Seeing wild orcas was one of my lifelong dreams, and taking a whale-watching tour in Vancouver made that dream a reality. It turns out that Vancouver is a prime destination for whale watching in Canada, so we had to stop here during our 15-day trip through the Canadian Rockies.
Picture this: wild killer whales swimming freely in the northern Pacific waters with snow-capped mountains in the distance. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. If you want to see these majestic creatures for yourself, I highly recommend taking a Vancouver whale tour. Even if you have just one day in Vancouver, it’s worth spending a few hours on this activity.
There are different types of tours and whale-watching trips in Vancouver, so choosing which one to take isn’t always easy. Plus, you need to consider when the best time is to see whales in Vancouver and the surrounding area. Don’t worry because I’ll cover all that and more in this guide.
Below, you’ll find the 6 best killer whale tours in Vancouver and Vancouver Island, as well as information about whale season and what to bring along for the tour.
Guide to whale watching in Vancouver
The first thing you should do is decide what kind of orca tour in Vancouver interests you the most. There are whale watching tours departing from Vancouver City and from Vancouver Island, which is the prime destination for whale-watching in British Columbia. However, don’t worry about it too much. Tours departing from Vancouver City are longer but take you to Vancouver Island’s waters anyway!
To help you choose, this guide covers the top 6 whale tours in Vancouver so you can find your perfect fit. Then, keep reading to learn more about whale season in Vancouver and tips to make your trip unforgettable.
- Best Vancouver whale-watching tours
- When is whale season in Vancouver?
- What kind of whales can you see in Vancouver?
- What to bring on a Vancouver whale-watching tour
- Our experience taking an orca-watching tour in Vancouver
1. Prince of Whales, the orca tour in Vancouver that we took
First, I must recommend the excursion we took, which is operated by Prince of Whales, one of the main tour companies in the region. This is the perfect whale tour in Vancouver if you’re already staying in the city and want a tour that departs right from the port.
You’ll set sail from Granville Island and ride in a comfortable, eco-certified catamaran while you search for wild orcas. You may even see other types of whales, such as minke, grey, and humpback whales in Vancouver. The boat has indoor and outdoor viewing areas, and if you don’t spot any whales on your first trip, you can repeat the tour for free.
Moreover, the tour lasts 5 hours, so you can spend a half-day whale watching in Vancouver and then spend the rest of your time exploring the city. Or, choose the sunset option for spectacular views at golden hour.
- Departs from: Granville Island, Vancouver
- Duration: 5 hours
- Price from: $149
- Highlights: Whale-watching tour from Vancouver City; photo package; sunset option.
2. Whale-watching tour in Vancouver Island with seaplane flight from Vancouver City
This tour is one of the most unique whale trips in Vancouver. You’ll start in Vancouver City, then take a seaplane ride to Victoria. During the flight, you’ll be able to see the gorgeous scenery of the Gulf Islands. Upon landing in Victoria, you’ll board the boat for some whale watching along Vancouver Island.
This is your chance to see humpback and killer whales in Vancouver’s remote coastal waters, as well as other marine life and birds like bald eagles. After the boat tour, enjoy some free time in Victoria. As the capital of British Columbia, Victoria is full of historic architecture, beautiful parks, and a bustling seafaring atmosphere, so you’ll find something that piques your interest.
This full-day excursion includes hotel pick-up from your accommodation in Vancouver, making it one of the most comprehensive options on our list.
- Departs from: Vancouver
- Duration: 9 hours
- Price from: $570
- Highlights: Seaplane flight to Victoria; whale-watching tour off Vancouver Island; free time to tour the town of Victoria.
3. Small group whale safari, another great Vancouver whale-watching tour
For something a bit different, consider this small group excursion from Victoria. It’s limited to 12 people, so you’ll have room to move around the boat and get views from the indoor and outdoor platforms. The luxurious vessel has an indoor heated cabin, so if you get too chilly on the viewing deck, you can warm up inside.
You’ll also be accompanied by expert marine biologists who will share interesting facts about the local wildlife and coastal ecosystem. Learn about the whale migration of Vancouver Island and keep an eye out for orcas and humpbacks. This Vancouver whale-watching safari also offers the opportunity to spot seals, sea lions, and dozens of species of seabirds.
In addition to being one of the cheapest Vancouver whale-watching excursions, this tour includes complimentary hot drinks while exploring the Salish Sea.
