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What to Expect From A Vancouver Whale Watching Trip

Watching whales in their own habitat is a dream for many wildlife enthusiasts – and the coast of British Columbia is a great place to head out in search of whales. A once-in-a-lifetime for many (although chances are you’ll want to do it again), whales are large yet elusive, hidden in the depths of the earth’s oceans. Seeing a humpback with my own eyes is a truly unforgettable travel memory that I can’t stop telling people about.

In this guide, I’ll share my experience of a whale watching tour in Vancouver, and share tips on how to choose your tour, how much it costs, and what to take with you.

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What to Expect from a whale watching tour in Vancouver

We booked our Vancouver whale watching trip with Wild Whales Vancouver, who had great online reviews. Most importantly, though, they’re dedicated to marine conservation, educating guests as well as funding and contributing to various conservation and research projects.

Our original tour was actually booked for the first Sunday of our Vancouver visit, however, due to high winds at sea, we had to reschedule to later in the week. Whale watching tours are dependent on weather conditions, and Wild Whales Vancouver don’t take any payment upfront – so if your tour is cancelled, you won’t be charged and you’re free to rebook for another date.

The morning tour we chose departs at 9pm, and we arrived super early at 8.15. Once we’d checked in, we were free to come back at 8.45 for a briefing – so we quickly popped over to Granville Public Market and picked up some breakfast pastries as we hadn’t grabbed any food for the trip itself.

Back at the Wild Whales office, our naturalist guide, Martha, introduced herself to the group before getting us all into our flotation suits – basically, full body life jackets – and taking us to the boat.

We’d chosen the 12-seater Zodiac boat specifically for a more intimate, small group experience that felt more adventurous. We were introduced to Captain Laura, shown where the toilet is (yep, there’s a toilet on board!) and quickly made our departure to seek out some wildlife.

The journey on the Zodiac was an experience in itself; zipping across the water as the Vancouver skyline faded behind us. We headed north into the Strait of Georgia, passing the mouth of Howe Sound, which leads all the way to Squamish, the peaks of British Columbia towering in the distance. Moving at speed, the ride was exhilarating but drier than I was expecting.

Whale watching is a patience game, and companies in the area all work together sharing information on where whales are on the day of the tour. During our boat ride, Martha encouraged us all to be extra pairs of eyes, scanning the horizon for potential fins or tails popping out of the water. A few moments of excitement turned out to be ‘wooden whales’ – driftwood bobbing along the surface, easily mistaken in a glimpse for the elusive whales.

We spent a fair amount of time exploring the waters before the call came, although Martha’s commentary and wealth of information on marine life in the area made it feel like little time at all. We joined up with a larger boat from another company, and eagerly watched the water…

Eventually, a spurt of mist burst from the sea, followed by our first sighting of a whale fin! Martha explained that we were watching a humpback, and we saw the small fin and top of its body poke out of the water a couple of times, before finally seeing its recognisable tail breach out of the water as the humpback took a dive again.

Usually, humpbacks will come up to the surface to breathe a couple of times, before breaching and diving under again. We followed the humpback for a time, watching the pattern repeat, the whole boat quiet with anticipation and awe as we waited for her to return to the surface. Although at a distance, our binoculars allowed for a much closer look – although I probably could have done with a better camera and a zoom lens, as the pictures I took don’t do the experience justice.

After 30-40 minutes of watching the humpback, we let her continue her journey through the waters, and began to make the trip back towards Vancouver. On the way, we stopped off to check out some sea lions basking in the sunshine, and I also had a blink-of-an-eye moment spotting a porpoise darting alongside our boat. Alongside the whale encounters, opportunities to see other marine wildlife on a Vancouver whale watching tour are a lovely added extra!

If you’re thinking of taking a whale watching tour in Vancouver, it’s worth tempering your expectations. Whales put the ‘wild’ in wildlife, and their unpredictability means you’re highly unlikely to see a pod of twenty orcas doing backflips next to your boat. However, the extreme rarity of spotting these creatures in any other setting makes even seeing ‘just’ one whale an incredible experience, and completely worthwhile for a memorable wildlife experience in British Columbia.

Whale Watching in Vancouver: The Ultimate Guide

If our experience of seeing whales in Vancouver has got you chomping at the bit to do it for yourself, here’s everything you need to know about booking a whale watching trip in British Columbia!

Is it better to go whale watching in Vancouver or Victoria?

Whale watching tours from Vancouver and Victoria both explore the same waters, and have similar high chances of spotting whales.

Victoria is located on Vancouver Island, surrounded by the San Juan islands. It’s a little closer to the main whale watching strait, so the journey there is quicker and you’ll be slightly more sheltered from the elements.

Vancouver whale watching tours will likely depart from Granville Island, and as you speed out of the city harbour, you’ll get incredible views as the Vancouver skyline changes to mountainous landscapes.

