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Whale Watching on Vancouver Island: 10 Things to KNOW Before You Go!

Whale Watching on Vancouver Island: 10 Things to KNOW Before You Go!

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The beautiful blue waters surrounding Vancouver Island are full to the brim with all kinds of incredible marine life! From the young orcas who patrol the waters practicing their hunting skills to the humpback whales feasting in the nutrient-rich ecosystem, going whale watching here is truly one of the most amazing things to do on Vancouver Island.

After hanging out on Qualicum Beach and seeing giant trees in Cathedral Grove, no trip to Vancouver Island would be complete without a whale watching tour! There’s something so special about these creatures.

In this blog, we want to give you the full low-down on all things whale watching near Vancouver Island, including the best time to go, the top spots to visit, as well as the most jaw-dropping whale watching tours on offer. So let’s dive in!

Don’t have time to read the full article? Seeing whales here on Vancouver Island was one of the most memorable moments of our trip – we know you’ll love it too! We went on this sunset whale watching tour and had the most amazing time. It’s also perfect if you’re honeymooning in Vancouver or celebrating a special occasion!

1. About whales near Vancouver Island

An orca swims through the water off the coast of British Columbia
An Orca!

There’s a lot to learn about the remarkable world of whales – that’s part of what makes the whale watching experience so incredible! When embarking on a whale watching tour on Vancouver Island, you are likely to encounter two species in particular: the orca and the humpback whale.

However, there are two other species of whale that you may chance upon as well, the gray whale and the minke whale. These two species are slightly more elusive than their popular cousins – however, they are by no means less impressive to see!

Humpback whales

Humpback whales are the ones to keep an eye out for if you want to catch a glimpse of the biggest whales in the area! These majestic creatures can grow up to an impressive 52 feet (16 meters) and weigh as much as 66,000 lbs (30,000 kg)! Lucky for us, they’re frequent visitors to these waters, making sightings possible throughout most of the year.

These friendly giants usually travel in small pods of 2-15 whales, making for an even more magical sighting experience.

Orcas (Killer whales)

Orcas are not actually whales at all, but are instead the largest member of the dolphin family! These incredible black-and-white creatures are world-famous for their distinctive appearance, traveling and hunting in large pods of up to 30 members.

Orcas near Vancouver Island grow up to 20-26 feet (6-8 meters) long and weigh around 6,600 – 8,800 lbs (3,000 – 4,000 kg). That’s the same weight as two average-sized cars!

Minke whales

Minke whales are one of the smaller and shyer species of whales to be found in the area, which makes it extra special when you manage to catch a glimpse of one! At first glance, it’s easy to confuse a minke whale with a baby humpback whale, as they have remarkably similar features. However, you can tell if it is a minke whale thanks to the white band on each flipper and their distinctive triangular snout.

Gray whales

Similar to minke whales, gray whales are quite a reclusive species, spending much of their time searching for food on the sea floor. As part of their yearly great migration, gray whales pass by the western coast of Vancouver Island on their way to their summer feeding grounds. This is the best location to see them, as they also return the same way come the fall.

Gray whales are quite distinctive, although not quite as eye-catching as killer whales! You can spot them thanks to their mottled gray body, which almost looks like little polka dots.

2. When is the best time to go whale watching on Vancouver Island? 

Wide angle of a whale watching boat in British Columbia, Canada
The boats!

You’ll have the best luck seeing whales if you go in the warmer months, between late April and October. This is when you’ll find whales passing through or sticking around to eat and breed. It’s very common to spot one or more species of whale within a short period of time – making whale watching here a very memorable experience!

During our last trip whale watching here when we spent 10 days on Vancouver Island, we had absolutely zero trouble finding them! It’s as if the tour guides have a second sense when it comes to sniffing out where the whales are, but if you’re visiting during the right time of year you shouldn’t have any issues at all.

In fact, many tour operators are so confident that you’ll see whales that they offer a whale-spotting guarantee, meaning that in the unlikely event, you don’t spot any whales, you’ll get to go back on a tour again for free!

Whales also tend to be active at all hours of the day, so it doesn’t matter if you go on a morning or afternoon trip – just keep an eye out for the weather, as afternoon trips do tend to be a bit windier!

