A whale of a time

Words and pictures by Kim O’Hare

Most people associate whale watching with Australia and other South Pacific destinations but some of the best whale watching areas in the world are at the top end of the Pacific, the coastal areas off British Columbia, Canada. And it’s the same whales, the ones that cruise Australia!

What’s unique about Canadian whale watching is that it can often be done from shore. Most coastal towns and cities from Washington State to Alaska provide opportunities for whale watching. In many cases it can be a year-round experience and can be done either from dry land or by boat.

Aerial shot of whales
A glimpse from the air
There are few things that compare to witnessing a 5,000-kg (12,000-lb) Orca arcing out of the water and landing with a splash that can be heard for several kilometres. Little wonder that whale watching has become such a popular activity on Vancouver Island. About eighty Orcas or killer whales live in the waters off southern Vancouver Island year-round. The best time to see whales from land is between May and October, when they come close to shore in pursuit of salmon, their staple food. Grey Whales traverse these waters in great numbers during their annual migration between March and October. Porpoises, dolphins and sea lions favour the area as well.

There are a few locations on Vancouver island that are considered prime locations. Tofino and Ucluelet, on the west coast of the Island offer great vantage points from shore or sea. While 22,000 Grey Whales pass through en route to their Arctic feeding grounds in March and April, the May to October season is when many whales take up residence in these waters. There are some particularly good viewing spots along the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet and in the Wickaninnish Centre in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which is equipped with telescopes.

The most thrilling way to catch sight of whales is from the water with a number of guided tour companies to choose from. Besides Grey Whales, you may also see Humpback Whales, Orcas seals and sea lions frolicking in these waters.

The waters around Telegraph Cove, Port McNeill and Alert Bay is another prime viewing area. The waters of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait attracts the majestic mammals who take advantage of its many salmon runs and “rubbing stones.” Northern Resident Orcas love to rub their bodies on the smooth stones of the reserve’s beaches - they are the only whale population that does this and no one knows why! Other species on view include Minke and Humpback Whales, Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific Harbour Seals and Stellar Sea Lions.

The southern Gulf Islands lie in close proximity to the feeding grounds of Orca Whales, with their waters home to three pods of Southern Resident Orcas. Sightings are most common between May and November, when great numbers of salmon, their staple food, are spawning nearby. Guided whale-watching tours can be joined directly from a number of islands; tour companies operate on nearby Vancouver Island as well.

A spectacular breach
Orca caught in a spectacular breach
Renting a kayak or taking a ferry between the southern Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and/or the mainland are affordable ways to view whales from the water. Other species on view include Dall’s and Harbour Porpoises, seals, sea lions, Bald Eagles and many kinds of sea birds.

The main southern islands, Saltspring, Galiano, Mayne, Pender and Saturna, all offer regular ferry service from Vancouver Island and the mainland, while an inter-island ferry service makes hopping between these islands easy.

The best time for whale watching in the Victoria area is during the feeding season from May through November. During this time, tours operate daily from several downtown and “suburban”. Choose from a catamaran or high-speed aluminium passenger vessel.

Sidney is the closest departure site for the Haro Strait and San Juan Islands viewing areas; several whale-watching companies operate from the downtown waterfront there. Sooke is the closest departure site for the Sombrio Point and Race Rocks viewing areas. Depart from the Sooke Harbour Marina in a high-speed zodiac.

Rates for whale watching vary seasonally, with summer being the peak period. Depending on length of expedition and whether lunch or snacks are included the price for a typical three to four hour expedition will range from about $65 to $95 Canadian - plus the ever-present taxes.

  • Information on whale watching and a wide range of other vacation attractions and activities throughout British Columbia http://www.hellobc.com/
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