Whales Vancouver. Some boats are open air, others are semi-covered, and all are equipped with washrooms and hydrophones so you can hear the whales communicate.
The unique thing about Wild Whales is that each of their vessels is booked for a single departure each day. This means no rushing back to the dock for the next scheduled tour, so they can truly take their time and go wherever the whales are hanging out that day. As such, tour times can be anywhere from three to five hours. Luckily, the Granville Island Public Market is the perfect place to stock up on provisions before you depart.
Who: Prince of Whales Whale Watching
When: Most tours operate May through October, Fly-Whales-Fly tours are offered year-round based on sea plane availability
Based on Granville Island, the aptly named Prince of Whales boasts a huge range of experiences. Want to spend a few hours on the water and return to the city? Vancouver Half-Day or Sunset trips are a great choice. Travel the Salish Sea and cut through the Georgia Strait on luxury catamarans in search of orcas and humpback whales and listen to marine mammal experts bring the animal’s stories to life while you stay warm and dry in a heated cabin.
Other possibilities include returning to Vancouver from Victoria by seaplane and one-way trips to Victoria or Seattle. Or pack in as many modes of transport as possible with the Fly-Whales-Fly tour. Take a seaplane to Victoria, embark on a three-hour whale watching adventure, and fly back to Vancouver.
Who: Steveston Seabreeze Adventures and Vancouver Whale Watch
When: April through October
South of Vancouver you’ll find Steveston Village, a quaint fishing village in the southwest corner of Richmond. Two whale watching companies operate from this location at the mouth of the Fraser River. Seabreeze Adventures offers three- to five-hour tours on semi-enclosed, open, and Zodiac-style boats. A knowledgeable on-board naturalist keeps things fun and educational, and Seabreeze’s experienced captains—they’ve been operating since 1998—make sure everyone stays safe, including the whales. Shuttle bus pick-up at your Richmond or downtown Vancouver hotel is also available.
Vancouver Whale Watch was the first whale-watching company to operate from the Vancouver area, in operation for 25 years. All three of their vessels are zodiac style (one open and two semi-covered), custom-designed for marine wildlife viewing, and all are equipped with hydrophones to listen to the whales. Tours are three to five hours in duration, and a seafood lunch in Steveston pre-or post-tour is a must. Shuttle service is available from several downtown locations for a $15 fee.
Who: White Rock Sea Tours
When: Daily April through November; by appointment December through March
Just north of the Canada/US border, the cute seaside town of White Rock is home to White Rock Sea Tours, which operates from the pier along White Rock beach. Zodiac tours depart daily at noon, travelling across Semiahmoo Bay and into the Salish Sea. This excursion is unique in that it includes stops at various spots on the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island for lunch and for breaks over the course of your three- to five-hour tour.
As temperatures on the water can be inconsistent, it’s best to dress in layers. Don’t forget a camera (waterproof if possible), sunscreen, sunglasses (and a way to keep them in place), a water bottle, and a snack. Check with the company you’ve booked as they may suggest some variations to this list. If you’re travelling in an open zodiac-style boat, you are usually provided with a protective suit that fits over your clothes to keep you warm and dry.
Note: Bring your binoculars and follow these guidelines to enjoy watching marine animals safely and responsibly.
Featured image: Humpback whale tales near Vancouver Island. Photo: Eagle Wing Tours/Valerie Shore