3. Where are the best places to go whale watching on Vancouver Island?

Orcas swim through the water on a whale watching tour in Tofino
This was so cool to see!

By far the most popular place to take a whale watching tour from on Vancouver Island is Victoria. That’s a little surprise, as there are so many fun things to do in Victoria! There’s a wide variety of whale watching tours in Victoria that you can take here, from half-day catamaran tours to picturesque sunset tours.

There are, however, plenty of other places you can take a whale watching tour from if you fancy heading outside of Victoria. In fact, the town of Tofino is another pretty popular destination on Vancouver Island and it’s well-known for its awesome whale watching tours. It’s about a 4-hour drive from Victoria to Tofino, making it perfect for a scenic road trip.

Other great places where you can go whale watching include Ucluelet, Campbell River, Salt Spring Island, Parksville, and Nanaimo.

Related Read: If you’re heading back to the mainland and can’t get enough of the sea, why not check out the best beaches in Vancouver!?

4. What are the best whale watching tours on Vancouver Island?

A pod of Orca swim off the costa of British Columbia, Canada
Seeing the pods with babies is the best!

Going whale watching on Vancouver Island is easily one of the most popular activities here, so you can bet that there are also lots of tours available. We’ve done our research (literally!) by trialing these out for ourselves to find 8 of the very best.

1) Half-day catamaran from Victoria

With 4 hours to sit back, relax, and take in the scenic views, this half-day whale watching tour aboard a catamaran is a real treat!

When we first went on the tour, we weren’t sure if we would see any whales at all, but those fears were quickly put aside when we had our first sighting shortly after we set off! From there, we saw a playful pod of orcas, as well as two stunning humpback whales.

Along the way, the guides told us some incredible stories about previous encounters with whales, as well as a bunch of interesting facts about their behavior and habits. As you cruise along, you’ll pass by the beautiful Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, and whales aren’t the only wildlife you’ll see!

Another great part about this tour is that it includes photos of all the whales you see along the way, which are included for free in your ticket. This way, you can put away your phones and simply enjoy the moment – seeing whales gracefully cutting through the water is a very special experience, after all.

Running from April to the first week of November, you have the option to choose between a morning or afternoon tour.

Tickets for this tour start from $200 CAD per person, and as part of your ticket, you’ll have a whale watching guarantee, which means if you don’t see whales on your tour, you can take another tour completely for free until you do!

For an incredible glimpse into the world of whales, select your date and book your ticket here.

2) Whale watching on a zodiac boat from Victoria

This 3-hour zodiac tour is the perfect way to get up close and personal with the whales! As zodiac boats are smaller crafts and sit lower down in the water, you’ll be closer to the water and therefore closer to the whales too!

These boats seat a maximum of 12 people, so you’re not lost in a big crowd, and you really do feel that you’re closer to the action.

Our guide and captain, Mark, was great at giving us tons of info on this tour about where we were going and pointing out animals along the way. We were lucky enough to see both orcas and humpbacks, along with seals and sea lions!

Zodiac boats are open-aired, so you’ll be supplied with all-weather exposure flotation suits to wear on top of your clothes. Along with a hat and gloves, you’ll be feeling dry and toasty no matter the weather! To help you stay as warm as possible, we also recommend bringing along some warm shoes to avoid a chill.

It’s a great option for guests over 7 years old, costing $215 CAD in the peak season between May and October. This price does drop to $204 CAD in the off-season, and you’ll also have a lifetime whale watching guarantee included as part of your ticket.

To learn more about this whale watching experience, you can check availability and book your slot here.

3) Sunset whale watching tour from Victoria

What’s more beautiful than seeing a sunset? Seeing a sunset AND whales! This sunset whale watching cruise makes for the perfect end to any day, as you enjoy amazing views of Victoria’s harbor with equally incredible animal encounters.

We’ve always had the most success seeing whales when we go either in the very early hours or in the evening, making this one of the best tours in Victoria for those who aren’t so fond of getting up at the crack of dawn.

Included in your ticket for this tour is a lifetime whale watching guarantee, so in the (very) unlikely event you don’t spot some, you can do another tour for free from either their Victoria, Telegraph Cove, or Vancouver locations until you do.

