Taking a Vancouver whale watching tour is the easiest way to make your trip unforgettable.
I mean, how many cities on earth can offer you the chance to see an orca jump clear out of the water – and clap down on the mighty Pacific like a gunshot ringing out in the distance?
That’s why I want to help you narrow down the best whale watching tours in Vancouver from dozens to a reliable chosen few.
- Whale watching in Vancouver
- Top whale watching tours in Vancouver
- Choosing the right tour
- Best time for whale watching
- Types of whales
- Whale watching tips
- Whale watching FAQ
Whale Watching in Vancouver
Especially between March to October, the waters around Vancouver are known for killer whales, humpback whales, and grey whales.
These whales rarely come into the harbour (hence the photoshop above) so the only way to see them is through guided tours.
Each whale watching trip includes professional wildlife guides onboard.
All the Vancouver whale watching companies that I’ll be listing also give a whale guarantee.
That’s right, if you don’t see one you’ll get to take another whale watching tour for free!
Let’s take a closer look.
Best Whale Watching Tours in Vancouver
Vancouver Whale Watch
Departure Point: Steveston Village | 12240 Second Avenue
This is actually the cheapest Vancouver whale watching tour, but I think it offers value in other ways too.
First, it departs from Steveston Village – a historic fishing village which is a tourist attraction in itself – which means smaller crowds.
Being an area of less marine traffic, there’s also a higher whale spotting rate at over 95%.
Their smaller, open Zodiac style vessels also bring you even closer to the orcas, bald eagles, and sea lions.
Tickets include drinks, snacks, and return shuttle from your downtown Vancouver hotel – a $30 value in itself.
Prince of Whales
Departure Point: Granville Island | 1516 Duranleau St.
Prince of Whales kills it with their half-day whale watching tour aboard the Salish Sea Freedom: a luxury, high-speed catamaran that’ll get you to the action in a hurry – right from Granville Island.
These whale watching tickets get you a ride on the biggest ships in the fleet – which means stability for older travellers, children or guests prone to seasickness.
Each trip includes 3-4 naturalists, so this is arguably the most educational tour as well. They even throw in a free photo souvenir package.
Lotus Land Hotel & Residence Pickup Whale Watching Tour
Departure Point: Your Hotel or Residence!
This true door-to-whale experience is all about convenience. In fact, forget the car or bus because they’ll pick you up right at your hotel, Airbnb, or private residence.
They’ll bring you right to the docks, where you’ll embark on a Pacific Coast safari on the hunt for killer whales, sealions, bald eagles, and all sorts of marine wildlife.
At five hours long this is an optimal tour for people looking for more time on the water. Expect a small group tour with family vibes.
Finally, the tour ends with a visit to legendary Granville Island.
Wild Whales Vancouver
Departure Point: Granville Island | 1806 Mast Tower Rd.
Wild Whales’ short 3-6 hour tours allow you to pair your adventure with a quick visit to any number of the various attractions that Granville Island has to offer.
The difference here is that their tours are primarily run with small group zodiacs – making it a bit of an adventure as the boat tends to bounce around a bit. For this reason it’s not recommended for seniors or children under 9.
Partial proceeds go towards conservation efforts.
Visit the Wild Whales website for more information on their tours.
Departure Point: Steveston Village | 12551 Number 1 Road
Seabreeze adventures offers another option for travellers who wish to sneak in a quick whale watching adventure while visiting the historic fishing village of Steveston.
Much like Vancouver Whale Watch, their smaller semi-enclosed and Zodiac style vessels are likely more suited for more adventurous travellers than seniors or families with young children.
Check out the Seabreeze Adventures web page for more info.
Choosing a Vancouver Whale Watching Tour
First of all, there’s no need to worry about safety as each whale tour above is certified by Transport Canada.
This means their tour boats are routinely inspected and follow stringent safety protocols.
That’s why my readers usually base their whale watching tour selection on:
- Tour length
- Departure point
Let’s break these down a little more.
1) Trip Duration
In general, there are two main whale watching tour durations on offer:
- Half day whale watching tours (3 hours)
- Extended whale watching tours (5-8 hours)
Most people can only stand about three hours on the water, and I don’t blame them, so efficient half day tours like Vancouver Whale Watch are the standard.
The Lotusland Hotel Pickup Whale Tour is better for those looking for extra sea time.
2) Departure Points in Vancouver
As mentioned, there are departure points from downtown Vancouver (Coal Harbour), Granville Island and Steveston Village.
