Whale Watching the Ethical Way in British Columbia, Canada

by Anna Lutz

The Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada, is one of the world’s best whale watching destinations.  Every year, tens of thousands of eco-tourists from around the world come to experience close encounters with orca, humpback whales, grey whales and other ocean-dwelling creatures.  However, as the demand for whale watching excursions grows, so does the number of tour operators who prioritize profit over ethics.  Travelers who want to watch whales in a responsible way need to look into potential tour operators to ensure that they are acting with the best interests of the animals and environment in mind.  We’ve got three questions that savvy travelers can ask whale watching companies to help determine if they’re ethical eco-tourism providers.

Humback whale

“Will we get really close to the whales?”

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has strict guidelines about the distance that whale watching boats need to leave between their boats and the whales.  To avoid distressing the whales, and to prevent an accidental collision, boats should always remain at least one hundred meters (about 325 feet) away from the whales.  Similarly, to avoid disrupting the whales’ natural movement and hunting patterns, boats should never approach whales from the front or rear.  Instead, they should approach from the side and move parallel to the whales.  A professional ethical tour operator will know exactly how to position the boats so that passengers can see and photograph the whales, even from this distance.  If your tour operator intentionally disturbs any marine life, you should ask them to respect the animals’ need for space while you’re on the boat and then report them to Fisheries and Oceans once you’re back on land.

“Are you involved in scientific research?”

The most ethical whale watching companies aren’t only in the tourism business.  In British Columbia, many ethical whale watching organizations work with the expert researchers at the Pacific Wildlife Foundation to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems.   Others partner with the Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, which uses data about the dates and locations of whale sightings to monitor the health of the region’s whale pods and to identify the ecosystems that most need to be protected.  Before you choose a whale watching operator, ask their employees about the company’s contributions to marine research.  If they can’t give specific details about their involvement in scientific research, walk down the street to the next tour company.

“What can we see besides whales?”

Some marine biologists worry that too much emphasis on watching whales has caused both tour operators and the public to overlook the other flora and fauna that live on British Columbia’s coast.  In fact, British Columbia is home to more than sixty-five endemic species of plants and animals that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.  More than 200 species of birds call B.C.’s coast home, and more than thirty different species of marine mammals live in its waters.  An ethical tour operator will ensure that every whale watching boat is staffed with an expert who can educate passengers about the awe-inspiring diversity and interconnectivity of the plants, fish, animals and birds that they may encounter during the excursion.  Participants should end the tour with a better understanding of the entire ecosystem and how their choices can impact it both positively and negatively.

Recommended Whale Watching Tours

Adventure Tofino Wildlife Tours – Best for keeping a respectful distance from animals.  In addition to offering whale watching tours via quickly-manoeuvrable Zodiac boats, Adventure Tofino also has regular tours where visitors can watch bears frolic on the beach from the safety of a boat.

Remote Passages Marine Excursions – Best for their contributions to environmental science.  They work with the Pacific Wildlife foundation and support programs to educate the public about the delicate ecosystem in the Clayoquot Sound region.

Prince of Whales – Best for expert guides, with skippers including award-winning wildlife photographers, experts in fisheries science and biologists.

Visiting Guidelines

The best whale watching in British Columbia takes place in the waters off Vancouver Island.  From the city of Victoria (on the island’s southern tip, and accessible by ferry from Port Angeles, Seattle or Vancouver), resident orca pods are usually spotted between August and November, while transient pods pass by year-round.  Humpback whales are usually nearby from August to December, and minke whales are most commonly seen in the summer.  Head to Tofino, on the island’s west coast, and you have an excellent chance of seeing some of the 20,000 gray whales that migrate past this small town each year between March and October.  While whales are harder to find in the winter, sea lions and porpoises are still omnipresent around both Victoria and Tofino.




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