Vancouver Island Whale Watching Guide

Where should I go for a Vancouver Island whale watching trip?

Vancouver Island whale watching trips are one of the top attractions, with trips leaving from communities all around the Island. The main species of whales commonly seen are orcas (killer whales), gray whales, humpback whales, and the occasional minke whale. Sightings of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, and harbour porpoise are also common.

However, you will not see an even distribution of all species around the entire island, and what whales you see will depend on where you take your trip. Orca—killer whale—tours are very popular. Three main populations of orca reside in Island waters and consist of the southern residents, northern residents and transients. Transient orcas eat mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoise, and frequent the west coast of the Island, but also transit inside waters. These groups are always on the move, making sightings highly unpredictable, and if you see orcas on a whale-watching trip from Tofino or Uclulet, it will be the transients.

On the other hand, the resident groups subsist primarily on salmon. They are quite predictable in their movement patterns, and are likely the whales you will see on trips from Victoria and up the inside to Port Hardy. There is a fourth group called the ‘offshore orcas’, but they are rarely seen close to land. When a rare sighting occurs, it is exciting as they congregate in large groups of 30-70 individuals. With over seven hundred orcas in Island waters, it is standard practice for whale watching operators to guarantee sightings, and networks of land and marine based spotters help assure this.

Gray whales are spotted predominantly on the west coast during their annual migration, however humpback whales are spotted on both sides of the Island. Higher concentrations of humpbacks are found in Clayoquot Sound (accessed from Tofino) and the inside of the Island from northern Johnstone Strait into Queen Charlotte Strait at the north end of the Island.

Can I find calm water for my Vancouver Island whale watching trip?

If you are prone to motion sickness, consider taking your Vancouver Island whale watching trip on the inside of the Island aboard a larger vessel. However, if you want to be closer to the water and the action, there is nothing quite like the exhilarating, wind in your face ride aboard a rigid hull inflatable. These boats are extremely seaworthy and relatively smooth in larger seas. Most operators also provide full body flotation suits to keep you warm. Generally, the trips on the outside —the west side — of the Island are rougher due to the swells rolling in from the Pacific, and unless your tour is taking advantage of sheltered waters, you are exposed to the open ocean. The east coast of the Island in general is quite calm, and you can expect a smooth ride, especially in larger boats. Smooth sailing is also usually the norm in the waters toward the north end of the Island including Telegraph Cove, Alert Bay, Port McNeill, and Port Hardy.

Where can I see orcas—killer whales—on Vancouver Island?

Victoria

From my experience of the island, I would recommend three main areas to consider for orcas during your Vancouver Island whale watching trip — Victoria, Campbell River, and Telegraph Cove. Victoria is a convenient location from which to do a trip if you won’t be leaving the South Island. Trips transit the southern residents range, including the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands depending on where the whales are located. You get a marine tour of the Victoria waterfront plus beautiful views across the Straits to the Olympic Peninsula when the weather is clear. There are a number of whale watching companies leaving from the Inner Harbour plus an outfit from Sidney. If the whales are in the Sidney region, leaving from Sidney can be an attractive option, as you will get more whale watching time and less transit time.

To experience a wilder, rural setting for your tour, I would recommend Campbell River or Telegraph Cove. You are apt to see much more wildlife in these remote areas including eagles, bears, sea lions, and sea birds to name just a few.

Vancouver Island whale watching from Telegraph Cove

Vancouver Island whale watching from Telegraph Cove

Campbell River

Located Mid-Island, Campbell River operators offers Vancouver Island whale watching tours and Grizzly Bear tours to Butte Inlet. The whale tours take advantage of the northern resident orcas that make Johnstone Strait their home, plus some of the formidable tidal features of this area such as large whirlpools and tidal rips. In fact, some of these whirlpools are so large they have names attached to them such as Devil’s Hole and The Drain. These pools and rips form from tidal waters flooding around the north and south of the Island and converging in the Campbell River area creating some of the fastest tidal currents in the world. There are tours that specifically target these features and explore places such as Seymour Narrows, Hole in the Wall, Okissolo and Arran Rapids.

Trips range from four hours to all day or multi-day adventures depending on what you want to do. Take a look at Campbell River Whale Watching and Adventure Tours.

Telegraph Cove

One of my very favourite regions is the waters of upper Johnstone Strait and the lower reaches of Queen Charlotte Strait including Blackfish Sound and the Broughton Archipelago. A marine Eden, this is the perfect area to have an unforgettable whale-watching and wildlife tour and is home to the northern resident orca group as well as minke whales, the occasional humpback whale, porpoises and dolphins. The waters of upper Johnstone Strait are calm more often than not during the summer, and the wildlife viewing is stellar. Several long established whale-watching outfits—Stubbs Island Whale Watching and Orcella Expeditions—have trips leaving from historic Telegraph Cove. Grizzly bear tours to nearby Knight Inlet are available with Tide Rip Grizzly Tours.

I really want see gray whales and the occasional orca during my Vancouver Island whale watching tour.

Tofino and Uclulet

Trips from Uclulet explore the waters of Barkley Sound and the Broken Island Group while those leaving from Tofino go north toward Clayoquot Sound. Though the water tends to be rougher on the west side, there are many Islands offering shelter for trips leaving from both communities. Here you will see predominantly gray whales, and one of the best spots to watch them is at Cow Bay on Flores Island. The grays stop here to bottom feed on their yearly migration from Mexico to Alaska and the area is home to summer resident gray whales, so chances are high that you will see them here during the summer.

Regardless of whether you choose a trip from Tofino or Uclulet, the scenery is spectacular in both locations. The waters of Barkley sound are a very popular playground for boaters of all types including kayakers, anglers and cruisers.

Vancouver Island is big, and drive times between communities can be several hours or more. If your home base will be Victoria, you probably won’t want to attempt a day trip to another community with a whale watching trip as your objective. Plan to spend a night or two in one of these towns to minimize your drive time and take full advantage of all there is to see and do in these communities.

A few tips to help you have a whale of a time:

  • Go with an established company. Generally, the larger established companies have most of the bugs worked out of their operations. They have spotter networks ensuring that your chances of seeing whales are high, and most of the boats have hydrophones for listening to whale vocalizations, plus naturalists or interpreters on-board to provide you with commentary on the whales and their habits. Larger companies usually have multiple vessels, which means your trip won’t necessarily be cancelled if there is a problem with one of the boats.
  • Make sure they guarantee sightings. If you are going on a whale watching trip, you want to see whales. Unfortunately, there are times when the whales decide they would like to be elsewhere. In these cases, companies that offer guaranteed sightings will defer your trip to another time. This deferral only works if you are still around, so try and do your whale trip early during your visit in case the whales are on summer vacation in another area.
  • Book as far ahead of time as possible. During the summer rush, boats can fill up days ahead of time. If you have a particular window in which you must do your trip, try to book as soon as possible. If the company has a fleet of boats, make sure you specify what type of boat you want at the time of booking such as an open zodiac or larger closed vessel.
  • DON’T FORGET YOUR CAMERA! SLR cameras with good zoom lenses allowing multiple frames per second are best for capturing memorable photos.

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