The waters that surround the Gulf and San Juan islands offer some of the most beautiful natural wonders in North America. And the chilly northern waters of the surrounding Pacific are a miraculous showcase of wildlife, with the orca whale being the star. At times, dozens of these massive mammals can be seen swimming, breaching and just playing together in the water.
On some days, these pods can number nearly 100, making this area one of the best whale-watching spots in the world. The sight is magnificent and has helped build a cottage industry of tours for those who want to see the killer whales up close and snap a few pictures.
The Vancouver area is lucky enough to be the watery home for much more than the local orcas; it is a migratory route for a variety of other whales, such as the majestic grey and impressive humpback.
Here's what you need to know about booking a whale-watching adventure:
When to go:
The whale-watching seasons typically lasts from March to October, with the following patterns generally taking place throughout the season:
March-October: Grey whales migrate through the Tofino/Ucluelet area of Vancouver Island.
May-October: Southern resident orcas feed on passing salmon in the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands.
July-September: Northern resident orcas feed in Johnson Strait.
There are, at times, pods of nearly 100 whales travelling through these northern waterways, so there is a very good chance you will see at least one, but no tour operator can promise 100 percent success rates in finding orcas. That said, many tour operators offer a rain check policy, so if you don't see a whale, you can come back for another tour free of charge.
Length of tours:
Most outfitters offer half-day and full-day tours. Often, naturalists who specialize in studying the local marine life lead the tours, making the experience as informative as it is exciting. Longer excursions, including multi-day cruises, are available, too.
Who to go with:
There are several tour operators working out of the Vancouver area. Some leave from Granville Island or the Waterfront Station Seabus Terminal in Vancouver. Many are based in the town of Steveston, about 25 minutes to the south of Vancouver, while others leave from Vancouver Island. Boat options include high-speed zodiacs, fully equipped cruisers, and larger-scale cruise ships.
> Click here to find a tour operator.
Visitors often come to see the whales, but there are plenty of other marine wildlife sightings possible. Sea lions, birds (including eagles), seals and dolphins are all commonly seen.