- Departs from: Victoria, Vancouver Island
- Duration: 3 hours
- Price from: $115
- Highlights: Whale-watching tour off Vancouver Island.
4. Zodiac boat tour, an exciting killer whale tour in Vancouver
This excursion is a great choice for those who are in Victoria, B.C. It includes some of the best Vancouver whale watching in a zodiac boat, a small and quick vessel that will let you get closer to the whales without compromising on safety. As the boat makes its way into the Salish Sea, keep an eye out for whales, sea lions, and dolphins in the Vancouver waters.
The zodiac boat can only hold 12 passengers, so you can expect a more intimate experience with the local wildlife. You’ll even get some hydrophones so you can listen to whale calls under the water. Plus, this tour guarantees sightings, so you’re in for some of the best whale watching off Vancouver Island.
- Departs from: Victoria, Vancouver Island
- Duration: 3 hours
- Price from: $134
- Highlights: Whale-watching zodiac tour off Vancouver Island; hydrophones to listen to whale calls.
5. Kayaking with orcas, a full-day whale-watching tour in Vancouver Island
If you’re craving a more intimate experience to see orcas in Vancouver, then consider this kayaking tour. You’ll join a knowledgeable naturist and kayaking guide on a one-of-a-kind adventure in the coastal waters off Vancouver Island.
After a few hours of kayaking, the excursion continues with a ride to more remote waters in a covered boat. Rest your muscles, but keep your eyes peeled for seabirds, dolphins, sea lions, and killer whales in Vancouver. Your kayaking equipment, lunch, and drinks are included in the tour price.
- Departs from: Campbell River, Vancouver Island
- Duration: 9 hours
- Price from: $360
- Highlights: Kayaking excursion; whale-watching boat tour off Vancouver Island; lunch included.
6. Telegraph Cove tour, a less crowded orca tour in Vancouver
Last but not least, this tour is an excellent option if you want to spot whales in Vancouver without all the crowds. The excursion departs from Telegraph Cove on the northeastern end of Vancouver Island. From there, you’ll set sail through the cove and Johnstone Strait.
The vessel for this tour was custom-built for whale sightings in Vancouver. It has a covered area and a viewing deck on the upper level, granting you different vantage points. A live tour guide will point out any cetaceans, and sightings are guaranteed. You should also keep an eye out for seabirds and other marine life.
Free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are available on board, and the tour includes a photo package so you can bring this magnificent experience home to your loved ones.
- Departs from: Telegraph Cove, Vancouver Island
- Duration: 3 hours
- Price from: $136
- Highlights: Whale-watching tour off Vancouver Island; photo package.
Vancouver whale watching price comparison
To help you choose the best Vancouver whale-watching tour, here is a chart comparing each excursion’s price, duration, and highlights. You can also see where each tour departs from (Vancouver City or Vancouver Island.)
• Whale-watching tour
• Seaplane flight to Victoria
Victoria (Vancouver Island)
• Whale-watching tour
Victoria (Vancouver Island)
• Whale-watching zodiac tour
Campbell River (Vancouver Island)
• Kayaking excursion
Telegraph Cove (Vancouver Island)
• Whale-watching tour
BEST VANCOUVER WHALE WATCHING TOURS
The shorter trips are the cheapest Vancouver whale-watching tours. If you want to save money, I recommend booking one of those trips.
When is whale season in Vancouver?
Whale season in Vancouver takes place in the spring and summer months. This is the best time of year to see whales in Vancouver, so plan accordingly. You should be able to spot resident whales as well as migrating pods passing through the Pacific Northwest waters.
Of course, even if you travel during Vancouver’s whale-watching season, there is no guarantee that you’ll see cetaceans. The wild whales here live freely and move around on their own schedules, so we can’t always predict their movements. That said, the tour operators here have been in business for years, so they have a good idea of where to see whales. Plus, most companies will let you retake the tour for free if you don’t have any luck the first time.
Best time to see orcas in Vancouver
The best time to see orcas in Vancouver is between May and October when spawning river salmon attracts resident killer whales. While transient orcas prefer to eat small mammals, it’s not uncommon to see these cetaceans in the wild, too. As the fall season gets underway, these whales start migrating south in search of warmer waters and to find mates.
