Whale Watching Nanaimo – Spending a Day with BC’s Killer Whales

Find out what to expect on a whale watching tour from Vancouver Island

main blog image for whale watching nanaimo with two orcas in the water

Want to go whale watching in Nanaimo, BC? Join an eco-friendly whale watching tour from Nanaimo and you’re guaranteed to see whales! Read on to find out what to expect from whale watching in British Columbia.

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Vancouver Island on the coast of British Columbia is not only the best place to go whale watching in Canada, it might just be the best whale watching grounds in the world.

For a start, there are lots of whales that use the surrounding waters as their playground. Depending where and when you go, you’ll have a chance to see orcas, humpback whales, or grey whales.

On top of that, you’ll get to experience the other wildlife and sea life BC has to offer, and to enjoy the sheer beauty of this extraordinary coastline.

orca jumping over the water in british columbia
Is there anything more beautiful than an Orca in the wild? Photo by Val Watson/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

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 access from Vancouver and a good central place to start or end any Vancouver Island adventure.

Vancouver Island Whale Watch invited me along on one of their morning tours and, despite my years of travel, it was an experience like none I’ve ever had.

I was given a complimentary tour but, as with all our adventures on this site, I would never recommend an activity I didn’t 100% think you’ll love.

Read on to find out what it’s like to go…

Whale Watching from Nanaimo, BC

If you’re heading to British Columbia, don’t miss our guides to things to do in Vancouver, things to do on Vancouver Island, and our multiple posts about visiting BC’s Sunshine Coast.

What Will You Experience on a Whale Watching Tour?

Getting Geared Up

The day starts with the physical and mental challenge of climbing into full-body all-weather gear. It’s like getting dressed in a jumpsuit made of dense red marshmallows.

Every guest had their own technique for surmounting this challenge.

Some sat on the sidewalk, some tried one leg at a time, others stepped into both feet and attempted an advanced double-leg shimmy. No matter how we accomplished this mission, we all ended up looking ridiculous!

author dressed in foul weather gear on the sidewalk
Getting dressed up in the foul weather gear made me feel like a real adventurer, ready for anything.

Once I got used to it, the suit mades me feel like a legit adventurer — I was ready for anything. It’s especially comforting because I know it acts as insulation and a flotation device should anyone fall overboard!

Once appropriately dressed, we made the short trek down to the docks and climbed aboard our inflatable vessel, a vibrant orange that clashes wildly with our suits. My pink hat was the perfect compliment to this saturation gone wild!

Though we’ve been warned that the front seats offer the bumpiest rides, I scurry forwards anyway, reasoning that the front is where I’ll get the best photos.

Ride of a Lifetime

author and passengers on the whale watching boat
Our little group of adventurers were all busily scanning the horizon for whales.

In a few minutes everyone is seated and we are heading slowly out of Nanaimo Harbour. As soon as we hit open waters, the captain kicks us into high gear.

This boat goes fast!

I’m used to traversing these waters in my brother’s small sailboat or aboard the majestically sedate BC Ferries.

bc ferry on blue water
I’m used to the big, slow BC Ferries, so our little orange inflatable seems a little scary at first!

On this boat, the wind whips by so quickly that, even though it’s a sunny day, I have to pull up my hood and don my ski goggles to stay warm.

It’s a choppy day on the Salish Sea and the boat flies over the crest of the waves, coming down on the other side with a crash. There are a few waves so big I gain liftoff from my seat and it feels a little like flying. But not in a good way.

Though I pride myself on being tough and ready for adventure, I wait for a relatively quiet moment and then move back a row. The ride is much more pleasant from there.

Our naturalist and guide has instructed us to all be constantly looking for whales, so as the boat crashes and bumps over the water, that’s what we do. Of course, scanning the horizon has the added benefit of preventing sea sickness, which I suspect is more important than our ability to spot whales.

Most of the whale watching companies in the region share information with each other, so if one spots a pod of whales, in minutes everyone knows where to go.

Today, we head south towards Victoria where there’s a known feeding ground for transient orcas. Soon, we see a few boats like ours bobbing in the water.

I know the main event is about to begin.

WOW = Wonder of Whales

whale tail coming out of the water
When the whales are active, you’ll get to see so much magnificence! This is a humpback whale tail. Photo by Cheyenne Brewster/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

Minutes later, a shiny black fin emerges from the depths and the whole boat releases a collective “Wow!”.

More shiny orca backs pop up to the surface, blowing mist into the air. We see a glossy black eye turned towards us and I wonder if the orcas are interested in, disgusted with, or indifferent to our presence.

One thing is certain. There is no indifference on our side.

Every time a new whale comes into view, we involuntarily utter every exclamation you’ve ever heard on a whale watching video.

“Oh my god!” “Look at that!” “There they are!” “Did you see that?”