The tour departs at 6 pm, lasts 4 hours, and costs $199 CAD per person. You’ll also be happy to know that pictures are included in the price of the ticket, letting you sit back, relax, and enjoy this incredible experience! You can book your tickets for the sunset whale watching tour here.

Related Read: If you can’t get enough of being on the water during that golden light of sunset, we absolutely loved this sunset dinner cruise in Vancouver!

4) 4-Hour tour from Campbell River

If you’re more of an early bird, then this next tour is for you!

We had a blast exploring Desolation Sound and the Salish Sea on this 4-hour morning whale watching tour from Campbell River. This tour is a smaller and more personalized group experience, with participants capped at 10 people.

You’ll meet at 8 am to hop aboard a zodiac boat, where your friendly and knowledgeable guide will take you to the very best spots for seeing these majestic creatures. We had a fantastic time with our tour guide, Paul, who also provided us with safety gear as well as complimentary snacks and beverages along the way!

Tickets for this experience cost $225 CAD and can be booked online here with free 24-hour cancellation.

5) Half-day whale and wildlife tour from Parksville

Located on the eastern side of Vancouver Island, Parksville is full of fun things to do and really is a paradise for nature enthusiasts and those who love spending time in the great outdoors.

This Parksville half-day whale watching tour takes you to the secluded waters in the northern part of the Salish Sea. Between May and October, it’s the perfect place to see Pacific gray whales on their annual migration!

Over the course of four hours, your friendly tour guide will help you spot whales and other amazing marine wildlife.

The tour is capped at 12 people, so it’s also quite a personal experience too. We recommend bringing some snacks along for the ride, as seeing all of these incredible creatures is hungry work!

The tour costs $201 CAD per person, with all safety equipment included in the price. You can book your tickets online in advance here.

Related Read: If you’re wondering how to get to Parksville, check out our road trip route from Victoria to Parksville for all the best stops!

6) Whale watching on a semi-covered boat from Nanaimo

The coastal town of Nanaimo may sound familiar if you’ve tried a Nanaimo bar, a popular Canadian desert, but this town also has so much more to offer! Located about 30 minutes from Parksville, Nanaimo is also a fantastic spot to go whale watching on Vancouver Island.

One of our favorite things to do in Nanaimo is to go whale spotting, and we really enjoyed this tour on a semi-covered boat the last time that we visited! You’ll have a marine naturalist guide aboard with you, who will be happy to answer any questions you may have along the way.

What’s really nice is that the captain of the boat is constantly in radio communication with other whale watching tours to plan the best route. Once you’re out on the water, you have an entire hour to watch for whales and other creatures.

The great part about this particular boat is that even if it rains, you’ll be protected and still have impeccable views of the water around you. There are also toilets aboard as well as binoculars available to get a great view of whales that are a little further away.

Tickets for this tour start from $239 CAD per person and can be booked online here.

Boats look on as a pod of orca swim in the coastal waters of British Columbia near Victoria and Vancouver

7) 3-Hour whale watching tour from Ucluelet

Nestled on the western side of Vancouver Island, you’ll find the picturesque town of Ucluelet. While you may not have heard of Ucluelet before, it is quite the popular town for those who love to surf, fish, kayak, and go whale watching!

As part of this 3-hour whale watching tour from Jamie’s Whaling Station, you’ll have the option of heading aboard a speedy zodiac boat or a comfortable 12-passenger cabin cruiser in search of gray whales, humpback whales, and much more.

This company has a 95% success rate of whale sightings during the tour, so you’re more than likely to see some! But if you don’t, you can return again on a different day for free.

Tickets for either the zodiac tour or the cabin cruiser cost $159 CAD per adult. During peak season, tours tend to fill up quickly, so we recommend checking the schedule and booking in advance through their website. Tours typically depart several times daily, seven days a week.

8) Whale Watching Tour from Tofino

Operated by the same amazing company that offers whale watching tours from Ucluelet, this whale watching tour from Tofino gives an amazing glimpse into the wonderful world of Vancouver Island’s marine life.

