Whale Watching on Vancouver Island
Whale Watching on Vancouver Island
The marine must-do for any eco-tourist visiting BC
It might be a sunny morning, but it could be rainy too. Either way, it will be cold, wet, and marvelous––a feast for the eyes, an absolute rush. Whale watching off the coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island beats a day at the aquarium with one hand tied behind its back. Nature walks? Yawn. The rarity of watching a 25-foot long mammal gliding, breeching, and splashing away in its natural habitat makes whale watching an experience to be both relished and cherished, a highlight of any Vancouver Island holiday.
WHAT YOU MIGHT SEE
Many first-timers will hope to catch sight of an orca (also known as a killer whale), the whales with the distinct black and white pattern, a la Free Willy. During peak whale watching season, pods of both resident and transient orcas are almost always around and happy to put on a show. Expect to see lots of cresting dorsal fins, followed shortly after by a glistening black tail; hear the sound of the mammals exhaling out of their blow-holes; catch a glimpse of an orca calf (baby), and if you're lucky––a baby breach (where the whale jumps out of the water and often lands lopsided with a splash).
What might not be widely known about whale watching on Vancouver Island is that there are, in fact, other whales besides orcas in local waters. Minke whales, for example, are a common variety with a rather unique trait: rather than travelling in a pod (group) as other whales will, Minke whales tend to travel solo. This makes spotting them particularly special. Springtime on Vancouver Island's west coast hails the passing-through of Grey Whales as they make their annual migration to northern waters. These whales are a fantastic sight, with their massive, barnacle encrusted tails and enormous proportions (they are about twice the length of an orca, reaching roughly 52 feet at maturity). Humpback whales are another possible sight; as their name implies they have a hump in their backs. They are most well known for their 'songs', the hauntingly beautiful sequences of vocal noise they use to communicate underwater.
Of course, in nature there are no guarantees, but many tour operators will offer guests a complimentary "second try" if they don't see any whales on the first go. However, depending on where you are, you might be so lucky as to catch bonus wildlife sightings: bald eagles, black bears and their cubs hunting for fish or shells along the shoreline. Sea lions moaning on a rock among cracked shells and fish carcasses, the smell of low tide mingling with the mist (this is not a pleasant aroma, you should be warned). Seals, porpoises (somewhat similar to dolphins), and plenty of seabirds are also not uncommon sights during a whale watching excursion.
If you're among the luckiest ones, you might find yourself observing something truly exceptional from the front row.
Jackie Hildering, Education and Conservation Advisor of Stubb's Island Whale Watching and Discovery Marine Safaris in Campbell River shared a few outstanding moments which would surely make the trip worth the fare and the chills, "A humpback breaching 30 times in a row…a killer whale calf nursing…a Minke whale being chased, and ultimately killed, by transient killer whales…a Pacific Harbour Seal being born…a bald eagle swooping down to grab a mink…a Steller sea lion 'whacking' a giant Pacific octopus at the surface of the water…some 500 dolphins stampeding away from transient killer whales..."
Brett Soberg, Owner and Operator of Victoria-based Eagle Wing Tours, adds, “I have had encounters [where] mother orcas…appear to be 'presenting' [their] calves to us the viewer on the surface of the ocean. They gently come underneath their swimming baby and cradle them across the tops of their heads (rostrum) and slowly swim for what appears to be an eternity. It is a magical moment like this that you never forget..."
WHERE TO DO IT, WHAT TO EXPECT
You can take a whale watching tour from quite a few locations around Vancouver Island. One popular spot, which is also very convenient, is Victoria. Trips from multiple companies zip in and out of the Victoria Inner Harbour and Ogden Point numerous times a day during the summer months. Other hotspots around the Island include Sidney, Tofino, Ucluelet, Port Hardy, and Campbell River.
Some boats are built to accommodate larger groups who prefer to view from a comfortable distance, with access to restrooms and room to walk around. The more common experience is delivered via zodiac, a rigid inflatable boat that seats about 12 people. Zodiacs zip across the water at high speeds and can generally get closer to a whale pod than the larger 'cruisers'.
If you're touring in a zodiac (the less comfortable but much more exciting 'front row' experience), you will be provided with a universally unflattering protective suit, likely orange, red, or yellow. Now would be a good time to take a photograph, before safely stowing your camera inside the dry confines of your lumpy outerwear. Of course, there will be plenty of photo ops later.
Besides simply 'watching whales', many marine and wildlife tour groups offer an informative narrative that is designed to both entertain and educate guests. There's so much to learn about the ocean and shore life around Vancouver Island, and the best tour operators have a natural passion for the environment which they are eager to share with visitors to the area.
As Brett Soberg adds, “The natural world has massive demands placed upon it every day and at Eagle Wing we believe that being a responsible steward means not just being quiet observers but active, positive contributors to the ecosystem we love and are able to make our living from. Our tours offer a comprehensive on the water educational curriculum where we share knowledge, passion and ideas about conservation so there is an understanding of how everything is inter-connected."
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT & SAFETY
Above and beyond the magnificent observation of whales in their natural habitat, whale watching tours give everyone an opportunity to contemplate our global dependence on the existence and health of our seas.
As Jackie Hildering mentions, “It doesn’t matter how land-locked you are, you need the ocean. More than 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from it. The ocean feeds us and regulates our climate buffering the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and absorbing 85% of the Earth’s heat. The oceans often testify to the magnitude of environmental problems first. We strive to use the privilege of seeing marine wildlife help people better understand this and how they can easily make a positive difference. In addition to less structured interpretation/education provided on our tours, we provide an interpretive talk relaying Dr. Peter Ross' research on bioaccumulation and how we, as consumers and voters, are empowering to make a positive difference."
In recent years there has been a growing awareness and concern for the welfare and habitats of whales and other sea creatures that might be affected by the whale watching industry. Guidelines have been established by the region's governing bodies––such as Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans––and many industry organizations and dedicated BC individuals in regards to this activity, in order to reduce the interruptions whales might experience as a result of these tours. Fortunately, most whale watching companies have wholeheartedly embraced these guidelines, as the most committed businesses are comprised of Coast Guard-certified boat operators, marine biologists, naturalists, and often staffed by Islanders who already love and care for the area's oceans and animals.
Ocean Giesbrecht, Representative of Tofino-based Ocean Outfitters, says, "Our Captains are chosen because they love this place, their passion is infectious and our interpretive tours are a platform for educating guests and encouraging stewardship.” Ocean Giesbrecht adds, “Spending an afternoon on the water in the company of Clayoquot Sound’s whales and marine wildlife has ethereal magic. You can’t help but delight in the beauty. Appreciating this amazing place has a way of putting our own lives into perspective..."
Unfortunately, not all whale watching companies are created equal. It's best to do some research and be discerning when choosing a whale watching trip. The good businesses might not be the cheapest, but they also tend to care more, not just about the animals and our environment, but about their passenger's safety as well.
A FEW TIPS
Wear sunscreen, even if it's rainy or overcast. If the sun comes out while you're on the water, you'll burn!
Dress warmly, even if it's a hot day. It's always (always) colder out on the water.
If you're riding on a zodiac, bring a disposable waterproof camera (or be prepared for the possibility of splashes/mist/ocean spray).
If it's a chilly morning, have a hot drink first. You'll be glad you did.
Use the restroom before you leave; trips can go for three hours and zodiac's don't have facilities (and believe me, there's nowhere to hide)
Main image: Two Orca whales breaching the ocean surface off the coast of Vancouver Island (Tourism BC)
It will be cold, wet, and marvelous––a feast for the eyes, an absolute rush
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