Victoria and Vancouver Island Feature
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The thrill of seeing whales in the wild is, for many, one of the most enduring memories of a trip to Victoria. In summer (roughly April to October), about 85 orca, or killer whales (they're actually large dolphins, but that makes them no less exciting to see), reside in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Victoria. They live in pods, and because their movements are fairly predictable, chances are high that you will see a pod on any given trip. Some operators claim sighting rates of 90 percent; others offer guaranteed sightings, meaning that you can repeat the tour free of charge until you spot a whale.
It's not unheard of to see whales from a BC Ferry en route to Victoria—but the ferries don't alter their routes to take advantage of whale-watching, so your best bet is to take a dedicated tour. A number of companies leave from Victoria's Inner Harbour, a few are based in Richmond (near Vancouver), and others leave from Sidney and Sooke, outside of Victoria.
Not all tours are alike, and the kind of boat you choose determines the kind of experience you're likely to have—though most companies have naturalists on board as guides, as well as hydrophones that, if you get close enough, allow you to listen to the whales singing and vocalizing.
Motor launches, which carry from 30 to more than 80 passengers, are comfortable, with washrooms, protection from the elements, and even snack-and-drink concessions. Seasickness isn't usually a problem in the sheltered waters near Victoria, but if you're not a good sailor, it's wise to wear a seasickness band or take antinausea medication. Ginger candy often works, too.
Zodiacs are open inflatable boats that carry about 12 passengers. They are smaller and more agile than cruisers and offer both an exciting ride bouncing over the waves and an eye-level view of the whales. Passengers are supplied with warm, waterproof survival suits. Zodiac tours are not recommended for people with back or neck problems, pregnant women, or small children.
Note that the kind of boat you choose does not affect how close you can get to the whales. For the safety of whales and humans, government and industry regulations require boats to stay at least 100 meters (328 feet) from the pods, though closer encounters are possible if whales approach a boat when its engine is off.
And, although the focus is on whales, you also have a good chance of spotting marine birds, Dall's porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and minke, gray, and humpback whales as well as other marine life. And, naturally, there's the scenery of forested islands and distant mountains.
There are dozens of whale-watching operators in the area. We've listed some of the more established:
Great Pacific Adventures. This company offers year-round tours with both Zodiacs and covered vessels. Boats are equipped with hydrophones and all guides are marine biologists. In summer a three-hour tour starts at C$99. 1000 Wharf St., Victoria, BC, V8W 1T4. 250/386–2277 or 877/733–6722. www.greatpacificadventures.com.
Ocean Explorations. With qualified naturalists as guides, Ocean Explorations conducts three-hour whale-watching trips in summer and two-hour marine tours in winter—all on hydrophone-equipped Zodiacs. Summer trips start at C$99. 602 Broughton St., Victoria, BC, V8V 4Y9. 250/383–6722 or 888/442–6722. www.oceanexplorations.com.
Prince of Whales. Victoria's biggest whale-watching company offers three-hour tours from Victoria staffed by naturalists. Rates for open-air Zodiacs start at C$100. Another option, and one worth planning a trip around, is an Ocean Magic cruise that combines four hours of whale-watching with a visit to Butchart Gardens. Staffed with naturalists, the 74-passenger cruiser leaves downtown Vancouver daily at 9 am between June and early September, arriving in Victoria's Inner Harbour in time for lunch; it heads back to Vancouver at 5:30. Fares for this day-long excursion are C$275. 888/383–4884. www.princeofwhales.com.
Springtide Whale Tours & Charters. Using marine biologists as guides, this company runs tours on Zodiacs and on 61-foot motor yachts. Summer tours are three hours long, and the boats are equipped with hydrophones. Rates are C$99. 1119 Wharf St., Victoria, BC, V8W 1T7. 250/384–4444 or 800/470–3474. www.VictoriaWhaleWatching.com.
Vancouver Island has two other whale-watching hot spots. Johnstone Strait, off Telegraph Cove on the island's northeast coast, has one of the world's largest populations of orca in summer and is an important center for whale research. Tofino and Ucluelet, on the island's west coast, draw whale-watchers every March and April when an estimated 20,000 Pacific gray whales cruise by on their annual migration.
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