If you’ve visited or live in Vancouver chances are good that you have checked out some of the iconic attractions around town: Stanley Park, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Granville Island. Perhaps you’ve gone for a harbour cruise, too. I’ve done a harbour cruise and it was lovely but slow, sedate even. If you want to kick up the excitement factor by a thousand percent I suggest a whale watching trip. When Jenn suggested we try the half day trip with Prince of Whales Whale Watching I immediately said yes! I don’t have a bucket list of adventures to tick off but if I did whale watching would be a must do.
Check in time is half an hour before departure time. The office for Prince of Whales is in the Westin Bayshore Hotel right on the waterfront in downtown Vancouver. After picking up our boarding cards we congregated outside with about ninety other passengers. Our splendid boat was the Salish Sea Dream, a purpose built 78 foot catamaran. It cost 3.5 million dollars and entered service just last year. Top speed is 35 knots, it has four jets rather than propellers, and it is very stable at all speeds. Boarding was quick and efficient and we left the dock a few minutes early with everyone aboard. There is enclosed seating on the main deck, semi-enclosed and open seating on the upper deck. A snack bar and washrooms are located on the main deck.
One of the benefits of starting the trip from the Westin Bayshore is seeing the sparkling Vancouver skyline from the water as we depart. A safety briefing is conducted as we leave port. Rounding Stanley Park and passing under the Lions Gate Bridge is worth several photos, and like everyone else aboard we could not resist these photo ops. Once out of the harbour the speed picks up and it becomes apparent why it was suggested we dress warmly. Blankets are passed out for the comfort of those who prefer to remain in the open air seating. Baseball style hats are susceptible to being lost overboard because of the wind so you are forewarned to stow them away before regretting your choice of headwear.
In less time than it takes me to drive to Ikea the Salish Sea Dream has arrived at a large yellow buoy not far from Bowen Island with half a dozen Steller Sea Lions on it seemingly yearning for their photos to be taken. The captain announced over the loudspeakers that he would position the boat so the buoy would be on the left side. Even with everybody rushing to the port side the catamaran was rock steady! It was thrilling to watch the sea lions. They are huge! One of them drew a few laughs as it tried and failed to climb aboard the buoy from the water.
Our course continued westward towards Nanaimo. The route taken by the boat varies daily depending on best estimates as to where whales might be located. A humpback whale had been found yesterday and we were in search of its location today. After a short while some arms raised, fingers pointing to a spot on the water in the distance. Nobody shouted “Thar she blows!” but the electric feeling of the sighting excited all aboard. We approached slowly, trying to anticipate where the whale would surface next. Humpback whales can stay underwater for up to half an hour but normally surface much more frequently. When they exhale a large plume of spray from the two blowholes can be spotted from a great distance. Once we sighted the whale again we moved closer for a better look. Guidelines stipulate being no closer than 100 meters to a humpback whale. Had we spotted an orca the closest we could have approached would be 200 meters. I think we rapturously watched this whale for about half an hour, its movements becoming more familiar to us with time: a few breaths, a deep dive that exposed the tail fluke, a few minutes of waiting for the whale to resurface. Humpback whales don’t really have a hump on their backs, they just arch their backs into a hump-like shape as they start a dive. The well informed staff aboard the Salish Sea Dream were eager to share information about this whale and also everything we saw and experienced while aboard. This particular humpback whale is known as Ghost. Identification is made by the distinctive markings on the tail fluke. We didn’t get to see Ghost breach or slap the water with its flippers or tail but it was incredible to see this huge creature of the ocean so close to us.
Closer to Nanaimo we saw multitudes of Harbour Seals, some of them picturesquely posing by Entrance Island. The whole area around Gabriola Island is gorgeous from the water. This trip could be renamed a Seal Watching Expedition as we saw so many Harbour Seals and Stellar Sea Lions. We even caught sight of a huge eagle resting on some rocks before flying off. The return crossing of the Strait of Georgia back to Vancouver gave staff an opportunity to show us on a map exactly where we had wildlife sightings. I would suggest you take the opportunity to chat for a while with the friendly staff. They have seen and experienced wonderful things and have some great stories to tell. Kids in particular were very keen to learn all about the whales. Jenn and I compared our photos from the day and relaxed for a while, rousing ourselves again for the always impressive entrance to Vancouver under the Lions Gate Bridge. This was a great day on the water.
Prince of Whales Whale Watching season is from late April to the first few days of November. From early June to the first week of September there are two excursions per day, one at 8:30 a.m. and the other at 2:30 p.m. The rest of the season there is one trip per day at 12 noon. A long lens will be great if you are a photographer, binoculars will be handy for those without cameras. Dress for strong winds, it is rather cool out on the water. You might want to bring some food and water with you. On sunny days you will want sunglasses and sunscreen. The website for Prince of Whales is https://princeofwhales.com/