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Rolf Hicker Photography
Animal * Nature * Travel Photography

Whale Watching Orca Whales British Columbia

One of the main tourist attractions on Vancouver Island in British Columbia is whale watching.

The orca whale-watching season on northern Vancouver Island is a time that I look forward to every year.

As some of you know I moved from Germany to Canada a few years back. Many people ask me why we have chosen northern Vancouver Island as our home in Canada. “Why not Victoria or Vancouver,” I’m asked, “Isn't it better from a business perspective to be in a large city environment?” My short answer is that this was not a business decision. We moved to northern Vancouver Island because of the amazing natural beauty and wildlife, which is here in abundance, and because of the orca whales.

Orca Whale Watching Sunset British Columbia

view large version of an orca whale at sunset here - and view more 0rca whale, killer whale pictures here

I have been observing and photographing orca’s—sometimes called killer whales or orcinus orca—professionally for the last 24 years. I have bounced around the ocean, taking photos from small inflatable boats and in larger whale watching vessels. Let me tell you, it is much more comfortable to set up my camera equipment in the comfort of a larger boat.

Orca Whale Killer Whale Activity Spy Hopping
Without a doubt I have found that the North Island is the best location for serious orca photography and whale watching. There is whale watching on the southern tip of Vancouver Island but I have to say, from a photographic perspective, that I have always come away from my experience in Victoria extremely disappointed. Seeing orca whales is always a great experience but I find that there are too many boats around the orca’s, sometimes as many as 100! There are also fewer orca whales in the southern pods; 80 whales compared to around 217 whales in the northern groups. Victoria is a busy port city with thousands of recreational boaters and they all love the whales, perhaps too much so. Sometimes it feels like chaos out on the water. However, if you like the thrill of high-speed boat’s and bumpy rides, don’t mind getting wet and are just want a quick snapshot of the orca whales, there are many whale-watching tours operating out of Victoria to chose from.

If you want unparalleled beauty and enjoy photographing nature at it’s finest then the North Island is the place to be. There are certainly fewer boats jostling for space to see the orca whales. Northern Vancouver Island is a destination for recreational boaters but, because of the time that it takes a boater to travel up to the North Island from Vancouver or Seattle, fewer boats tend visit the area.

Beautiful Male Orca Killer Whale Photo
The trip to the North Island will put you at the southern edge of the Great Bear rainforest, which has some of the largest trees on the planet and is home to one of the densest populations of grizzly bears in North America. The area is also the summer home to 16 pods of orca whales. The orcas spend their day’s fishing, resting and swimming in and around the waters of Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait, Blackfish Sound and the Broughton Archipelago. The home territory of the great bears and magnificent orca whales is majestic, raw and wild. Giant cedars hug the shores and hundreds of islands dot the area. In the distance snow-topped granite monoliths reach up like primordial titans of the heavens. Once you enter the waters of the North Island and slip into mystic lands of the Broughton Archipelago time seems to stop; the past and future become unimportant.

Far from the cares and busyness of daily life you enter a world of high cliffs and fjords and move among marine life that match their habits and rhythms to a life dictated by the seasons, the weather and the tides. You will see white-shelled beaches and perhaps hear wolves calling in the distance. Bears walk the shores and fish for their meals in estuaries. You will find wildlife of every description, all within sighting from your boat. There are orcas, humpback, minke and grey whales; hundreds of seals pop up to the surface of the water like bobbing corks; there is a large breeding rookery of Steller’s sea lions and their throaty calls warn of their presence.

Orca Whale Splashing Tail Vancouver Island
Dolphins and porpoises are almost always about, often challenging passing boats to a game of catch-me-if-you-can, as they shoot through the water like torpedoes, flashing back and forth just centimeters under the bow of your boat. There are bald eagles, too many to count; soaring, hunting and perched on outstretched branches of stately cedars overlooking their kingdom. During nesting season you can sometimes see baby eagles poking their fuzzy heads above the snarl of twigs that seem precariously balanced in treetops that serve as their home. If you love birds there are orange-footed oystercatchers, auklets, murres, murrelets, scoters, cormorants, gulls and phalaropes; there are over 600,000 sea birds in the area.