Best time to see humpback whales in Vancouver
If you want to see humpback whales in Vancouver, plan your visit between April and November. While the Pacific Northwest coast has seen an increase in humpback whales recently, the best time to see these whales in Vancouver is between the late spring and early fall.
Where to see wild whales in Vancouver
With a bit of planning, you can give yourself the best chance of seeing wild whales in Vancouver. The west coast waters near Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the San Juan Islands are perfect for whale-watching. The most convenient option to get to this area is taking a tour from Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island, and traveling along the Georgia Strait.
If you can’t make it to Victoria, there are several great whale-watching tours from Vancouver City, including the one we did, but they will take a bit longer to get you to the prime sightseeing spot.
Whales in Vancouver City
Even if you are only in Vancouver City for a day, you can still experience the magic of a Vancouver orca-watching tour. We took this one, and I highly recommend it. The excursion departs from Granville Island and goes into the Georgia Strait and Howe Sound. It’s operated by one of the top tour companies in the area, so you’ll have the best chance of seeing wild orcas and other cetaceans.
Whale watching Victoria B.C., Vancouver Island
Victoria, B.C. is the prime destination for whale tours in Vancouver. Most tours departing from here travel along Victoria’s Inner Harbor, sailing through the Georgia Strait toward the Gulf Islands.
There are various excursions to choose from, but I like this zodiac boat tour and this 3-hour whale safari. If you’re in Vancouver City but are short on time and really into taking a whale-watching in Victoria, British Columbia, you can book this package that includes the seaplane from Vancouver City to Victoria and the whale-watching tour.
Whale watching in Telegraph Cove, Vancouver Island
Some of the best whale watching in Vancouver Island takes place in Telegraph Cove. This old fishing village offers easy access to the Johnstone Strait, where wild orcas spend the summer months. Telegraph Cove is also close to the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, a sanctuary for killer whales in Vancouver. In addition to killer whales, you’ll likely see humpbacks, grey and minke whales, dolphins, and other wildlife such as seals, otters, and bald eagles.
The best whale tour departing from Telegraph Cove is this half-day excursion.
Whale watching in Campbell River, Vancouver Island
Campbell River is a city on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It’s near the Discovery Passage, a prime area for whale watching on Vancouver Island. It’s also close to the Johnstone Strait, so a tour from Campbell River grants you the opportunity to see orcas, humpback whales, and dolphins in the wild.
Campbell River is also the best place to see whales in Vancouver by kayak, so if you want to try this exhilarating experience, check out this tour.
What kind of whales can you see in Vancouver?
Depending on which Vancouver whale tour you take (and when you take it), you may see different species of cetaceans. Below, you can learn more about the different types of whales in Vancouver, as well as how to distinguish one type from another.
Orcas in Vancouver
Orcas, or killer whales, are one of the most common whales in Vancouver. They’re very social, often traveling in pods, so you may see several of them during your trip. Plus, each group has a particular range of sounds they use to communicate, so if you have hydrophones, you can hear them.
During our orca tour in Vancouver, we learned a lot about these majestic creatures. For example, killer whales aren’t actually whales, but they’re relatives of the dolphin family. We also learned that the Vancouver waters are home to resident orcas, which feed mostly on salmon, and transient orcas, which eat small mammals. These cetaceans can weigh up to five tons and swim over 60 miles per day!
Humpback whales in Vancouver
During your sightseeing tour, you may also see humpback whales in Vancouver. These whales spend more time underwater than killer whales, so it’s more difficult to predict their location. They’re also much larger, so seeing one in the icy northern waters is quite an experience!
Here’s a tip: listen closely for their loud breathing as they rise above the water’s surface for air, and keep an eye out for their magnificent tail slaps.
During Vancouver’s whale season, you may be able to spot grey whales. Between February and April, around 20,000 grey whales migrate along Vancouver Island’s western coast, and a couple hundred remain in the waters close to shore.
Grey whales are a type of baleen whale, and the easiest way to recognize them is by their white scars, which are left there by parasites.
If you’re whale-watching on Vancouver Island, you may also see minke whales. They’re quite shy and don’t spend nearly as much time above the water’s surface as orcas, so spotting one is a bit of a challenge. You can identify a minke whale by its dorsal fin, which looks similar to that of a female orca but is smaller and further back on the body.
Dolphins in Vancouver
In addition to whales, you can also see dolphins in Vancouver. Pacific white-sided dolphins sometimes swim in schools of 50 to 100 near the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, especially around the Johnstone Strait.
