Want to go Whale watching in Nanaimo, BC? Take an eco-friendly whale watching tour from Nanaimo and you’re guaranteed to see whales! Read on to find out what to expect from British Columbia whale watching.
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Vancouver Island on the British Columbia coast is not only the best place to spot whales in Canada, it could be the place best whale watching Reasons in the world.
First of all, there are many whales that use the surrounding water as a playground. Depending on where and when you go, you have the opportunity to see orcas, humpback or gray whales.
In addition, you can get to know BC’s other wildlife and marine life and enjoy the beauty of this exceptional coastline.
I chose Nanaimo as the starting point for my whale watching adventure, not just because my parents live there, but because Nanaimo is easy to get to from Vancouver and is a good central place to start or end an adventure on Vancouver Island.
Vancouver Island Whale Watch invited me on one of their morning tours and despite my years of travel it was an experience like none I have ever had.
I got a free tour, but as with all of our adventures on this website, I would never recommend an activity that I didn’t 100% think you would love.
Read on to find out what it’s like to go …
Whale watching from Nanaimo, BC
If you are traveling to British Columbia, you should not miss our Vancouver travel guide, Vancouver Island activities and our numerous contributions to visiting the Sunshine Coast in BC.
What will you experience on a whale watching tour?
The day begins with the physical and mental challenge of climbing in all-body all-weather gear. It’s like putting on a jumpsuit made of thick red marshmallows.
Each guest had their own technique to master this challenge.
Some sat on the sidewalk, some tried one leg at a time, others kicked both feet and tried an advanced double-leg shimmy. No matter how we accomplished this mission, we all looked ridiculous!
As soon as I got used to it, the suit made me feel like a real adventurer – I was ready for anything. It is particularly soothing because I know that it acts as insulation and a buoyancy aid in case someone falls overboard!
As soon as we had dressed appropriately, we made the short walk to the docks and boarded our rubber dinghy, a bright orange that clashes wildly with our suits. My pink hat was the perfect compliment to this wild satiety!
Even though we were warned that the front seats offer the bumpiest rides, I still scurry forward because I get the best photos on the front.
Ride of a lifetime
In a few minutes everyone sits and we slowly leave the port of Nanaimo. As soon as we encounter open water, the captain engages in a high gear.
This boat is going fast!
I am used to crossing these waters with my brother’s small sailing boat or on board the majestically calm BC Ferries.
On this boat, the wind whips past so quickly that even though it’s a sunny day, I have to pull my hood up and put on my goggles to stay warm.
It’s a restless day on the Salish Sea and the boat flies over the crest of the wave and comes to the other side with a crash. There are a few waves that are so big that I lift off my seat and it feels a bit like flying. But not good.
Although I’m proud to be tough and adventurous, I wait for a relatively quiet moment and then go back a row. The drive from there is much more pleasant.
Our naturalist and guide has instructed us to constantly look for whales. If the boat crashes and hits the water, we do that too. Of course, scanning the horizon has the added benefit of preventing seasickness, which I think is more important than our ability to spot whales.
Most whale watching companies in the region share information with each other. So if you spot a pod of whales, everyone knows where to go within minutes.
Today we drive south towards Victoria, where there is a well-known feeding place for temporary orcas. Soon we see a couple of boats like ours waving in the water.
I know that the main event is about to begin.
WOW = miracle of the whales
Minutes later, a shiny black fin emerges from the depths and the whole boat gives a collective “wow!”
More shiny orca backs appear and blow mist into the air. We see a shiny blue eye facing us and I wonder if the orcas are interested in our presence, disgusted or indifferent.
One thing is certain. There is no indifference on our part.
Every time a new whale comes into sight, we involuntarily utter every exclamation you have ever heard on a whale watching video.
“Oh my god!” “Look at that!” “There they are!” “Did you see that?”
The pod we saw is known locally as the T36 / T36B pod. This is a family of 5 with the matriarch Flapjack, who is now 50 years old.
Her daughter Tattertip was there too, with her three relatively young calves in tow. The calves are 10-year-old Bhotia, 7-year-old Greenfelder and a 1-year-old baby who has not been named (at least not by humans). I am sure that her mother knows what to call her.
