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Whale watching on Vancouver Island

My first mistake about Vancouver Island was thinking that it is similar in size to the Isle of Wight; actually it is nearly as big as England. However with a population of just 700,000, about half of whom live in Victoria, there is a lot of empty space here (though it is mostly filled with trees). There are some 4-500 cougars, 140 wolves and several thousand black bears. In fact it is thought that Vancouver Island has the highest density of bears and cougars in the world.

There are also whales, a lot of whales at certain times of the year. There are resident pods of Orca that live here all year round, plus in summer (May – October) many thousands of gray whales pass along the west coast, and many stay for the duration. Humpbacks also put in regular appearances during the summer. But not only do you have a choice of whales, there are different ways to see them too.

There are four main ways to watch the whales of Vancouver Island.

1. Travel to the Island by Ferry

Sitting on the upper deck at dusk as a pod of 30 Orca swim past in the other direction is a top way to travel.
Chance of seeing Orca. 5-10%.

2. From The Shore

There are plenty of vantage points around the coast where you can see whales from the shore. At certain times of the year, you don’t need a vantage point on some stretches of the coast. There are plenty of whales, Grey, Humpback and Orca, (I know I Know, technically they are not whales, but dolphins) as well as other fantastic sea life. There are plenty of seal colonies around the coast, but the underwater life is quite spectacular. The rocks and jetties are just festooned with sealife, urchins, anemones, and the most amazing display of starfish. Now when I was at school, all starfish were orange, had 6 arms and were about 8 inches across. Around the coast of Vancouver Island there are many varieties, different colours, and sizes, with the most amazing being the sunstar, with as many as 24 arms and up to 3 feet across.
Chance of seeing whales 10-20%
Whale watching in Canada. Courtesy of the CTC.
3. Whale Watch Boat.
There is a choice of venues for whale watch boats, but the main sites are Victoria and Tofino. From Victoria you will see Orca, and usually plenty of them. From Tofino, at the right time of year, you will see Grey whales, and if you are lucky Humpbacks and occasionally Orca too. The Grey whales appear from the south on their huge migration from their winter grounds off California. Many pass by but the inlets of the west coast of Vancouver Island provide shelter and feeding grounds for several hundred throughout the summer. The other benefit of Tofino is the landscape of forest clad mountains with a spectacular backdrop of Rocky peaks. There are plenty of seals and sea birds, as well as spectacular marine life (See above). And if you are really in luck, you might get a glimpse of a bear or two as they come down to search for seafood titbits on the shore.
Chance of seeing whales 95%.
4. Sea Kayak.
The most tiring, but definitely most rewarding. The sealife on the rocks is quite extraordinary, and you are that much closer when you are in a canoe. Yet the excitement of kayaking where there are 3-4 30+ ton whales frolicking in the shadows is just something quite extraordinary.
Chance of seeing Whales 50-80%.

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British Columbia Whale Watching guidelines.
  • Approach whales from the side, not from the front or the rear.
  • Approach no closer than 100 metres and shift your motor into neutral or idle.
  • Keep noise levels down - no horns, whistles or racing of motors.
  • Start your motor only after the whales are more than 100 metres from your vessel.
  • Leave the area slowly, gradually accelerating when you are more than 300 metres from the whales.
  • Approach and depart slowly, avoiding sudden changes in speed or direction. Do not "leapfrog."
  • Avoid disturbing groups of resting whales.
  • Maintain low speeds and constant direction if travelling parallel to whales.
  • When whales are travelling close to shore, avoid crowding them near the shore or coming between the whales and the shore.
  • Limit the time spent with any group of whales to less than 30 minutes at a time when within 100 to 200 metres of whales.
  • If there is more than one vessel at the same observation site, be sure to avoid any boat position that would result in encircling the whales.
  • Minimize the time spent and the number of vessels with any one group of whales.
  • Limit time, as above, and then move out to allow other vessels access to good viewing positions.
  • Coordinate activities by maintaining contact with other vessels, and ensure that all operators are aware of the whale watching guidelines.
Notable marine sightings around the UK and Ireland, 2007.
  • 20th January. 6 Bottle Nose dolphins off Stonehaven. (Courtesy of Ian Sim/Seawatch.)
  • November. Humpback feeding off Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, possibly in the area for 2 weeks. Interacting with Bottle Nose Dolphins. (Courtesy of Ian Sim/Seawatch.)
  • September. Minke whale found dead on Devon beach.
  • August. 2-3 Minke whales off St Abbs Head/Coldingham Bay in Berwickshire.
  • August. Minke whale in Fraserburgh Harbour.
  • July. Northern Bottlenose whale strands in River Orwell, Ipswich.
  • June. Humpback seen off North Devon.
  • June. 10 Minke whales sighted off the Isle of Man.
  • May. Several Minke sightings off Isle of Man, plus a Sei whale.
  • May. Repeated sightings of Orcas off Orkneys
  • May. Rare sighting of Bottlenose dolphins in the Channel, click here for details.
  • April. Several Orca sightings off Northern Ireland
  • April. Fin whale in the Moray Firth.
  • April. Orca seen off Isle of Man.
  • March. 2 Humpbacks seen off Anglesey/Isle of Mann.
  • March. 3 Killer whales seen off Shetland.
  • March. Sperm whale strands on Orkney.
  • March. 6 Killer whales seen off Orkney.
  • March. A pod of 15 Sperm whales seen by fishermen off Caithness.
  • January. A pod of nine killer whales seen in the Firth of Forth.
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