The pod we were watching is known locally as the T36/T36B pod. This is a family of 5, with 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 hasn’t been named (at least not by humans). I’m sure her mother knows what to call her though.

three killer whales on a calm blue ocean
We had the honour of watching the five whales from the T36/T36B – a matriarchal family who will stay together their entire lives. Photo by Cheyenne Brewster/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

Whale watching rules and regulations are very strict in Canada, and very strictly adhered to by the companies. Because of this, we don’t get anywhere near enough to get a decent picture with my phone.

Instead of focusing on photos, I just enjoy the spectacle of a close-knit family of whales searching for food in this natural wonderland.

Keeping our distance is a very good thing – no, a great thing – because it means less disturbance for the whales.

We don’t stay too long either. This helps prevent overcrowding around the whales as more boats arrive. After we’ve had a chance to “ooh and ahh” for long enough, the captain turns us back towards home.

On the way, we get to see other amazing, if not quite so magnificent, examples of BC’s natural world, including cormorants, jumping fish, seals, sea lions, and a pod of porpoises.

While it was exciting seeing the whales, the boat ride and the landscape is equally thrilling, especially if you’ve never boated on the BC 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 hovers around 90%. But, if you’re one of the unlucky 10%, you get your next trip for free.

What Other Animals Will You See?

close up of a harbour seal
Check out this gorgeous guy! Just one of the many beautiful creatures you’ll see on your whale watching tour from Nanaimo. Photo by Rebeka Pirker/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

Though it’s billed as whale watching, seeing the whales is only a small part of the complete tour. Our naturalist and captain took us to several spots on the small islands near Vancouver Island where we saw, and learned about, lots of different local animals.

Among the wildlife we spotted were:

  • Cormorants
  • Eagles
  • Seals
  • Sea lions
  • Porpoises

The sheer beauty of the islands and waterways between them is a big part of the attraction, too. If you’ve never been out on a boat on BC’s coast, prepare to be blown away!

When is the Best Time to go Whale Watching in BC?

humpback whale breaching
I’ve never seen humpback whales before. Guess I’ll have to go out whale watching again! Photo by Cheyenne Brewster/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

The best time to go whale watching in BC is from April to October.

You’ll get better weather in the summer months, from June to August, but it’s also be the most crowded season. May and September are perfect because you can balance smaller crowds with (usually) decent weather.

In April and October, it’s more likely to be raining and cold but you’ll still get to see whales!

If you’re hoping to see grey whales, then April and November are the best times, as this is when they will be passing through the Nanaimo area one their way north or south for the year.

Vancouver Island Whale Watch offers tours twice at day, at 10:30am or 3:30pm.

What to Bring

harbour seals on the rocks near nanaimo
Our tour also included sightings of seals, sea lions, porpoises and more. Photo by Rebeka Pirker/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

On my whale watching trip in Nanaimo, I brought way too much stuff! I didn’t realize that there would be very little storage on the boat and that was all but inaccessible, as it was under the bench seat we were sitting on. So try to bring only the necessities and leave any extras at the hotel or in the Vancouver Island Whale Watching office.

Clothing

You’ll be dressing up in a thick, padded foul weather suit, so you don’t really need too much in the way of clothing.

  • In summer on a hot day, shorts and a t-shirt are all you need under the suit
  • In cooler weather, long pants and a sweater
  • In cold weather, wear layered tights and pants, plus a long-sleeved top and sweater

I also recommend a wooly hat (a toque) as the wind can find its way under your hood.

Wear running shoes or other comfortable shoes with good grip.

Sun Protection

Wear sunscreen on your face (the rest of your body will be covered). You can bring sunglasses but you might find that the ski goggles provided are more comfortable and better at keeping out the wind.

Reusable Water Bottle

You can fill your bottle at the office.

Camera

The closest you are allowed to get to the whales is 200 m, so unless your camera has a long telephoto lens, your pictures probably won’t be too great. Unless you’re an advanced photographer, I’d suggest just bringing your camera phone just in case an orca decides to surface right in front of your boat. Otherwise, spend your time watching rather than taking photos.

Motion Sickness Pills

If you get seasick, you’ll definitely want to take a few of these before you get on the boat. However, the trip is almost all in sight of land, so looking at the shore can be a good way to prevent / relieve seasickness too.

Tips

Your captain and naturalist are both real pros, so you’ll probably want to give them a tip at the end of the tour. We suggest around 15% of the trip price.

Photo ID

Make sure you bring some ID on the boat — worst case scenario stuff!

Don’t forget that you won’t be able to access most of your stuff while the boat is in motion, so be sure to stash all the necessary items in your pockets before you embark.

Is Whale Watching Eco-Friendly?

whale tail coming up right near a boat
Though captains are not allowed to get close to the whales, if the whale comes to them, they must not start their motor until it moves off again. Photo by Rebeka Pirker/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

There is plenty of discussion about whether whale watching is eco-friendly or harmful to whales. The right answer is probably “it’s both”.

