While I love exploring the natural world, I also get a big thrill from discovering new cities. When the opportunity came up to combine the two in Canada I was excited to say the least. We’d be staying in two beautiful cities, Victoria and Vancouver, as well as the Great Bear Rainforest, a place of stunning, mist enshrouded landscape and home to grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, humpback whales and orcas.
This was my first visit to North America and I couldn’t have been more excited. Expectations were high. Probably higher than they had ever been before in anticipation of a journey and exciting new experiences including my first ride in a float plane, tracking grizzly bears and whale watching.
The night before our flight I met up with fellow bloggers, Lucy and Zoë, in a hotel near Heathrow and they were equally enthusiastic. It was reassuring to know that in the morning we only had a short bus ride to take to the airport to catch our flight. As we chat over a pint and bite to eat the excitement grows.
The adventure begins…
We had anticipated this moment for so long and finally the morning of our Canadian adventure is here. The nine-hour, Air Canada flight passes quickly in the company of Paddington (one of many inflight films). We land in Vancouver and catch an internal flight and this is when the story really begins. I watch the Canadian landscape stretch out below me, so glad I thought to book a window seat for this leg of the journey, as we fly over pine-clad islands and sparkling water towards the state capital of Victoria.
Arriving at the Hotel Grand Pacific by Victoria’s Inner Harbour in glorious sunshine I don’t bother to unpack but rush straight out again. Although I’m tired I simply can’t wait to soak it all in.
The harbour is inviting with buskers and first nation craft stalls, boats and a few street food outlets plus the site of a continuing stream of sea planes, or rather float planes as everyone here calls them, landing and taking off. Then there are the cute little water taxis that ferry around locals and tourists alike. I immediately take a shine to the city, which feels like a friendly, laid back, seaside town, rather than a metropolis of over 300,000 people. The Tourist Information Centre is on the harbourside near the water taxi rank.
Victoria is packed full of great restaurants (Where and What to Eat in Victoria) and plenty of things to see and do including the Royal British Columbia Museum and the oldest Chinatown in Canada, a maze of alleyways and temples, schools, homes, shops (and in days gone by opium dens and brothels). There’s plenty to see and do here for a long weekend but the highlight that is on most visitors’ wish lists are the whale watching tours.
Whale Watching tour from Victoria
While some may argue that the only really responsible way to watch whales is from dry land, I don’t believe that watching cetaceans (whales and dolphins) by boat should be ruled out.
While in Victoria I had the opportunity to go on such a trip and I was eager to find out more about the dos and don’ts of responsible whale watching from the water.
There are a number of organisations that offer tours here but we went with the aptly named Prince of Whales company. They offer tours from both Victoria and Vancouver in open-topped zodiacs as well as the larger but surprisingly fast, purpose-built, covered boats like ours today, Ocean Magic II.
Tip: If you are taking the whale watching trip from Vancouver to Victoria, consider booking an overnight stay in Victoria. The Prince of Whales can help you arrange this. It really is a fabulous city which as soon as you see it you’ll be longing to explore.
I have been on many boat trips over the years that, while not dedicated dolphin watching trips, I was told that they were regularly seen. That is by everyone bar me. I have never seen a dolphin let alone a whale in the wild. And I was eager to see them this trip. Humpback whales, orcas, minke whales as well as sea lions, harbour seals and harbour porpoises amongst others species, can all be seen in the waters off Victoria.
We board the boat at the Inner Harbour and as we leave Victoria we get an excellent view of a float plane landing and pass a colourful kite festival.
The sun is shinning and we can see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance. It’s a wonderful day to be out on the water.
Near Discovery Island the heads of harbour seals pop up and down in the shimmering sea while others enjoy the sunshine on the rocks. We watch them and they watch us.
We hear over the radio that whales have been spotted near the kelp reef of D’Arcy Island so we head north. As we go our guide Jennifer, a biologist with a double degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, tells us about the whales and other marine life in the area. We had a long chat about responsible whale watching and I was happy that the company was acting ethically I was also pleased to find out that they donate part of your ticket price to wildlife conservation in the area.
Jennifer explained that the biggest problem faced by marine mammals here is caused by POPs (persistent organic pollutants) including flame retardants, pesticides and industrial chemicals. These chemicals do not break down in the environment. Instead they accumulate, concentrating further each step up the food chain they go. For example POPs are found in salmon and other fishes here at relatively low levels. These fish, however, are then eaten by mammals such as the whales, dolphins and seals. The POPs from all the fish a single animal eats accumulates in its body in much higher concentrations – a worrying problem.
But I digress. Did we find the whales?
In June, which is when we were there, the Prince of Whales had a 96% success rate spotting whales so we were very unluckily to be part of the 4% who didn’t see any. Pants! (or words to that effect).
