Visiting Vancouver Island? Thinking of whale watching, or more specifically orca whale watching? Whale watching from Victoria is a fun adventure, especially if you love wildlife and nature. Not only will you see orcas and possibly humpback whales, but you will also experience a diversity of other marine and bird wildlife too.
Whale Watching From Victoria
Victoria, the Garden City and capital of British Columbia (BC) is on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, on the Pacific Coast of Canada.
Home to a population of 85,000+ Canadians, it is also a major tourist destination for over 3.5 million visitors each year.
Additional 500,000-day trippers arrive via cruise ships docking at Ogden Point, near James Bay close to Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Whales frequent these clear, calm nutrient-rich Pacific Northwest coastal waters. The area is popular with orcas, more recently, increasing numbers of humpback whales as well as occasional minke and gray whales.
Whilst there are many whale watching tour companies to choose from, we took a recent opportunity to go out with Orca Spirit Whale Adventures.
Orca Spirit Whale Adventures cruise
One of the original BC whale watching tour companies, Orca Spirit Adventures has a great reputation when it comes to whale watching from Victoria, especially orca watching.
Accompanied by two certified marine naturalists on board the Catalina Adventure, we set out heading southwest to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
It wasn’t long before we spotted our first pod of killer whales or orcas, probably four or five in number. Oh my God, I was about to tick off my bucket list item of seeing a wild orca, I can’t believe it. Never did I imagine this would ever happen.
But there they were. Dorsal fins held high. Happily swimming along, not caring about our presence, or even the presence of another whale watching boat either. And relatively so close to shore.
Awesome! After a short while, we saw another pod, and later, yet another group. Oh wow, they were so cool!.
Killer Whale Facts
Meagan, our marine naturalist explained that there are a total of twelve subtypes of orcas. And that orcas are actually part of the dolphin family and not whales.
Killer whales are the largest in the dolphin family and are the ultimate apex predator, even above sharks.
From as far south as Costa Rica, the whales migrate here to feed. Generally one only sees the curved backs of the killer whales, and of course, their fins.
In fact, orca identification relies on the nature of their fins. Males have long straight fins, females more curved. The tip of the fin is more curved in resident orcas, straighter in transient orcas (see below).
Additional identification markers are the white patches behind the dorsal fin on the ‘saddle’, as well as the side of the head.
It is quite rare (and very special) to actually see orcas feeding.
Orcas Of The Pacific Northwest
The three main ecotypes of orcas frequenting these North Pacific waters, in particular, are the Resident, Transient or Bigg’s, and Offshore orcas:
1- Resident Orcas
The Residents tend to form large pods of up to eighty whales or more and are quite vocal.
They are fish eaters, mainly Chinook salmon, and so follow the salmon run from April to October each year when they head for the Fraser River.
These orcas include the Northern and the Southern communities, and it is the latter which are found closest to Victoria.
The Southern Resident orcas form three pods, called the J, K and L pods. Each individual orca has been identified by recording its white ‘saddle patch’ behind its dorsal fin.
These orcas are endangered, particularly as the salmon run has not been as strong in recent years.
The Vancouver Aquarium even has a smartphone app that can be used by researchers as well as Citizen Scientists to report their sightings.
2- Transient or Bigg’s Orcas
The Transient orcas present a different behaviour. They tend to stalk and surprise their prey, often flipping prey between their tails or to each other.
So they hug the coastline looking for seals, porpoises or other whales within bays and rocky island caves or inlets.
Their pods are much smaller, up to eight animals. As they hunt marine mammals rather than fish, they are less vocal so as not to alert their prey.
These are thus the true ‘Killer Whale’ that we are all more familiar with.
3- Offshore Orcas
Offshore orcas, on the other hand, are found far from the shore in open waters.
They hunt schooling fish and possibly sharks.
The many scars on them are due to their affinity for sharks. And they are extremely vocal.
Race Rocks Ecological Reserve
As the day goes on and our ‘killer whale fix’ has been well fed, we head further out to sea. We are on track for an awesome eco-tour of marine wildlife at Race Rocks.
Often fog and strong winds make access to this biodiverse reserve difficult. But today we are blessed with a perfectly calm day for viewing.
Only 11 nautical miles from Victoria, the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve marks the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Deep currents here are very strong and rush through the rocks up to 8 knots as they meet the waters of Georgia Strait.
Migrating Sea Lions
The Pacific Northwest is one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. Its biodiversity is stunning. Along with the variety of whales seen here, sea lions, namely Californian and Stellar sea lions, also call it home.
As soon as we approach the rocks, we can see and hear large pale Stellar sea lions roaring from the rocks as they bask lazily in the sun.
A cacophony of deep-voiced roaring is accompanied by a higher pitched barking. These are the much smaller and darker brown Californian sea lions. In the mix are also a few harbour seals and fat elephant seals.
The sea lions are mainly males. They have made their way up from Mexico and California to feed and fatten up. Then they head south again to mate with the females who generally stay behind.
Up to 2000-3000 sea lions make the migration, and over 300 may be seen on the rocks at any one time. The noise and smell are a telltale sign of this popular haunt!
Great Marine Diversity
Although we didn’t see any, porpoises frequent here too. And don’t forget a huge range of seabirds. Cormorants, gannets, and gulls, as well as the occasional bald eagle, adorn the rocks.
Marine algae and seagrass are abundant along with kelp forests around the rocks. Sea lions playfully dive in and around the kelp floating on the surface. And they love it!
Race Rocks Lighthouse
Protected since 2000, this ecological reserve also houses the historic Race Rocks Lighthouse. Built by the British in 1860, it is the second oldest lighthouse.
It was initially painted with unique distinctive black and white stripes as it was difficult to see when approached from the west.
It operated until 1997 when it was fully automated. The surrounding light station buildings are now used as ecological research buildings.
Celebrating its 150th year, the lighthouse had an interior and exterior renovation in 2009. And it still continues to be a popular attraction with locals and tourists alike.
Whale watching around Vancouver Island
The waters around Vancouver Island is home to pods of resident orcas as well as transient orcas, so it’s possible to see them all year round. However, the best time to see orcas is between May and October.
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