Selection depends on where you live or how you want to structure your Vancouver itinerary.
Generally, the three main options are:
- Taking Vancouver Whale Watch or Seabreeze Adventures and turning it into a day visit to historic Steveston.
- Rolling out with Wild Whales or Prince of Whales and combining it with an epic Granville Island afternoon.
- Booking hotel pickup tickets with Killer Whale Safari or Vancouver Whale Watch and letting them take care of it.
3) Comfort of Vessel
Those prone to motion sickness, seniors, and families with small children always prefer the large, luxury catamaran whale watching tour.
Other travellers looking for adventure, true exploration, and even a few wave bumps usually select the Killer Whale Safari.
4) Whale Watching Weather
Vancouver is famous for its clouds and rain.
If you’re booking last minute and see bad weather on the horizon you’re going to prefer booking the whale watching tours with the biggest boats.
At any rate, all of the booking links above have free cancellation tickets so you’re always free to back out and reschedule if it doesn’t look promising.
5) Cost of Whale Watching Tours
Once you’ve decided upon your preferred vessel type, departure point and length of journey, the base price will likely become the main deciding factor.
The cheapest Vancouver whale watching tour is via Vancouver Whale Watch.
The Best Time for Whale Watching in Vancouver
While numerous species of whales are present in the Salish Sea’s waters throughout the year, like most top Vancouver sightseeing tours the best time for whale watching in Vancouver is from March to October.
This will allow you to avoid the worst of the Fall and Winter Pacific storm season.
However, for the much vaunted Southern Resident Killer Whales, the seasonal abundance of salmon migrating through the area is the primary attraction.
As an added bonus, this season also includes the annual migration of larger species such as Humpback Whales and Grey Whales from their winter homes in the South Pacific to their summer homes in British Columbia, Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean and back again.
Related: Best Time to Visit Vancouver
Types of Whales in Vancouver
The Killer Whale
Season: Year round (peak from April to November)
Killer Whales, also known as Orcas, have heavily featured in the myths and legends of local indigenous groups for time immemorial.
Known for their distinctive black and white markings, they are undoubtedly the main attraction when it comes to whale watching in the Salish Sea.
The largest member of the dolphin family, Killer Whales typically measure from 5-8 meters long and weigh between 2-6 tons when full grown.
These apex predators are highly intelligent and social animals that are known to exhibit complex vocal and behavioural cultures that are without parallel outside of human beings.
From an observers perspective, they are frequently known to engage in hunting and foraging, as well as behaviours such as:
- Breaching (jumping clear out of the water!)
- Tail slapping
- Spyhopping (holding their heads out of the water and staring at you!)
- People watching
These behaviours make Orcas amongst the most entertaining cetaceans for whale watchers to encounter.
Season: Summer/Early Fall
Humpback Whales has been encountered in increasing numbers in the Salish Sea in recent years, particularly in the Summer and early Fall.
Typically measuring in at around 40-50 feet long and weighing in at a staggering 30-40 tonnes, the Humpback Whale is the largest whale you’ll see on the Salish Sea.
Known to have an extremely large migration route, the Humpback spends it’s Winters in tropical waters around Mexico and Hawaii before migrating to British Columbia and Alaska in the Summer to feed. They then embark on the return trip in the fall.
From an observer’s perspective, these gentle giants are known to be exceedingly curious, making them a favourite of whale watchers worldwide.
Some whales, known as “friendlies” are known to approach whale watchers and stay under or near their boats for a considerable amount of time. You’ll begin to wonder who is watching who!
They are also famous for breaching with wild abandon, throwing their massive 40 ton bodies clear out of the water and splashing down on their backs!
I personally have been lucky enough to see an entire migratory group of a dozen or more Humpback Whales repeatedly breaching near the coast of Haida Gwaii. I can assure you, it was an absolutely unforgettable experience.
Season: March/April and October/November
Named for the grey and white patches on their dark skin, Gray Whales are another large Baleen Whale that measure in at 45-50 feet and 30-40 tonnes.
They are known to have the longest migration route of any marine mammal in the world, spending Winters in Baja California and Summers in the Arctic Ocean, a distance of over 20,000 kilometres.
As a result, they don’t tend to hang around the Vancouver area long, but can often be spotted passing through in the Spring and Fall.
Season: Year Round
One of the smallest Baleen Whales, the Minke (pronounced Mink-eh) measures 25-35 feet and weighs in at just 3-5 tonnes.