The rules and regulations for whale watching in Canada are very strict and are strictly followed by companies. For this reason, we are not getting close enough to take a decent picture with my cell phone.
Instead of concentrating on photos, I just enjoy the spectacle of a close-knit family of whales looking for food in this natural wonderland.
Keeping a distance is a very good thing – no, a great thing – because it means less interference for the whales.
We don’t stay too long either. This helps prevent the whales from overfilling when more boats arrive. After we had had the opportunity to do “ooh and ahh” long enough, the captain turned us back home.
Along the way, we see other amazing, if not so great, examples of BC’s natural world, including cormorants, jumping fish, seals, sea lions, and a porpoise pod.
While it has been exciting to see the whales, the boat ride and scenery are equally exciting, especially if you’ve never boat on the British Columbia coast before.
Will you see whales
Yes, you will almost certainly see whales on your trip. The success rate of whale watching in the Nanaimo region is around 90%. However, if you are among the unfortunate 10%, you will get your next trip for free.
What other animals will you see?
Although it is billed as whale watching, seeing the whales is only a small part of the entire tour. Our naturalist and captain took us to different locations on the small islands near Vancouver Island, where we saw and met many different local animals.
Among the wild animals we discovered were:
- sea lions
The beauty of the islands and the waterways between them is also a big part of the attraction. If you’ve never been on a boat on the BC coast, get blown away!
When is the best time to do whale watching in BC?
The best time to see whales in BC is from April to October.
The weather is better in the summer months from June to August, but it is also the crowded season. May and September are perfect because you can balance smaller crowds with (usually) decent weather.
It rains earlier in April and October and it is cold, but you will still see whales!
If you want to see gray whales, April and November are the best times as they travel through the Nanaimo area all year round on their way north or south.
Vancouver Island Whale Watch offers tours twice a day at 10:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m.
What to bring
I brought far too much stuff with me on my whale watching trip in Nanaimo! I didn’t know there would be very little storage space on the boat and that was virtually inaccessible as it was under the bench we were sitting on. So try to bring only the bare minimum and leave extras in the hotel or whale watching office on Vancouver Island.
They wear a thick, padded suit for bad weather, so you don’t really need too much clothing.
- In summer on a hot day, all you need is shorts and a t-shirt under your suit
- Long pants and a sweater in cooler weather
- Wear multi-layer tights and pants, as well as a long-sleeved top and sweater in cold weather
I also recommend a wool hat (a hood) as the wind can find its way under your hood.
Wear running shoes or other comfortable shoes with a good grip.
Wear sunscreen on your face (the rest of your body will be covered). You can bring sunglasses, but you’ll find that the included ski goggles are more comfortable and keep the wind out better.
Reusable water bottle
You can fill your bottle in the office.
The closest distance to the whales is 200 m. So if your camera doesn’t have a long telephoto lens, your pictures are unlikely to get too big. Unless you’re an advanced photographer, I would recommend bringing your camera phone with you if an orca shows up right in front of your boat. Otherwise, you spend your time watching instead of taking photos.
Pills for motion sickness
If you get seasick, be sure to take some of them with you before going on board. However, the trip is almost all in sight of the country, so a view of the shore can be a good way to prevent / alleviate seasickness.
Your captain and naturalist are both real professionals, so you’ll probably want to tip them at the end of the tour. We recommend around 15% of the travel price.
Make sure you bring ID – the worst scenario!
Don’t forget that you can’t access most of your belongings while driving. Therefore, keep all the necessary items in your pockets before you set off.
Is whale watching environmentally friendly?
There is much debate about whether whale watching is environmentally friendly or harmful to whales. The correct answer is probably “it is both”.
Whale watching regulations vary widely around the world, and in some places tour operators completely ignore the regulations to get extremely close to the whales. If there are too many boats, boats come too close to the whale or the whales are chasing, this can lead to changes in their natural behavior.
Undoubtedly not a good result.
That’s why I chose whale watching in Canada when I skipped it in other countries where the regulations may not be strict. I know that Canadian regulations are solid and that most companies do their best to follow them while still offering their customers an amazing experience.
