Whale watching in Vancouver

Having loved whales and dolphins since childhood, whale watching in Canada was a ‘must-do’ for me. There was no way I could pass through Vancouver without going whale watching so, having identified ‘whale season’ (May to October), I planned my trip and started to get excited.

As a teenager I used to ‘adopt’ orcas through whale and dolphin charities, and over the years have often supported conservation efforts for whales, sharks and other marine wildlife, with my support for educating people about protecting these creatures only increasing during my years working as a dive instructor. As my trip to Canada approached, seeing these gentle giants up close in their natural habitat was an experience I was really looking forward to.

How to choose your whale watching tour group

Several operators offer whale watching tours from Vancouver, many involve a bus ride out of town in order to go see the whales, presumably because it’s quicker than spending the same time on the water. I chose to go with an operator based on Granville Island as the departure from nearer the downtown area meant more time on the sea observing marine wildlife, and it also provided the opportunity to see English Harbour and the city from the water. I also chose them based on their ‘sighting guarantee’ – namely that if we didn’t see any whales, I could go again for free.

Orca, Killer Whale, Vancouver, Canada

Getting ready to go whale watching

Having arrived at the shop and registered, I was given a thermal suit to wear. I struggled into the thing gratefully because I hate being cold and I know all too well that a day spent exposed to the elements at sea can leave you feeling extremely cold, especially if you get wet. We then filed through the tourists on Granville Island, probably looking like a neon orange version of Ghostbusters, and made our way to the boats.

The adventure begins. As we set off around Granville Island it was lovely to see the little ferry boats plying the waters, to get a unique perspective as we passed under the Burrard Street Bridge, and take in the views along Sunset Beach Park’s waterfront. As we ventured out into English Harbour and picked up speed the ride (in our open-top RIB) got a little bumpier and our adventure began.

We ventured across the Salish Sea and south, weaving through the scattered islands as we went. The whale watching operators share location information, but until a team has spotted a whale or pod of whales, the boats have to search for them. As we cruised around hopefully, our onboard naturalist pointed out other interesting marine wildlife that we happened upon such as harbour seals and eagles. Then we received information about a pod of whales by Victoria, on Vancouver Island. The whales were a long way south, and were heading further south. We abandoned the seals and headed that way quickly.

Harbour seals watching us watch the orcas, Vancouver, Canada

The sight of several other whale watching vessels bobbing on the open sea between the US mainland and Victoria confirmed we were in the right place and we watched and we waited.

Watching whales!

The first we knew of the presence of the whales was when two large males broke the surface, exhaling deeply sending a burst of spray high into the air. The exhalation of a large orca whale as it breaks the surface is quite something. By the time the rest of the group of seven orcas broke the surface our boat had tilted to one side as everyone rushed across to photograph the orcas.

Orcas approach whale watching boats, Vancouver, Canada

Boats are required to stay a set distance from the whales in order to avoid interfering with their natural behaviour but there is nothing to stop the whales approaching the boats. The group of whale watching boats formed a large and respectful circle a good distance from the whales, ensuring every boat had a front row view of the magnificent creatures. While I fully support giving the animals space, and we all had clear vision, I was glad to have taken my long lens!

We bobbed on the surface, everyone keeping an excited eye on the horizon, watching out for a sign of the next sighting. After a couple of minutes a few of the whales popped up again to take a few breaths and continue their journey.

Orca and whale watching boat, Vancouver, Canada

Learning about the whales

Whale watchers happily settled into a pattern of manic Kodak-moments interrupted by periods of watching the horizon with nervous excitement. A few jokers in the crowd enjoyed shouting “Whale” when there was none in sight. It was such a privilege to be able to visit the whales in their natural environment and learn about them from the local naturalists that have observed these whales for years. It was fascinating to learn about these individuals, their behaviour and their history. Charts were available onboard to help identify the whales, and provided information about their age, relatives and family groups.

Orca identification charts, Vancouver, Canada

During one quiet moment of anticipation the whales suddenly resurfaced just off the bow of our boat. They must have only been about 30 metres in front of me and I took photos as they glided past, appearing to secretly enjoy their cheeky ambush.

Orcas seen while whale watching in Vancouver, Canada

After sharing just over an hour with the pod of orcas, we started our return to Vancouver. Our crew took us back via some beautiful channels between islands and we were able to peek at a few holiday homes tucked away in the striking landscape, and see some more wildlife.

We returned to downtown Vancouver with hundreds of photos of the whales, looking windswept and smiling, and feeling really lucky to have seen not just one but seven orcas. What an experience!

Whale watching essential information

  • Book with an operator that offers guaranteed sightings, so that if you don’t see whales, you can go again for free.
  • Plan your outfit so that you will be comfortable for up to eight hours on the water. That means layered clothing in case it is hot or cold, flat shoes, and probably a hat. You should also wear sun cream since you’ll be outside for up to eight hours without shade.
  • Take some snacks or a packed lunch with you, as it may not be possible to buy food onboard (check with your tour operator).
  • If you will be charged roaming services for using your phone outside Canada, turn data roaming off before boarding the boat, as it is possible to pick up US phone signals off the south west coast of Canada (prime whale watching territory!)

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