The North Island is also the ancestral home to the Kwakwaka’wakw, a water people who live along the shores of the northwest coast. They are an ancient people who have worked the sea for over 10,000 years. Whale watching trips sometimes cruise past villages with names like Gwa’yasdams, Kalugwis or Mi’mkwamlis where you will discover remnants of the past existing side by side with viable working communities. Long houses, traditional clam beaches and totem poles will greet you along the way. After a day whale watching you can take the ferry to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island to visit the home of the Namgis First Nations peoples and see elaborately carved cedar masks and potlatch regalia housed in the U’Mista Cultural Centre.

Whale Watching Tour Boat Gikumi Orca Whales
The two major whale watching tour operators on northern Vancouver island are Stubbs island Charters, which operates out of Telegraph Cove and Mackay Whale Watching in Port McNeill. I can highly recommend both companies. Mackay Whale Watching and Stubbs Island Whale Watching are pioneers in the whale watching business and helped set the standards for ethical whale watching that are in place today. Both companies offer excellent whale watching adventure tours.

Stubbs Island Whale Watching operates out of the picturesque boardwalk community of Telegraph Cove and Mackay Whale Watching is situated in the town of Port McNeill, the hub for the North Island.

Both companies share a passion for the work that they do and are deeply committed to the ethical preservation of the marine environment. You can’t go wrong with going out with either company.

Orca Whale Watching Tour Boat Naiad Explorer Vancouver Island
There are slight differences between the two operators and it simply depends on what you want. The tours out Telegraph Cove, aboard the Gikumi or Lukwa, are a little shorter in duration, about 3½ hours. They have a full time naturalist on board with lots of knowledge and information for you and Captain Wayne’s attitude of, “any day above ground is a good day,” is infectious.

The tours leaving from Port McNeill are longer in duration. Mackay Whale Watching’s vessel, the Naiad Explorer, normally goes out for about 4 to 5 hours (honestly I can't remember a tour where they did not stay longer if stuff was really happening). The MacKay’s are more of a family orientated business; Bill and Donna’s son and daughter play a significant role in the operation of the boat. Bill’s snappy patter delights and entertains while delivering serious and interesting commentary. The best thing would be to spend a day with each company.
I urge you to come up to the North island, to Telegraph Cove or Port McNeill, to experience whale watching at its finest!

Here some more details:

Mackay Whale Watching:

Phone: Toll free in North America: 1-877-663-6722

Price (2010): Adults CDN $104.76 + 12% HST

Tour duration: 5 hours

Location: Port McNeill

Website: http://www.whaletime.com


Stubbs Island Charters:

Phone:1-250-928-3185 or toll free in North America: 1-800-665-3066

Price (2010): Adults CDN $84 - $94 + 12% HST

Tour duration: 3 1/2 hours

Location: Telegraph Cove

Website: http://www.stubbs-island.com


If you come all the way to northern Vancouver Island then you "MUST" go whale watching. I would recommend to spend at least 3-5 days up here to have enough time to see the beauty of northern Vancouver Island. if you need a unique place to stay...I need to point out our brand new "The Artists Point Bed, Breakfast and Photo Tours accommodation near Port McNeill and Telegraph Cove".

Please let me know if you have any questions, updates for this whale watching info or just leave a comment to let me know what you think about it. Thanks for reading - it makes it worth for me to talk about things. This blog took 3/4 of a day for me to finisih - not counting the uncounted days on the water with the whales! So yes, I DO appreciate your comments.

This blog is based on my personal opinion, which I've built on with many years of experience from traveling and living as a photographer on northern Vancouver Island.

Here is a direct link to my orca (killer whale) photos.

Author: Rolf Hicker - 2010-08-02
last blog: Animal Nature Travel AND Baby Pictures
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