Whale watching is one of the most popular sightseeing tours for visitors to Vancouver (although most actually depart from suburban Steveston, rather than downtown).
Home to orcas (aka killer whales), the waters around Vancouver are also along the migratory route for other whales such as greys, humpbacks, and minkes.
Whale watching season lasts from March to October, with most operators offering tours from April through the end of October.
The best time to view southern resident orcas is from May to October in the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands; northern resident orcas are easiest to spot from July to September in Johnson Strait. During the height of whale watching season, you can even get lucky enough to spot whales from the BC Ferries that run between Vancouver and Victoria and the Gulf Islands.
Though most companies have finding and tracking the whales down to a science, there’s really no guarantee that you’ll see any on a particular outing. Still, many tour operators do offer a guarantee of sorts: if you don’t see a whale, you can take a second tour free of charge.
Tours vary from three to seven hours with vessels ranging from high-speed zodiacs to indoor/outdoor cruisers to larger-scale cruise ships. In addition to whales, you might see porpoises, seals, sea lions and eagles on a whale watching trip, and many trips can be combined with other activities such as biking, airplane tours, or day/overnight trips to Victoria.
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Good to know: if you’re prone to sea-sickness, talk to the tour operator in advance about sea conditions and plan your excursion around calm water.
Here are a few of the companies offering whale watching tours from downtown Vancouver and Steveston (in nearby Richmond):
Steveston Seabreeze Adventures
Located just 20 minutes south of Vancouver International Airport, Steveston Seabreeze Adventures offers whale watching tours from April until the end of October. Boats hold up to 23 people with indoor and outdoor viewing areas and are are staffed by a certified naturalist; there are also hydrophones on each boat so that passengers can hear the sounds of the whales underwater. In addition to the 3-5 hour whale watching tours, which cost $120 per adult, the company also offers 1.5 hour sea lion viewing tours for $29.95 and hourly bike rentals. For those staying in Vancouver without a car, the company offers a shuttle service (for an extra fee).
Wild Whales Vancouver
Wild Whales Vancouver is one of the few whale watching outfitters that depart directly from downtown Vancouver. They only operate one trip per day so trips can vary from 3-7 hours depending on sightings. Passengers can choose from one of two boats –one enclosed, one open–and tours cost $125 per adult. Wild Whales also offers one of the best guarantees. If no whales are spotted on your trip, you can come aboard another ship anytime, free of charge, with no expiration date on the offer.
Prince of Whales
For something a little different, check out the whale watching tours offered by Prince of Whales. Departing from Coal Harbour, these three hour tours take place on a zodiac boat rather than a larger ship. Each zodiac only seats 12 people, so the $105 tours are much more intimate; tours are led by a certified naturalist/skipper and depart from the Westin Bayshore, Vancouver dock.
Vancouver Whale Watch
Offering outings from April 1 to October 31 from Steveston, Vancouver Whale Watch runs trips of 3-5 hours in search of orcas, porpoises, sea lions, seals and eagles. Boats are equipped with hydrophones for listening in on the sounds under the water and there is a naturalist on board. The tour operator boasts a 90% success rate, and like Wild Whales, offers a guarantee that you’ll see whales on your trip; if you don’t, you can join another tour anytime, free of charge. Tours cost $120 per person, plus $15 per person (round trip) for the optional shuttle from downtown.
Whale watching excursions on Vancouver Adventures boats range from $120 – $165 per person for a five hour trip with an 85% success rate. The company does provide a guarantee that you’ll see whales or can join another tour, but there is a $30 charge to do so. Several tour options are available, including the option to combine your whale watching trip with a journey to Victoria on Vancouver Island.