Never-the-less we did have a great time but I am sorry not to have any whale pictures to share with you.
One day I know I will see dolphins and hopefully whales too in the wild and when I do it will be all the more exciting for having waited so long.
Victoria, a welcoming city on the edge of nature
I hope to return to Victoria some day and I’ll be going on another trip with the Prince of Whales, that’s for sure.
The main reason why I’d love to return though is simply because Victoria is a wonderful, welcoming city. I’d love to spend a bit more time exploring the colourful Fisherman’s Wharf (pictured above and below), Chinatown and the nearby Butchart Gardens, which I didn’t have time to see this visit, as well as trying more of the fabulous food here. I’ll be telling you all about that and sharing some mouth-watering photos in my next post from Canada.
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Top Ten Tips for Responsible Whale Watching
As the popularity of seeing whales and dolphins in captivity quite rightly wanes (but not quickly enough), the desire to observe these beautiful, highly intelligent animals in the wild grows. In fact it is growing at an alarming rate. It is now more than ever essential that you should pick a responsible operator for this popular, once in a life time experience.
1. Remember that wildlife is unpredictable and there is no guarantee that you will see any whales on any one particular trip.
I always enjoy seeing places from the water and there’s plenty of other wildlife to watch so enjoy the experience whatever your trip may bring.
2. Research which company you go with in advance. Unfortunately there is no global accreditation scheme as yet. Many operators may claim to be eco-friendly with affiliation flags on their website. Look these up and check that they are up-to-date and relevant.
You can also check on sites like TripAdvisor to see what others say about the trip. That should give you a good idea about whether the trip will be responsibly run and educational.
3. A responsible operator will have at least one wildlife expert on board and the emphasis of the trip will be on education. The details of the guides with their qualifications should be available on their website.
You’ll find the biographies of the Prince of Whales‘ guides here. Our guide was Jennifer and she was superb.
4. Avoid (like the plague) any company that offers pre-recorded commentary instead of a guide. Their interests are in cutting costs not in education or the welfare of the wildlife.
5. Check whether the company offer a free trip if you don’t see any whales.
Not strictly speaking a ‘responsible tourism’ tip but reassuring never-the-less. The Prince of Whales’ offers another trip free of charge if you don’t see any whales. Book your first trip early on during your stay, leaving time to take up this offer. However, the offer never expires – simply make a note of the date of your whale-less trip and the name the booking was made in and you can go again even if it’s years later.
6. Pick which type of boat you wish to go on carefully. The zodiac boats zip through the water and dressing up in the bright red survival suits is part of the fun. The larger boats, however, are still exciting when they pick up speed and they have the advantage of a toilet and snack bar on board plus space to move around on.
I’d certainly recommend the larger boat if you have young children with you.
7. Remember it can get very cold racing across the waves. If you are going on a zodiac boat you will be provided with a warm survival and flotation suit, if however, you are going on a larger boat such as the Ocean Magic, wrap up warmly, ideally with layers you can take on and off.
Even on a warm summers’ day when the boat picks up speed it gets mighty windy and cold. It was great fun but my feet in walking sandals were freezing at times.
8. Don’t be disappointed if the skipper doesn’t take you in close. The whales or indeed dolphins should be approached slowly and from the side and not from the front or from behind. Any second boat should follow behind the first. The cetaceans should never be between the boats and no boat should ever speed up to overtake the whales, revving its engine as it goes. Both of these actions upset the animals.
While the boats aren’t allowed to approach within a minimum distance of the whales there is of course nothing to stop the whales from swimming right up to or even under your boat.
The Prince of Whales was a founder member of the Pacific Whale Watching Association “We are proud leaders in responsible whale watching and have a strong passion for educating guests from all over the world about the wonders and the fragility of the Salish Sea.” You can read more about their responsible whale-watching guidelines here.
9. Whale watching from the land, however, is undoubtedly less invasive and produces less pollutants. Land-based whale watching is available in Scotland, Norway, South Africa and Hawaii.
10. Some countries have laws against swimming with whales, but if it is legal to swim with them then you should only do so with operators who are experienced in swimming with cetaceans responsibly. You must never swim towards a whale or touch a whale and you should stay away from mothers and calves. Scuba diving, I’m told, is out of the question, as the air bubbles produced make whales feel threatened.
To find out more about this spectacular area of British Columbia visit
I visited Victoria as a guest of Destination Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign.
- The Other Side Of Victoria : A look Beyond Whale-Watching in British Columbia, Canada
- 10 of the best whale watching destinations
- Exploring British Columbia’s cultural heritage in Victoria
- A Weekender’s Guide to Victoria
- Hotel Grand Pacific, Victoria
- Around Victoria Harbour, British Columbia
- Comfort Inn and Suites, Campbell River
Disclosure: Please note that this blog post contains affiliate links.