The closest that most of us get to a mighty killer whale is on the big screen, but the sight of a black and white orca breaching the water in the wild remains high on many traveller’s wish lists. On Canada‘s west coast it’s possible to take whale watching to a whole new level and kayak amongst the orcas in Canada on the trip of a lifetime.
British Columbia’s extensive coastline of ancient temperate rainforests, islands and secluded beaches is home to some of the world’s finest wildlife viewing and the area around Vancouver Island is one of the best places in the world to reliably see killer whales.
Amongst the small islands and straits of water that separate Vancouver Island from the mainland, there are around 90 resident orcas that can be seen feeding on the abundant salmon, seals and sea lions every summer.
Whale watching boats run day trips out to see the killer whales in action: from April to October the large pod of resident orcas can be found around the southern area of the island and out in the Pacific Ocean transient whales can be seen passing by. In the mid-winter 20,000 Pacific grey whales take part in the great migration from Baja to Alaska, skirting around Vancouver Island on their travels. The island itself is bigger than England (around the size of Israel or Taiwan) but can easily be reached by ferry from Vancouver on the BC mainland.
The resident orca pod gives visitors unique opportunities to get up close and personal with them on kayaking adventures from Vancouver Island. The predictability of the orcas’ location and the easy accessibility to their remote habitat makes the area perfect for enjoying guided kayaking expeditions alongside the whales.
Sea kayaking takes you out on the water for an orca’s eye view of the pod. Whale watching boats are prohibited to go too close to the whales, so although they provide a great viewing platform, nothing beats the silent swish of your oar through the clear water as you gently bob amongst the orcas.
Despite their name, killer whales or orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. Their sharp teeth earned them the fearsome “˜killer whale’ moniker and they are top predators in the Pacific: a kayaking tour will also give you the chance to see some of their prey, from sea lions and seals to small whales.
The orcas come to the area in summer to feed on the animals that feast on the plentiful salmon that call the Pacific Northwest home. Both sides of Vancouver Island offer orca-spotting opportunities, with Tofino on the west coast and Telegraph Cove on the northeast coast being the top spots to see orcas in Canada on kayaking day trips or multi-day adventures. Telegraph Cove is a popular destination that is close to Robson Bight Ecological Reserve; an orca sanctuary protected from visitors, which is home to beaches where the resident orcas come to “˜rub’ themselves on the pebbly beaches every year.
You don’t need to be a hardcore kayaker to experience floating along with the orcas. In Johnstone Strait, between Vancouver Island’s east coast and the mainland of British Columbia, there are kayaking camps where you can base yourself and enjoy shorter paddling trips out to see the whales.
Typical camping trips with a small operator such as Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures last four days and involve a 45-minute water taxi from Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island to reach base camp. Port McNeill can be reached from Vancouver via a ferry ride to Nanaimo on the east coast of the island and a four-hour drive up-island. Rustic raised tents and beachside saunas means the experience falls at the comfortable end of camping and the highlight of each day is your chance to go out on a guided paddle to spot the whales.
Sometimes orcas come right to base camp and you might get a show of fins with your camp dinner but the flexibility of the sea kayaks means that during the day you can meander amongst the small islets covered in ancient rainforests and look out for bald eagles swooping down to catch salmon… the chances are that the orcas will not be far behind.
The high concentration of killer whales in the Johnstone Strait area means you have a good chance of encountering resident orcas on your kayak adventure, and the non-intrusive nature of travelling under your own steam means an opportunity to silently experience the majesty of the mighty whales from a whole new perspective. As the whales gently glide out of the water and you find yourself amongst the pod, it’s impossible not to be awed by the grace of their movements and their sheer size.
Humpback whales also call the area home and it’s not unusual to wake up in the morning and hear one blowing out water as they make their migration through the area. Minke whales, Stellar sea lions, dolphins, seals and porpoises also frequent the area, making every kayak expedition a wildlife safari.
For extra wildlife viewing opportunities some small operators such as West Coast Expeditions offer orca and bear watching safaris that combine a stay at a kayak base camp with a trip to Knight Inlet, a two-hour boat ride away, to see grizzly bears as they feast on salmon.
Whether you’re an experienced kayaker or have never picked up a paddle before, a camping trip with the orcas in Canada is the perfect opportunity to get as close to the whales as possible, and see them as they should be: wild and free.
Header image © Boomer Jerritt/Tourism Vancouver Island
Have you been kayaking with orcas in Canada? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Written by Amy Watkins