In summary, the city you depart from doesn’t make a huge difference to your chances of seeing whales – so book the location that’s most convenient to you!

When’s the best time to see whales in Vancouver?

Between April and October is the best time to see whales in Vancouver. Most tour companies will operate their whale watching trips in these months.

Humpback whales are most likely to be seen between June and November.

Orcas (killer whales) and blue whales can be seen from May through to October.

Grey whales are much more elusive, as they tend to stay well under the surface – they’re most likely to be seen between January and May.

Mink whales are a rarer sighting, but could also be seen between May and October.

Most companies log a 95% sighting success rate – but as with any wildlife tour, there’s a small chance you may not see whales. If this is the case, you’ll usually be offered a make-up tour. It’s definitely worth booking your tour as early on as possible in your Vancouver visit, in case the company need to re-schedule or you miss out on seeing whales on your trip.

Depending on the area of Vancouver you choose for your whale watching excursion, you may also see sea lions, harbour seals, porpoise, and marine birds such as eagles.

What’s the best time of day to see whales in Vancouver?

There isn’t really a specific best time of day to see whales in Vancouver, and most companies will operate multiple departures across the day.

How to choose your Vancouver whale watching trip

We booked our Vancouver whale watching tour with Wild Whales Vancouver, who had great online reviews.

Most importantly, though, they’re dedicated to marine conservation, educating guests as well as funding and contributing to various conservation and research projects. Ensuring any wildlife activity we participate in or promote is incredible important to us when we travel, so I’d highly recommend researching the company’s ethical policy before booking.

British Columbia has strict rules for vessels that state they must be at least 200m away from orcas, and 100m away from all other whales, porpoise and dolphins. All reputable companies will be upfront with this information, and not try and missell you on ‘up close’ opportunities.

You can choose from larger boats that are either partly sheltered or open air (for 32-35 passengers), or the more intimate zodiac experience with just 12 people, which is the one we took.

And yes – all the vessels, even the zodiac, have a toilet in case you get caught short on the boat!

Other companies that view whales ethically in the Vancouver area:

Prince of Whales offer departures from Vancouver, Victoria and Telegraph Cove.
Vancouver Whale Watch tours depart from Richmond, south of Vancouver Airport, traveling through the spectacular Gulf and San Juan Islands.
5 Star Whales operate in Victoria, offering three hour catamaran whale watching trips.
Vancouver Island Whale Watch operate out of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

How much does it cost to go whale watching in Vancouver?

In general, expect to pay around CA$200 per adult for a whale watching experience. For children, expect to pay around CA$110. The price will usually include 3+ hours on the water, anti-exposure flotation suit rental and commentary from an experienced whale watching guide.

Our whale watching trip with Wild Whales cost CA$189 per person (around £110/€129), for the 12 person zodiac boat. Trips on the larger open air and semi-covered vessels cost CA$179 per person.

What to wear on a Vancouver whale watching tour

When you arrive for your Vancouver whale watching trip, you’ll be given an anti-exposure floatation suit to wear on the boat. Underneath, I’d recommend wearing comfortable layers, including long trousers. Even if it’s warm, the temperature drops considerably once you’re out on the water. If you have a windbreaker jacket, bring it with you. On your feet, you should wear closed toe, flat shoes.

A cap to shield your face from the sun is also a good call, but you might want to take it off when you’re travelling at speed. Sunglasses also help if you’re travelling into the sun’s glare.

What to pack for a Vancouver whale watching tour

  • Binoculars: To keep wildlife wild, the boats have to stay a certain distance from the whales, and we found binoculars really helpful to see the humpback in all it’s glory. You don’t have to splash out on top of the range ones – we ordered this pair of binoculars which worked perfectly for our whale watching adventure!
  • Camera: You’ll definitely want to make sure you have your camera for this one! If you have a zoom lens, make sure you pack that too.
  • Reusable water bottle: To stay hydrated! Most vessels will have a water container that you’ll be able to refill from.
  • Snacks: You’ll be out there for a while, so make sure you pack some snacks in case you get peckish.
  • Suncream: there’s nowhere to hide from the sun’s rays on open air vessels, so make sure you bring your suncream to reapply during the trip.
  • Sea-sickness tablets, if you think you might need them, particularly with the Zodiac boat whale watching trips.

Summary: Is Vancouver whale watching worth it?

Absolutely. It’s a rare opportunity to see these majestic animals ethically in their natural habitat, and to learn more about their behaviours and characteristics. My first sighting of the humpback whale appearing at the water’s surface is a moment I’ll treasure forever, and I’m determined to go back again to catch some orca next time!

More Vancouver & British Columbia:

Where to find the best cheap eats in Vancouver
How to get to Squamish from Vancouver (no car necessary!)
The best places to visit on a West Canada road trip

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