Worldwide, whale watching regulations vary widely and in some places tour companies ignore the regulations completely in favour of getting extremely close to whales. If there are too many boats, boats get too close to whales, or chase the whales, this can lead to changes in their natural behaviour.

Undoubtedly not a good outcome.

That’s why I chose to go whale watching in Canada, when I would skip it in other countries, where the regulations might not be a strict. I know the Canadian regulations are solid and that most companies do their best to follow them, while still providing an amazing experience for their customers.

Vancouver Island Whale Watch, who I toured with, claim to be the most sustainable whale watching operation in BC. They don’t take you to see the resident orca populations, which are on the endangered list. Instead, they only view growing whale populations, like the transient orcas.

The company is run by marine scientists and the tour guides are all marine naturalists — people who chose this very career because they are passionate about marine life and marine conservation.

If you really want to see whales but want to avoid the tourist experience, they also offer a tour that takes you out with researchers from Keta Coastal Conservation. All proceeds from the tour go to Keta, a non-profit whale research group.

Finally, they are members of the Pacific Whale Watching Association and they contribute $2 from each seat sold on their regular tours to marine conservation.

Canadian Whale Watching Regulations

canadian whale watching regulations graphic
Canada’s whale watching regulations are strict and followed closely by whale watching tour companies.

Here are a few of the ways Canadian guidelines protect whales.

  • Boats must keep 200m away from the whales at all times.
  • Boats can only travel in the same direction as the whales, so they don’t cut them off or force them to turn.
  • If whales surface closer than 200m away, the captain can’t start the motor. They must wait for the whales to move off.
  • Boats can only spend up to 1 hour with a single whale pod, to prevent too much crowding around the whale.
  • Within a kilometre of the whales, boats must drive slowly (less than 7 knots). This reduces engine noise and disturbance.

How to Book Whale Watching in Nanaimo

gif of humpback whale breaching
About the size of a school bus, this humpback was spotted on one of Vancouver Island Whale Watch’s October tours. Photo by Val Watson/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

You can book your tickets on the Whale Watching Vancouver Island website. If you want to go during summer or on a holiday weekend, be sure to book ahead.

They offer:

  • Semi-covered boat tours from June to the end of October
  • Open boat (like the one I was on) tours from April to the end of October
  • Gift certificates in case you don’t know what date to book

You can also book a trip from Vancouver via seaplane, which will get you there and back on the same day. However, we think 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

orca jumping over the water in british columbia
Is there anything more beautiful than an Orca in the wild? Photo by Val Watson/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

1. Killer whales used to be feared and hated in British Columbia.

Fisheries culled them and viewed them as vicious predators. People even threw rocks at them for fun (they really needed Netflix back then)! In the 60s and 70s, capturing wild whales and shipping them to aquariums was common in BC. Most of the captive whales around the world at that time came from BC waters.

Thankfully, since 1976, it has been illegal to kill or capture whales in BC.

2. Family bonds are very strong in orca populations, especially the mother-calf bond.

Families can spend their lives together — and since whales live about 70 years, they spend more time together than most human families. This is why it’s especially hard on orcas when captured and placed in captivity.

Not only have they been taken from the wild and thrown in a tank, but they are removed from their close-knit families as well.

3. There are three types of orcas that can be found in BC.

  • Offshore Orcas – Live off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and are so rarely seen that scientists didn’t even know about them until 1990s.
  • Resident Orcas – There are currently two populations, north and south. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are endangered because they only feed on salmon. Salmon stocks have been low in recent years, mostly due to human activity, so there is not enough food for the whales. So please put that wild-caught salmon steak down and choose something more sustainable.
  • Transient Killer Whales – These guys are called killer whales because they eat marine mammals and nothing else. Seals are their favourite snack, but they can also munch on sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and other whale species.

4. Killer whales aren’t really whales. They are actually the largest of the dolphin species.

5. Orcas have enormous brains. Even relative to their huge bodies, their brains are much larger than most other mammal’s.

They are extremely intelligent and have developed a language of clicks and songs that varies widely between different pods and whales in different locations. This unique vocabulary, along with unique behaviours in different pods, are passed down from generation to generation.

Some pods of orcas share so little in common culturally and behaviourally that they might be seen as an entirely different species if it wasn’t for their shared genetics.

A Final Note About Whale Watching in Nanaimo

If you’ve always wanted to see whales in the wild, then British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is the place to do it. With guaranteed whale sightings, plus the joy of getting out on a boat on this spectacular coastline, it’s a memorable way to spend a half day on the island.

Because of the strict guidelines that most operators adhere to in this part of the world, you can also rest easy 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 as you plan your Vancouver Island itinerary! If you have any questions about this or other parts of your trip, feel free to email or PM us on Instagram.

♥  Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen

Vancouver Island is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. In this post we share exactly what to expect, when to go, and how to book. Click to get planning! #vancouver #vancouverisland #whales #whalewatching #travel #ecotravel #transform #myfiveacres
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