These creatures are playful and energetic, and you can often see them jumping between the waves. They’re also very sociable, so you’ll probably see them swimming along with whales.
Other wildlife you can see on a Vancouver whale-watching tour
One of the great things about a Vancouver whale-watching tour is that you can see not only cetaceans but also dolphins, other marine life, and seabirds. Moreover, the forests of the Pacific Northwest make for a gorgeous backdrop as you scan the icy waters for whales and dolphins.
Here are some other creatures that you might spot during your Vancouver whale trip:
The majestic appearance and formidable strength of the bald eagle make it one of the most breathtaking birds to see in the wild. Believe it or not, British Columbia is home to the largest bald eagle gathering in the world, so keep your eyes peeled for these impressive creatures.
During our whale-watching tour, we saw a few bald eagles, and it was incredible seeing their 8-foot wingspan up close.
Dall’s porpoises are similar to Vancouver’s killer whales, but they’re much smaller, with white tips on their dorsal fins. These creatures prefer deep waters, but since the Georgia Strait has an average depth of 500 feet, it’s possible to see them during a Vancouver Island whale-watching tour. These porpoises are fast, reaching speeds up to 34 mph, which is good since they’re prey to transient orcas.
California sea lions
As the name suggests, California sea lions populate the California coast. However, the males are commonly found around Vancouver Island between September and May before returning south. You can recognize them by their dark brown color and domed foreheads.
Harbor and elephant seals
Harbor seals are the primary prey for transient killer whales, so you’ll probably see some during your Vancouver orca tour. While these seals look lazy when they’re lounging on the coastal rocks, they are extremely agile in the water!
As for elephant seals, they’re larger and have elongated noses that resemble the trunk of an elephant. These seals spend most of their time in the water, and they’re not nearly as prevalent in western Canada as harbor seals.
Steller sea lions
The Steller sea lion population in Vancouver, British Columbia, is around 15,000, so you’re bound to see these semiaquatic creatures during your tour. The males average around 1,500 lbs. and can reach a length of 10 feet.
What to bring on a Vancouver whale-watching tour
You’ve decided on the best time to go whale watching in Vancouver, and you’ve booked your tour. Before you set sail, make sure you’re prepared for a few hours on the water. Here are the must-haves for a Vancouver whale-spotting excursion:
- Warm layers, including a jacket or windbreaker. It’s colder on the water than on land, so if you get chilly easily, bring along a hat, gloves, and a scarf.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses to protect yourself against the harsh sun rays. Even if it’s cold, you’ll still be outdoors!
- Your passport or photo ID, which is required by most Vancouver whale watch operators.
- A backpack or bag (preferably waterproof) for keeping your belongings safe.
- If you have them, a pair of binoculars to help you spot whales that are further in the distance.
Orca-watching tour in Vancouver: Our review
Our first time taking a Vancouver Island whale-watching tour was an experience I’ll never forget. We left Vancouver City in the late morning on a double-decker boat. While there was a covered lower deck, we stayed on the upper level, where we had 360° views of the sea.
It was mid-May, so it didn’t take long for us to spot our first killer whale in the wild. As we moved to deeper waters, we saw more transient orcas, including a male, a mother, and her calf. In total, we spotted seven transient killer whales, and seeing that little orca poke her head out of the water was the highlight of the tour.
During our Vancouver whale trip, we also saw humpback whales, sea lions, and bald eagles. Our guide was excellent and even mapped out our route, marking down where we saw the different species. I also appreciated that the boat followed the whales at a legal and safe distance to avoid disturbing them.
Seeing wild whales in Vancouver was a literal dream come true for me. It’s hard to put into words the euphoric feeling of seeing these majestic giants cutting through the waves, some just a few feet from our boat. I felt a rush every time I saw a dorsal fin or a jet of water vapor rising to the surface!
Since we were lucky enough to spot whales on our first tour, we didn’t need to retake it, so we could spend our second day in Vancouver exploring the city. Even if you have just one day here, a Vancouver whale-watching tour is something I highly recommend.
Whale-watching in Vancouver is worth it, and I’m sure you’ll have the time of your life. If you’ve taken any of the tours I mentioned above, tell me about your experience in the comments below. I’d also be happy to help you out if you have any other questions.