The Minke has a much smaller migration route than the Humpback and Grey Whales, typically only around 4-500 kilometres. As a result, they can be spotted year round in British Columbia’s waters feeding on juvenile herring and cephalopods.
Vancouver Whale Watching Tips
1) Monitor Weather Conditions
While the majority of your tour will be spent amongst the sheltered waters of the Gulf and San Juan Islands, you must cross the Salish Sea in order to get there.
While operators are careful not to operate during windy conditions, the crossing can still become choppy, even during sunny weather. Check with your tour operator to ensure that weather conditions are to your satisfaction.
It goes without saying that warm, calm and clear days are ideal for your own comfort, as well as whale visibility. Try to book your tour during these conditions if possible.
If your trip is canceled due to weather you will be compensated with tickets aboard a future journey, or a refund.
2) Take a Motion Sickness Tablet
While the trips occur in sheltered waters and providers are careful to avoid operating in inclement weather, some passengers can still experience motion sickness.
If you’re prone to this condition we recommend taking a gravol or generic motion sickness tablet one hour prior to departure.
Travellers concerned about motion sickness will likely find a tour trip aboard a larger enclosed, or semi-enclosed vessel more to their satisfaction.
3) Dress For the Occasion
For starters always dress for the season. But also remain cognizant of the fact that it is almost always cooler and breezier on the water.
The following wardrobe tips should help you dress accordingly:
- Dress in layers, with a thin layer covering your skin, an intermediate layer and a light jacket.
- Long pants will be preferable to skirts or shorts unless at the peak of Summer.
- Beanies/toques and gloves are recommended for early and late season departures
- Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must in the Summertime.
*Check with your company to see what items are included on your tour. Most open-air tours will provide hats, gloves and floater jackets. Be clear on this before you leave.
4) Go Early in Your Trip
As stated earlier, most providers guarantee that if you don’t see any whales, you’ll receive a free trip aboard a future journey.
While such occurrences are rare, we recommend placing a whale watching tour near the beginning of your Vancouver travel itinerary in order to take advantage of this guarantee.
5) Bring a Camera
While smartphone cameras have improved significantly in recent years, whale watching trips are one instance that still serve to highlight their short comings.
Vessels are required to remain 100 meters away from whales by the Pacific Whale Watching Association (PWWA). Unfortunately, this is just enough to render your smartphone’s zoom function largely useless.
As a result, a camera with a zoom lens is highly recommended to document your experience.
6) Purchase Your Tickets Online in Advance
In order to secure the best rates possible, it’s recommended to purchase your whale watching tickets online.
This will allow you to compare rates from the various providers, as well as give you an idea of the various packages on offer (Victoria, Butchart Gardens, Seattle etc.)
Whale Watching in Vancouver BC FAQ
When is the peak season for whale watching in Vancouver?
The best time to see whales in Vancouver is between April and October.
Where do whale watching trips depart from in Vancouver?
There are tours that leave from Coal Harbour in Downtown Vancouver, Granville Island and Richmond’s Steveston Village (Vancouver’s charming historic fishing village).
What kind of whales will you see when whale watching in Vancouver?
While whale watching in Vancouver you can expect to encounter Southern Resident and Transient Killer Whales, Humpback Whales, Gray Whales and Minke Whales.
What other kind of marine wildlife will I see on my tour?
Expect to see Pacific white sided dolphins, stellar sea lions, California sea lions, elephant seals, river otters, bald eagles, and other marine mammals and marine birds.
What’s the best whale watching tour for families in Vancouver?
Prince of Whales offers the largest, most sturdy boats for visitors who may not have sea legs or be able to withstand the bumps of smaller boats.
Furthermore, they also provide educational materials, more naturists aboard than other companies, and provide the biggest discount pricing for children.
What’s the best whale watching tour for couples in Vancouver?
Couples and young people typically enjoy the faster, smaller, and more up close nature of the tour provided by Vancouver Whale Watch. The departure point of Steveston is also a vibrant place to explore with great cafe and restaurant options.
What’s the cheapest whale watching tour in Vancouver?
If you’re looking for a cheap whale watching tour in Vancouver you’ll have to go with the half day tour at Vancouver Whale Watch. Tickets cost $165.75 CAD.
Ready for Your Whale Watching Tour From Vancouver?
I hope I’ve answered all of your questions about whale watching in Vancouver. If I’ve missed anything though, don’t be afraid to hit me up on our Facebook page or in the comments below.
As always, I’ll do my best to address them as soon as possible.