Cedric Towers spent much of his life on boats, including several stints in the commercial fishing industry. Much of the time, he was just off the coast of Vancouver, cruising around the islands nearby, spotting hundreds of orcas along the way. Well, he fell for the massive marine mammals and decided to combine his life on the ocean and his newfound love of whales. So, 12 years ago, he opened Vancouver Whale Watch, which is based in the small fishing town of Steveston, a hotbed for whale watching companies on the Fraser River. Daily tours head out to the Gulf and Vancouver islands from April through October.
While he spends most of his time on land these days -- leaving the guiding to his staff while he takes care of the day-to-day business -- it's obvious he still loves the giant killer whales that play just down the river as much as the day he started in the industry.
Q: Why is Vancouver better for whale watching than Seattle, somewhere in the Atlantic or any other region in the world, for that matter?
Cedric Towers: Seattle is a little far removed from the orcas we look at, but whale watching all over the world is pretty good. We like to think our whale watching is unique. It’s a growing industry, and people don’t just watch whales in one location. East Coast, U.S., Europe, Australia, whatever. People like to get out on the water and experience different marine mammals and wild life.
Q: What is unique about the water off Vancouver, then?
CT: We happen to live very close to the Fraser River. … The orcas that we look at live in this area because they live on salmon. We have up to 90 whales that we are looking at. I suppose that is very unique, that we have a population of whales that really do frequent the area.
Q: In 12 years of running tours, is there a record for number of whale sightings in one trip?
CT: We’re constantly hearing, “That was one of the best trips ever.” We’ve just had a run with 71 days with orcas in a row. Whale watching is never 100 per cent, but that’s a pretty good record. For sightings … we can look at up to 90 whales in one trip. We call that a “super pod.” That isn’t to say a trip with only 10 whales that breach isn’t more exciting. Each trip is unique.
Q: People expect to see a whale, some natural beauty and maybe some other wildlife. Is there any aspect of a tour that might surprise someone?
CT: Well, I think people don’t have a really good idea of commercial fishing fleets. Some have never seen commercial vessels on the water. I would say everybody, when they get on a boat, sees something different. Sometimes they have never been on the ocean, and this is their first experience. Their experiences are all different. For them, it could be the beauty of the whales, the eagles, the seals. Various times of year we see an awful lot of sea lions. They are just impressed. It’s really an experience.
Q: What’s more beautiful: The site of a killer whale or the natural beauty of the San Juan Islands?
CT: Ummm, you know, at various times I would say both.
Q: But we’re putting you on the spot.
CT: I would have to say the whale’s, definitely. Orcas are just fantastic, especially when you see them in the wild. They are mammals, they are inquisitive, they are doing their thing. They are feeding or resting, chasing salmon. They are very playful.
Q: How about between sea lions or whales?
CT: Definitely whales. Sea lions are neat. But whales are neater.
Q: So, what got you into this business?
CT: I’d always been interested in whales. And I suddenly realized it’s a nice blend of boating and, you know, looking at marine mammals. Also, introducing people to whales, that’s what really got me excited.
Q: Any plans for the future? Expansion, new tricks, or will you just let the whales do the talking, so to speak.
CT: Pretty much stay where we are. [Whale watching tours are] not a fantastic way to make money. Money comes in the door, then goes out the door. Boats are notorious for making you sink a lot of money into them. It’s not a great get-rich scheme, so you have to do it because you love all the aspects of it.
Q: One chance for a sales pitch: What’s the most unique part of taking a tour with Vancouver Whale Watch?
CT: I think we are dedicated. All of my staff are extremely dedicated, from introducing people to whale watching on the phone to actually conducting the tours. We pride ourselves on having the best equipment and finding a staff with the most enthusiasm as possible. That’s what we pride ourselves on.
Q: No direct line to the whales?
CT: I wish. I think they do like our boats. All our boats are jet driven, so they are really safe.