Across three hours, you’ll have a very high chance of seeing gray whales, orcas, and humpback whales with gray whales being the most common. You’ll also likely spot sea lions, sea otters, seals, eagles, and much more! Included in your ticket is a Raincheck Guarantee, which means that if you don’t happen to spot any whales, you’ll be given a free ticket to join on another tour.

Tours from Tofino are typically on the largest boat that Jamie’s Whaling Station owns. You’ll be nice and comfy with indoor and outdoor seating options and lots of viewing room from the decks.

Tickets for this tour cost $159 CAD per adult, and you can book your tour via their website here.

Related Read: If you’re traveling over from Vancouver, then you may find our guide on how to get from Vancouver to Tofino useful! And make sure to book a great place to stay in Tofino too.

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here! Or, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

5. Are whale watching tours from Vancouver Island eco-friendly?

Pod of Orca swim through the water near Vancouver

Whale watching truly is one of the most ethical and sustainable ways you can see these majestic creatures up close. You’ll find many tours that will discuss the importance of whale conservation, as well as organizations that are set up to help protect the whales.

Some tours even include a small conservation fee that goes directly to organizations for research and educational programs to protect marine wildlife.

The tour organizers we have included on our list keep whale welfare at the forefront of all that they do, giving the whales plenty of space to not disturb them. There are guidelines that the tours follow to not get closer than 100 meters (328 feet) to all whales and no closer than 200 meters (656 feet) to orcas/killer whales.

6. Can you see other wildlife on whale watching tours from Vancouver Island?

Seals on a floating light out at sea in British Columbia while on a whale watching tour

Absolutely! The waters around Vancouver Island are full to the brim with all kinds of wildlife.

On the rocky cliffs, you’re likely to spot seals and even sea otters enjoying the heat of the sun. Below the surface of the water, you may even see the beautiful Pacific white-sided dolphins.

The last time we visited Vancouver Island, we were greeted by a whole host of amazing wildlife, including a pair of incredible bald eagles! If you visit between December and April, you’ll likely also find sea lions enjoying their time in the waters of the bay.

7. Who are whale watching tours suitable for?

Whale watching tours are fun for the whole family! Whether you have little ones who get really excited at the thought of a magical tour or a partner who gets just as excited, it really is good fun for everyone. When we’ve been on tours, there’s been family groups, couples, solo travelers, and more.

It’s a great educational experience, especially for children who are just learning about the amazing wildlife out there and the ways we can help protect them.

Many tours aim to provide as much comfort as possible, often taking place aboard catamaran boats with indoor heating and outdoor seating areas. However, it is worth noting that not all boats are wheelchair accessible, so it’s important to check this with your tour group beforehand if required.

8. What should you wear/bring to whale watching on Vancouver Island?

A lone orca swims through the water between Vancouver and Vancouver Island

The best time to see whales is the summer months between May and October, but don’t be fooled – it can still get quite cold when you’re out at sea! We recommend layering up in some warm clothes that you can take off if you need to. It’s also a good idea to bring a poncho or raincoat, just in case it rains.

As most whale watching tours are 3+ hours long, it’s a good idea to bring plenty of snacks and water with you in a bag or backpack. Some tour groups do provide complimentary tea and coffee aboard as well, which can help warm you up when it gets chilly.

9. How much do whale watching tours in Vancouver Island cost?

Most whale watching tours in Vancouver Island cost between $150-$300 CAD. This can depend on a few factors, such as whether you are going in the peak season (April – October), as well as the type of boat you take. Larger boats can work out a bit cheaper, although there will be more people on board.

We can’t stress enough just how special going on a whale watching tour is, and the area around Vancouver Island really is one of the best places to do it!

10. Are whale watching tours in Vancouver Island worth it?

Pod of small orca swim in the distance on a tour from Victoria, BC

Of course! Vancouver Island is known for its amazing wildlife and natural parks, so it’s little wonder that whale watching tours here are incredible.

Alongside all of the amazing animals you’ll see, the scenery is also fantastic, with so many cool nooks and coves around every corner. Seriously – take our word for it when we say “go for it!”

Related Read: If you’re looking for another amazing natural spot to explore while you’re here, why not check out Cathedral Grove, an area full of colossal trees.

