Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Just when you thought Eastern Canada’s whale watching hotspots had your mind made up, along come British Columbia’s orcas, all bold and showy, tail-slapping your holiday plans. Few species of cetacean are as charismatic as the killer whale, and there’s no better place to see them – up close – than the waters around Vancouver Island.
The beautiful city of Victoria is perfectly placed for whale watching cruises in the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits off the island’s southern tip, where three resident orca pods can be found. Zodiacs, jet-powered catamarans and motor cruisers also head north along Johnstone Strait – another orca stronghold – but you can enjoy a more leisurely experience if you set out from Port McNeil. This small town, on Vancouver Island’s northeast coast, is the main centre for sea kayaking in the region. Paddling in the company of orcas (see below) ranks as one of Canada’s most exciting wildlife activities. Whichever way you decide to plan a rendezvous with these piebald ‘super dolphins’ make sure it’s with a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which abides by guidelines for minimizing disturbance to cetaceans.
There are around 200 resident orcas in Johnstone Strait, each one identified by the shape of its dorsal fin or the black and white markings along its flanks. Over several decades, life histories and family trees have been logged, births and deaths catalogued and behaviour recorded. Transient orcas are found further offshore, travelling in smaller pods and feeding predominantly on seals, sea lions and other cetaceans – unlike resident orcas, which eat salmon. Out of bounds to all vessels, Robson Bight Ecological Reserve is one of the most mysterious whale sanctuaries in the world. Orcas visit here not to feed on salmon, but to rub their bodies on the steeply shelving beaches that occur along this section of Vancouver Island. The best time for whale watching is mid-July to mid-September when orca feed on the salmon run.
Where the Pacific Ocean meets British Columbia’s temperate rainforest, two of Canada’s richest ecosystems form a vibrant cocktail of habitats where, in the space of a few hundred metres, you might find 1000-year-old red cedars rearing from thick, springy carpets of moss, emerald green anemones studding a tidepool and migratory grey whales (March to April) feeding in kelp beds offshore.
West Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park epitomizes this extraordinary wilderness. For full immersion, sign up for the challenging 76km, five- to seven-day West Coast Trail, a backpacking route that links a succession of sandy, log-strewn beaches, sandstone cliffs and old-growth forest. Places are limited and you’ll need to attend a ranger briefing beforehand in order to clue up on tides and travelling safely in bear country.
Bears love British Columbia. Extending in a vast green swathe across the mainland and islands north of Vancouver Island all the way to Alaska, the Great Bear Rainforest covers an area twice the size of the Serengeti. Bella Coola is one of the gateways to this majestic mosaic of coastal mountains, fern-choked canyons and ancient, rain-drenched forest – home to both grizzly and black bears, including a rare, white subspecies (the spirit bear) found on Princess Royal Island.
Thanks to a scattering of superb wilderness lodges (see sidebar), exploring the Great Bear Rainforest is easier than you might think – although you may have to splash out on a floatplane trip to reach them.
Generally, bears are most easily seen from late April when they emerge with cubs from winter dens to feed along estuaries. Sightings are lower during mid-summer when the berry crop encourages them to disperse through the forest, but pick up again during autumn when the salmon run promises a feeding frenzy.
A dreamy backdrop to many of the whale- and bear-watching activities around Vancouver Island and the Great Bear Rainforest, the ice-chiselled rampart of the Coast Mountains reaches a towering climax in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park. But it’s to the Canadian Rockies that most travellers are drawn.
Easily reached from Vancouver by rental car, motorhome or the Rocky Mountaineer train, Banff beckons. Canada’s oldest national park, Banff’s irresistible trio of turquoise lakes, emerald forests and glittering snow-capped peaks attracts around four million visitors a year. You can easily escape the crowds, however, in a canoe or by hitting the trails that thread through Banff’s alpine meadows and pine forests. Keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goat, woodland caribou, lynx, wolverine and grizzly bear.
The largest and one of the wildest national parks in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park promises even better backcountry hiking. Hit the trails during the quieter spring and fall seasons and you stand a better chance of seeing wildlife. Jasper is home to 69 mammal species, ranging from the common Columbian ground squirrel and alpine-dwelling hoary marmot to bigger critters like moose, elk, bighorn sheep, coyote and both black and grizzly bears. Wolf and mountain lion are also present, but rarely seen. Yoho might not be the best-known national park in the Canadian Rockies, but its scenery and wildlife is just as spectacular.
Spilling out of the Rockies onto the Great Plains of Alberta, you’re likely to end up in Calgary, which, along with Vancouver, is often used to bookend a touring trip through Western Canada. From Jasper National Park, though, it’s actually just as straightforward to head to Edmonton. This has the added bonus of providing a springboard to Elk Island National Park, a sanctuary for plains and wood bison, as well as moose, elk, white-tail and mule deer, beaver, porcupine and lynx. The trumpeter swan has been reintroduced here, joining pelicans, great blue herons and a range of other waterbirds.
Edmonton is also a good base from which to launch a foray into the lake-dimpled wilderness of northern Saskatchewan or the Northwest Territories. Aim for Fort McMurray or Yellowknife where backcountry lodges provide an intimate brush with Canada’s Great Outdoors – wildlife watching, fishing and, from around September to April, heavenly gazing at the Northern Lights. If you’re up for a real adventure, a snowshoeing expedition in these northern climes is a great way to hone your wildlife tracking skills.
Kayaking with killer whales
Boat tours in fast Zodiacs are available from various ports, but the best way to explore Johnstone Strait is by sea kayak. Paddling from island to island, carrying your food and fresh water and camping on pebbly beaches or in forest clearings, a kayak tour will enable you to nose about in flat-calm inlets and gain sea-level views of porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles and, with luck, orcas. Sea kayaking tours range from multi-day wilderness camping expeditions to centre-based trips, staying at a kayak camp. Mother ship cruises (in which kayaks are carried onboard) are also available. Operators include Ecosummer Expeditions, Northern Lights Expeditions and Orca Kayak Trips.
Off the beaten track
Kluane National Park, Yukon
At 5,959m, Mt Logan reigns supreme over this wilderness of peaks, glaciers and forests. The Alsek River valley is a good place to look for wildlife, such as Dall sheep, mountain goat, grizzly bear, moose and golden eagle.
Gwaii Haanas National Park, Queen Charlotte Islands, BC
Complemented by the Haida Heritage Site and a National Marine Conservation Area, Gwaii Haanas protects nearly 5,000 sq km of island and ocean – home to thousands of seabirds, as well as black bear, orca and humpback whale.
Aulavik National Park, Banks Island, Canadian Arctic
Over 12,000-sq-km in area, Aulavik is home to 70,000 muskox, as well as polar bear and Arctic wolf.