Pacific Wildlife Viewing: From Grizzlies to Orcas
A grizzly bear feeding on salmon in the wild; a whale breaching just off a kayak's bow; eagles soaring high in the thousands; images like these might feel like they’re pulled right from the Discovery Channel, yet they’re served up in spades in British Columbia.
Over 1110 species of animals call BC home, more than any other province in Canada. Much of this wildlife is sheltered in BC's 34 million acres of parks, conservancies, ecological reserves, and protected areas. But they’re not all behind a fence. Travellers to BC will often be treated to an elk or deer on the side of the highway, or spot a family of bears while riding a chairlift.
Rather than leave things to chance, countless wildlife viewing tours and excursions make all of these stunning animals accessible to visitors in a way that’s not only safe, but also environmentally-conscious.
The key to planning your wildlife viewing trip is to start with the animals themselves. Below we break down key information on when and where to visit, based on some of the most popular wildlife in BC.
Pacific Grey Whales
When: Mid-March to mid-April
Where: The West Coast of Vancouver Island
Every March and April, roughly 20,000 Pacific grey whales travel along the west coast of Vancouver Island, during one of the longest migrations of any mammal. The 8000-kilometre journey runs between the winter calving lagoons in Mexico and the summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas.
The residents of Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island welcome back the whales each year with a party. The Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a nine-day event at the start of prime whale-watching season, hosts more than 90 events, from arts shows to chowder contests. Charter boats and scheduled boat tours head out to see the animals in the open water (keeping a respectful distance), or you can stand on the shore and watch for the tell-tale spouting, as these massive mammals travel quite close to land. You can also see resident grey whales in Clayoquot and Barkley sounds anytime between March and October.
When: April to October
Where: The Georgia Straight, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Johnstone Strait, and east of Vancouver Island
Throughout the summer, whale-watching boats depart from Victoria, Sooke, and Sidney on Vancouver Island, downtown Vancouver, and from Steveston Fishing Village in Richmond, south of Vancouver, seeking the estimated 85 orcas, or killer whales, residing in the southern Georgia Strait between the BC Mainland and Vancouver Island.
BC's richest orca habitat is the Johnstone Strait off Vancouver Island's northeast coast, where 250 orcas reside. They come for salmon, socialising and to rub their bodies on the area's smooth pebble beaches, a unique orca behaviour. Whale-watching boats and kayak tours leave from the towns of Port McNeill and Alert Bay, and from Telegraph Cove, a historic fishing village built on stilts along the ocean's edge. While in Telegraph Cove, check out the Whale Interpretive Centre’s collection of giant skeletons of these magnificent creatures.
When: Best viewing season July to November
Where: North Vancouver, Kamloops, Victoria, Campbell River, and Bella Coola.
Throughout the summer and fall, all five species of North American Pacific salmon leave the ocean and return to the streams and rivers of their birthplace to spawn. The great salmon runs are fascinating to watch as thousands of fish battle their way upstream, attracting eagles and other predators en route.
One of the richest runs takes place on the Adams River, north of Kamloops in the Thompson Okanagan. Millions of salmon make their way back to the seven-mile stretch of river which runs through Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park to lay their eggs before they die. Goldstream Provincial Park, north of Victoria, and the Capilano Salmon Hatchery in North Vancouver also offer remarkable vantage points from which to observe the salmon runs.
To truly immerse yourself in the experience, try snorkelling with salmon! The Destiny River Adventures' Snorkel with the Salmon tour in Campbell River will see you floating down the river while thousands of salmon swim upstream. Kynoch Adventures in Bella Coola also offers equally memorable salmon snorkelling excursions.
When: May to October
Where: The Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary and the Great Bear Rainforest
The Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary, 45 kilometres northeast of Prince Rupert, was the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears, and is one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Accessible only by boat and/or floatplane, the site is home to roughly 60 individual bears, best visited between May and September when the bears can be seen roaming the shore.
A rich population of grizzlies can also be found in the Great Bear Rainforest, a vast tract of wilderness (more than twice the size of Belgium) on BC's roadless mid-coast. Two floating lodges in the vicinity, Knight Inlet Lodge and Great Bear Lodge, offer grizzly bear-viewing tours from spring through autumn.
The Kermode (Spirit) bear
When: June to October
Where: Princess Royal Island in the Great Bear Rainforest
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to more than just grizzlies. The magical Princess Royal Island is home to the rare Kermode (Spirit) bear, a sub-species of black bear found only in this part of the world and the official mammal of BC. About 10 per cent of black bears born in this area carry a recessive gene that gives them a naturally white coat. Companies operated by the local Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations people in the nearby village of Klemtu offer tours to view the bears, with September and October considered the best months for bear sightings. Klemtu is accessible by Pacific Coastal Airlines, by chartered floatplane, and BC Ferries service.
When: Mid-November to mid-February
Where: Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, Squamish, Harrison Mill, and Goldstream Provincial Park, Victoria
One of the world’s largest concentrations of bald eagles gather to feed on salmon at Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park near Squamish, about an hour from Vancouver. Between 650 and 1000 eagles may be spotted during a single day in January. Guided walking tours are available, while several rafting companies offer guided eagle-viewing float trips. Watching from a gently floating raft on the Cheakamus River is one of the best ways to observe the eagles without disturbing them.
Eagles also gather in record numbers at Goldstream Provincial Park to feed on the salmon, 19 kilometres north of Victoria. A video feed and telescopes in the park’s Visitor Centre provide close views of the eagles, with naturalists on-hand to answer visitors' questions.
Closer to Vancouver, Fraser Valley’s nearby Harrison Mills/Harrison River area hosts a large population of bald eagles. Every year in mid-November the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival celebrates the season of eagles and salmon with a series of activities from eagle-viewing boat tours to guided walks.
Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, is actually known as one of the best cold water destinations in the world for divers and snorkelers. After a few minutes of snorkeling with the harbour seals around Snake Island, you’ll quickly realize why.
There is an abundance of harbour seals that spend their days on or around the island, and often their curiosity will get the better of them. On some snorkeling excursions, the seals will swim right up to you and look you in the face or show off their speed and skill by catching a meal right before your eyes.