How to Get to Vancouver Island

Bailey enjoys a coffee on the outside deck of a BC Ferry to Vancouver Island
It’s like a scenic cruise!

Before you go whale watching, you need to get to the island! There really are a ton of ways to visit Vancouver Island, ranging from a budget-friendly ferry ride to soaring through the skies on a seaplane! Here are a few of our favorite methods to get to the island:

  • Rent a car (Ferry) – There’s nothing quite like the freedom of driving wherever you want to go – if you’re planning the ultimate Vancouver Island road trip, having a car makes it so much easier! One of our favorite places to grab a rental in Vancouver is Discover Cars, as their prices are fair and there are a ton of options on offer too. If you’re traveling in the peak season (May – September), we’d suggest booking quite a bit in advance to have the best choice.

    Once you’ve secured your rental, all you need to do is hop over on the ferry directly to Vancouver Island, which takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for whales on the journey across! You can check the ferry schedule and book your trip in advance here, with tickets costing around $18 CAD per person and $50-$100 CAD per vehicle, depending on its height and length.
  • Take a coach (Ferry) – If you’re not too worried about driving yourself across, or wish to sort out transport when you arrive at the island, then another option is to book a seat on a coach heading to Vancouver Island. We’d say this Vancouver to Victoria Coach Bus Transfer is best if you have a little more time to get to the island, with a one-way trip taking about 4 hours.

    The fare for this transfer is $99 CAD per person, with 1 suitcase (max 50 lbs / 22.6 kg) and 1 carry-on bag per person. You can secure your seat online here.
  • Catch a seaplane – The fastest way to travel to the island is to fly by seaplane, and it’s also our favorite method too! This seaplane flight to Victoria from Vancouver offers some of the most incredible views of the island and the Salish Sea – it really is the perfect introduction to the island, and we were in such a great mood after the 35-minute flight. In fact, taking a seaplane trip from Vancouver will likely end up being one of the highlights of your trip too!

    Taking off and landing in the harbor, there’s no time spent sitting around like at traditional airports. As soon as you arrive you’ll be free to explore Victoria and carry on your adventure from there. There are multiple departure times hourly from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm, with tickets costing $279 CAD per adult and $160 CAD per child (2-11).

    Tickets for these flights do sell out pretty quickly, so don’t forget to check your dates and book your slot online.
  • Take a tour – If you’ve only got a day or two to explore Vancouver Island, then taking a guided tour is the best way to fit in some of the best activities with zero stress! With all of your transport, accommodation, and entrance fees arranged for you, you’re free to enjoy your time on this incredible island.

    One of our favorite full-day tours is this Victoria and Butchart Gardens tour from Vancouver, which starts with a 90-minute ferry ride through the stunning Gulf Islands. Once you’ve arrived, it’s time to visit the wonderful Butchart Gardens, which really are some of the best gardens in the world! Pair this visit with a stop by historic Victoria, and you’re onto a real winner of a day.

    At $265 CAD per person, we think this is an amazing introduction to the island – you’ll definitely be checking your calendar to work out when you can come here again! You can secure your spot on this tour here.

Renting a Car in British Columbia

A rural road with Mt Currie in the background
Road trips are the best way to explore Canada!

If you’re arriving in British Columbia via plane, then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. British Columbia is a large province, and traveling between the best places to visit in BC requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions, this means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.

Car rental in Canada isn’t relatively cheap, but it’s not that expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pick-up and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though, depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Discover Cars. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used Discover Cars all over the world, including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.

Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic, you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey and Daniel pose for a photo at the Spirit Viewing Platform on the Sea to Sky Gondola
Thanks for reading!

We hope you’ve found this blog useful when planning your whale watching tour around Vancouver Island! There are lots of different tour options whether you’re staying in Victoria or traveling to a different part of the island. Seeing these majestic creatures is absolutely amazing, so you won’t regret it!

If you need more tips and ideas as you plan your trip here, be sure to have a look at my other blogs about Vancouver Island. Here are three other handy blogs that may be useful for your trip:

How to Get from Vancouver to Victoria

50 BEST Things to do in Vancouver

12 Things to KNOW About Visiting the Malahat Skywalk, Vancouver Island