Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises on Vancouver Island

Orca (Killer) whales, Humpback Whales and Pacific Gray Whales are the most common whales to see around Vancouver Island. Orca whales are a requested sighting and Vancouver Island is one of the most studied areas in the word for these magnificent creatures. Humpback Whales are one of the largest whales and a breach is an amazing display of nature showing off. Below we give summaries of the best places to whale watch on Vancouver Island and what you can expect to see there:

Victoria and Sidney (close to Victoria)

Most common whales: Southern Resident Orcas (all year), Gray Whales (March to November). Whales here will often let boats come very close. There are more whale watching boats here than any other region since Victoria hosts more tourists than any other place on Vancouver Island.

Victoria is one of the top spots for Orca (Killer) whale watching on Vancouver Island but you also have a chance to spot Humpback, Minke and Gray Whales. Three pods of about 80 resident Orca whales live around the southern tip of Vancouver Island and in the Gulf islands. You also have a chance at seeing both harbour and Dall’s porpoise as well as California and Stellar sea lions.

Most whale watching trips leave from the downtown harbour and last for about 3 hours. You can travel quickly in a zodiac or go the more luxury route in a cruiser or yacht. You have a chance to listen to the whales on a hydrophone and the guides will give you many interesting facts during your trip.

Nearby whale watching options include Oak Bay (5 mins), Sidney (30 mins) and Sooke (50 mins).

Possible sightings: Humpback Whales, Transient Orcas

North Island: Campbell River, Telegraph Cove, Port Hardy

Most common whales: Northern Resident Orcas (All year), Humpback Whales (May to September), Dolphins, Porpoises.

Jacques Cousteau declared Telegraph Cove as one of the best places in the world to observe Orca Whales in the wild.  It is also a starting point for bear watching and wildlife viewing tours to the mainland. There are around 200 northern resident Orca Whales that frequent Johnstone Strait up to Alaska and you could say that Telegraph Cove is the epicentre.  You will also have a chance to see Humpback Whales, Pacific White-sided dolphins, porpoises, Stellar sea lions, and harbour seals. Pacific White-sided dolphins often travel in large groups and are a site to behold.

Possible sightings: Transient Orcas


West Coast: Tofino, Ucluelet, Bamfield

Most common whales: Humpback (May to September) and Gray Whales (March to November). In the last two years there seem to be more sightings of resident Orca Whales, however they only come randomly so it is not something you could expect to see.

From March to mid April  up to 19,000 Gray Whales migrate past the Pacific Rim and every year a few stay around Barkley Sound (between Bamfield and Ucluelet) and in Clayoquot Sound (Tofino).

Humpback Whales can be seen during summer months anywhere within 30 miles of shore and larger groups of them may be spotted while on fishing trips out of Ucluelet, Bamfield or Tofino. Humpback whales will feed in the inlets and it is possible to see them in Barkley and Clayquot sound.

Possible sightings (Rare): Offshore, Transient and Resident Orcas

About Vancouver Island Whales

Orca (Killer) Whales
Researchers from around the world have been coming to Vancouver Island to study the Orca (Killer) whales for a few decades making Orca whales here the best studied whales in the world. There are just over 80 resident Orca whales that frequent the southern Vancouver Island region and Juan De Fuca Strait and about 220 that can be seen from Campbell River up to Queen Charlotte Strait. Transients are not seen as often as residents but will be seen in Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and on the west coast of Vancouver Island near shore, and number about 260. Offshore Orca numbers are harder to estimate. For more about Vancouver Island Orcas…

Humpback Whales
The largest whales around Vancouver Island, the Humpback whales vary between 12-16 meters (39-52 ft) and can weigh as much as 36,000 Kilograms (79,000lbs). Humpback whales are equipped with a baleen which resembles thick strands of long hair which acts as a strainer to filter out plankton, krill, herring and other small fish. Because they have have no teeth, Humpbacks swallow their prey whole and can only eat small marine animals. They eat around a ton of food every day during summer months. The whales hunt using a technique known as bubble net fishing in which a group of humpbacks surround their prey by blowing bubbles and then feasting on the “surrounded” bait. The whale may also make loud vocals scaring the small fish to the surface and then slap the water in an effort to stun them.

Humpback whales spend the summer months feeding as far north as Alaska, however there is always a good population around Vancouver Island. These male humpbacks can make quite a display around other males in what is thought to be a way of letting others know how large they are. For more on Humpback Whales on Vancouver Island…

Gray Whales
There are over 20,000 Pacific Gray whales that make their way north along Vancouver Island every year from late February to April and south in November. About 200 (resident) Gray Whales will stay and feed along the coast of Vancouver Island. New born Gray whales are darker grey or black in colour and start at 4.9 meters (16ft)  and grow to 13-15 meters (43-49ft). Females tend to be slightly larger than males.

Gray whales are identified by scars left by parasites which drop off in the colder waters of Vancouver Island and Alaska. There are two blow holes on the top of their head which can create a V-shaped blow pattern on the surface. Gray whales feed on crustaceans along the bottom of the ocean by turning on its side and scooping up amphipods and small ocean creatures. They will often use their right side and may loose sight in their right eye as they get older.

Pacific White-sided Dolphins
These fun curious creatures are mostly seen in the northeastern part of Vancouver Island as well as north of Vancouver Island in Hecate and Queen Charlotte Strait. Once and while they are seen on the west coast of Vancouver Island, usually offshore following the salmon. They can be seen in groups of up to a thousand following boat wakes or just travelling along seemingly having fun.

Dall’s and Harbour Porpoises
Both Porpoises are usually seen from northern inside waters to Queen Charlotte Strait as well as on the west coast of Vancouver Island. They are almost always seen about 5-7 miles off Ucluelet every August on Lighthouse Bank, but mostly they are seen close to shore.

Dolphins vs Porpoises
Dolphins and Porpoises are often confused since they are about the same size and have a similar shape. But the differences out number the similarities and should help you identify them on your next encounter.

Physical Traits
Killer (Orca) whales are the largest member of the dolphin family and actually have more in common to dolphins than porpoises. Dolphins have a long thin snout with sharp pointed teeth while porpoises have a more blunt nose and coned shaped teeth.

Social Groups
Dolphins usually hang out in large groups and have a curiosity toward humans. Porpoises are quite shy on the other hand. Harbour Porpoises live in pods of 2-4 and Dall’s Porpoises are rarely seen in groups over 20.