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?
I’m going to help you choose the right tour for you based on the big 5 companies.
Let’s take a deeper look.
- Whale watching in Vancouver
- Best time of year
- Top whale watching tours in Vancouver
- Choosing the right tour
- Types of whales
- Whale watching tips
- Whale watching FAQ
Whale Watching in Vancouver
Each whale watching trip includes professional wildlife guides onboard.
The providers also give a whale guarantee, otherwise you’ll be granted with a complimentary whale watching tour at a later date.
The sheltered waters of the Salish Sea are particularly renown for their abundance of Killer Whales, in addition to other species such as Humpback, Grey and Minke whales.
In Vancouver in summer there’s also a great chance to sea other marine mammals like sea lions and harbour seals – as well as breathtaking marine wildlife like bald eagles and other marine birds in their natural habitat.
Best Times 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
Best Whale Watching Tours in Vancouver
Vancouver Whale Watch
Departure Point: Steveston Village | 12240 Second Avenue
Vancouver Whale Watch offers a half-day whale watching tour, which we think offers the best value. First of all, it departs from Steveston – a historic fishing village which is a tourist attraction in itself – that’s gonna have significantly 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 bring you even closer to the orcas, bald eagles, and sea lions – all explained thoroughly by a professional naturalist.
You can lock in the guaranteed lowest price (this is actually the cheapest Vancouver whale watching tour of the half day variety) and have the chance to cancel up to 24 hours beforehand by clicking the button below.
Vancouver Whale Watch Prices:
- Adults: $171.00
- Senior/Youth: $150.00
- Child: $108.00
- Infant: $18.75
Prince of Whales
Departure Point: Granville Island | 1516 Duranleau St.
Prince of Whales offers a wide variety of whale watching packages, from basic 5 hour tours all the way up to full day trips from Vancouver that include visits to Vancouver Island or Seattle.
What we love here though is their half-day whale watching adventure aboard the Salish Sea Freedom, a custom-built, luxury, high-speed catamaran that’ll get you to the action in a hurry – right from Granville Island.
They’ve got the biggest ships in the fleet, which means they’re the most stable for travellers who don’t have their sea legs, but this also means the groups are larger.
You’ll get a wide variety of amenities including educational materials, coffee/hot chocolate, and even a free photo souvenir package.
Each trip includes 3-4 naturalists, so this is arguably the most educational tour as well.
You can lock in the best prices online and get a fully refundable ticket (up until 24 hours before departure) using the orange button below:
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 ($2) 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.
Pacific Ferries and Tours
Departure Point: Coal Harbour | 1601 Bayshore Dr.
Update (03/19/22): due to the COVID-19 tourism shutdown it appears Pacific Ferries is at the very least taking a hiatus. More info to be listed here as we receive it.
With it’s enclosed airplane-style seating, the Coastal Runner is a good option for those who prefer a more comfortable experience without the requirement of bulky floater jackets.
The vessels larger size also provides for more stability in weather, making it a preferred choice in the early Spring and later Fall.
But perhaps most importantly, Pacific Ferries and Tours provides the most convenient departure point relative to most downtown hotels.
Choosing a Vancouver Whale Watching Tour
Each company is certified by Transport Canada, meaning their vessels are routinely inspected to ensure they possess the necessary safety equipment and follow required safety procedures.
In truth, there is not a significant difference between companies.
In fact, they’ve pooled together resources along with their American counterparts across the border in Washington State to form an extensive whale spotting network by air, land, and sea.
This information is then shared via radio, meaning you are no more likely to see whales with any one company versus another.
Consequently, your provider of choice should be the one that best meets your needs when it comes to:
- Tour length
- Departure point
1) Trip Duration
There are two main options on offer:
I) A basic whale watching tour (3-6 hours) – typically aboard a small open-air zodiac or semi-enclosed vessel.
If you only require a basic/half-day tour you have the option of selecting any of the 5 providers, which offer departures from three different locations.
However, if you intend to book a longer package tour, Prince of Whales will be your provider of choice.
2) Departure Points in Vancouver
There are operators that provide departures from Downtown Vancouver (Coal Harbour), Granville Island and Steveston Village.
Which location is most convenient for you?
This will depend on where you intend to place your journey within your Vancouver itinerary. The four main options are to:
- Add a short whale watching tour onto a visit to historic Steveston Village via Vancouver Whale Watch or Seabreeze Adventures.
- Combine a short whale watching adventure with a trip to Granville Island and select Wild Whales or Prince of Whales.
- Select a longer tour including a visit to Victoria or Seattle which will require departure from Granville Island via Prince of Whales.
- Choose the most convenient departure point to your hotel. Vancouver Whale Watch includes a free shuttle from hotels.
3) Comfort of Vessel
Those prone to motion sickness, seniors, and families with small children may prefer to travel aboard a larger and more comfortable vessel regardless of season.
Conversely, other travellers may prefer to don a survival suit for a more exhilarating open-air trip across the Salish Sea to the grounds.
The decision over whether to select a smaller open-air zodiac versus a larger enclosed vessel will largely boil down to your desired level of comfort.
4) Whale Watching Weather
It’s the West Coast, so inclement weather can make a trip aboard a small open-air vessel a less desirable option, particularly at the beginning or towards the end of the whale watching season.
Your provider of choice will be happy to provide you with weather updates on the morning of departure, so don’t be afraid to ask.
For more information consult our Vancouver weather guide.
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.
Types of Whales Near 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 lense 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.)
Remember, we offer discount tickets through our partner at Viator. We highly recommend purchasing your passes through them.
For more information, visit Viator’s Whale Watching page.
Whale Watching in Vancouver FAQ
When is the peak season for whale watching in Vancouver?
The ideal whale watching months in Vancouver are between the months of 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.
Looking for a Whale Watching Experience?
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.