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10 Things to KNOW about Whale Watching on Vancouver Island

10 Things to KNOW about Whale Watching on Vancouver Island

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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.

Whenever we have the opportunity to go whale watching, we always jump at the chance! There’s something so special about these creatures.

In this blog, we’ll give you the 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 without further ado, let’s dive in!

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 you, they’re frequent visitors to these waters, making sightings possible throughout most of the year.

When you do come across humpback whales, you’ll notice that they love to stay near the surface of the water, only diving below for short periods of time. They move at a leisurely pace of 5-14 km/h (3-9 mph), although they can put on a burst of speed of up to 26 km/h (16 mph) when they need to!

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!

Predators of the sea, they are second only to the common dolphin in terms of their speed. Shooting through the water like darts, orcas can achieve an impressive 56 km/h (35 mph) and get their name from the sheer range of prey they hunt, including salmon, seals, and even other whales.

Orcas are also known for frequently breaching the surface, usually every 1-5 minutes, depending on their travel speed, though they can dive for up to 15 minutes.

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.

These stunning whales grow to be 25 – 30 feet (8 – 9 meters) long and weigh 11,900 – 15,000 lbs (5,400 – 6,800 kg). Despite being shy, they’re known for being quite noisy, and able to make sounds as loud as 152 decibels (that’s louder than a rock concert!).

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. Gray whales can also grow to be quite large, at around 49 feet (15 meters) long and 90,000 lbs (40,800 kg).

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, 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 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 area that’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!

Half-day catamaran from Victoria

Embark on this half-day whale watching tour aboard a catamaran for a comfortable and enjoyable ride across the Salish Sea!

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! We also had an amazing time taking photos of seals and sea lions sunbathing on the rocks, as well as a few birds of prey trying their hands (or wings?) at fishing. The catamaran is also very comfortable, with two bathrooms on board plus multiple viewing decks.

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. All in all, the entire tour lasts around 5 hours, but don’t forget to check in at the meeting spot 30 minutes before departure!

Tickets for this tour cost $199 CAD for adults, $166 CAD for youths aged 13–17 years, $133 CAD for children aged 2-12, and $22 CAD for infants. As part of your ticket, you’ll have a lifetime 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.

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.

One of our favorite parts about this tour was that there were multiple departure times, allowing for flexibility around our schedule.

It’s a great option for guests over 7 years old, costing $204 CAD in the peak season between May and October. This price does drop to $194 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.

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. This tour also makes for a romantic evening if you’re honeymooning in Vancouver or celebrating a special occasion.

At the end of the day (pun intended), this really is one of the best tours in Victoria, perfect for anyone with a passion for seeing whales. I’ve always found the most success seeing whales when I go either in the very early hours or in the evening, making it a great option 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.

We had a blast chatting with the knowledgeable guides onboard, who really were excited to talk about the whales and their conservation. It really was wonderful learning just how big of a part they play in balancing out the marine ecosystem.

The tour departs at 6 pm and costs $180 CAD for adults, and $155 CAD for youth between 13 and 17. Children 2-12 years old cost $133 CAD and $22.25 CAD for infants under 1 who sit on your lap. 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 view 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-Hour tour from Campbell River

We had an amazing time exploring Desolation Sound and the Salish Sea on this 4-hour morning whale watching tour from Campbell River. This 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 blast 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.

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 to 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 $184 CAD per person, with all safety equipment included in the price. You can book your tickets online in advance here.

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.

There’s also a cool research component to this tour with all the data on whales spotted during these tours sent to research and conservation organizations.

Tickets for this tour start from $233 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

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 $149 CAD per adult, $139 CAD for seniors, students, and youths (13-18), as well as $109 CAD for children aged 12 and under. 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.

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 grey 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 $149 CAD per adult, $139 CAD for seniors, students, and youths (13-18), as well as $109 CAD for children aged 12 and under. 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!

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, read our complete Viator review to learn more about what we think about Viator.

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.

Related Read: If you love eco-friendly travel activities as much as we do, check out horseback riding in Pemberton, BC.

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 whale watching in 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-$250 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 another amazing natural spot to explore while you’re here, why not check out Cathedral Grove, an area full of colossal trees.

Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!

We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!

SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.

They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.  

We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!

Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)

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 which 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