Vancouver Island Whale Watch, with whom I was on tour, claims to be the most sustainable whale watching operation in BC. They don’t take you to the resident orca populations that are on the endangered animals list. Instead, they only see growing whale populations like the temporary orcas.
The company is run by marine scientists and the guides are all marine naturalists – people who chose this career because of their enthusiasm for marine life and conservation.
If you really want to see whales but want to avoid the tourist experience, they also offer a tour that takes you with researchers from Keta Coastal Conservation. All proceeds from the tour go to Keta, a nonprofit whale research group.
After all, they are members of the Pacific Whale Watching Association and they donate $ 2 from every seat sold on their regular marine conservation tours.
Canadian whale watching regulations
Here are some options Canadian guidelines Protect whales.
- Boats must always be 200 meters from the whales.
- Boats can only go in the same direction as the whales, so they don’t cut them off or force them to turn.
- If whales emerge closer than 200 m, the captain cannot start the engine. You have to wait for the whales to set off.
- Boats can only spend up to 1 hour with a single whale trap to prevent too much from crowding around the whale.
- Within a kilometer of the whales, boats have to drive slowly (less than 7 knots). This reduces engine noise and interference.
How to Book Whale Watching in Nanaimo
You can book your tickets on the Whale Watching Vancouver Island website. If you want to travel in summer or on a holiday weekend, be sure to book in advance.
- Semi-covered boat tours from June to late October
- Open boat tours (like the one I was on) from April to late October
- Gift vouchers in case you don’t know when to book
You can also book a seaplane trip from Vancouver that takes you there and back on the same day. However, we believe that you should take the ferry and stay on Vancouver Island for at least a few nights.
5 things you didn’t know about killer whales
1. Killer whales were feared and hated in British Columbia.
Fishing killed them and regarded them as malicious predators. People even threw stones at them for fun (they really needed Netflix at the time)! In the 1960s and 1970s, it was common in BC to catch wild whales and to transport them in aquariums. Most of the whales in captivity around the world at the time came from BC waters.
Fortunately, killing or catching whales in BC has been illegal since 1976.
2. Family bonds are very strong in orca populations, especially the mother-calf bond.
Families can spend their lives together – and since whales are around 70 years old, they spend more time together than most human families. For this reason, it is particularly difficult for orcas to be captured and taken captive.
Not only were they taken out of the wild and thrown into a tank, but also removed from their close-knit families.
3. There are three types of orcas that can be found in BC.
- Offshore orcas – Live off the west coast of Vancouver Island and is seen so rarely that scientists only knew about it in the 1990s.
- Resident orcas – There are currently two populations, north and south. The southern killer whales are threatened with extinction because they only feed on salmon. Salmon stocks have been low in recent years, mainly due to human activities. Therefore there is not enough food for the whales. So please turn off the wildly caught salmon steak and choose something more sustainable.
- Temporary killer whales – These guys are called killer whales because they eat marine mammals and nothing else. Seals are their favorite snack, but they can also eat sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and other types of whales.
4. Killer whales are not real whales. They are actually the largest of the dolphin species.
5. Orcas have an enormous brain. Even compared to their huge bodies, their brains are much larger than those of most other mammals.
They are extremely intelligent and have developed a language with clicks and songs that is very different between different pods and whales in different places. This unique vocabulary, along with unique behaviors, is passed on from generation to generation in different pods.
Some orcas have so little in common culturally and behaviorally that without their common genetics they could be considered a completely different species.
A final note on whale watching in Nanaimo
If you’ve always wanted to see whales in the wild, Vancouver Island in British Columbia is the place to be. With guaranteed whale watching and the joy of getting on a boat on this spectacular coastline, this is an unforgettable way to spend half a day on the island.
Because of the strict guidelines that most operators in this part of the world adhere to, you can rest assured that your whale watching trip is a chance to help whales and support whale conservation.
We hope this guide to whale watching in Nanaimo helps you plan your Vancouver Island itinerary! If you have any questions about this or any other part of your trip, please send us an email or PM on Instagram.
♥ Happy transformation trips, Jane & Stephen
Hello, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger of My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and camped, cycled, hiked, kayaked and explored in 50 years! Our mission at My Five Acres is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and to help you travel more mindfully.
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