Discover the Magnificent Wildlife of British Columbia on an Intimate Cruise

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This article was originally published by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

During the late summer weeks off the coast of Vancouver Island, a spectacle known as ‘humpback soup’ unfolds. The sea boils with the magnificent presence of humpback whales, their massive bodies heaving and splashing, sending barnacle-crusted flukes slapping against the water’s surface. The air resonates with the roar of their immense lungs inhaling moist, gusty winds.

Whale-watching, typically a serene activity, transforms into an adrenaline-fueled sport. Passengers dash from one side of the ship to the other, eagerly seeking a victorious glimpse of a tail fin or getting drenched by lingering sprays of seawater.

While this region offers abundant opportunities to spot marine mammals, the Johnstone Strait stands out as an exceptional location for encountering humpbacks. The narrow and seemingly unremarkable channel that separates Vancouver Island from the rugged mainland of British Columbia is home to a diverse array of species. Here, you can encounter majestic grizzlies lumbering along the salt-crusted shores, elusive black bears lurking in the shadows, and rare sea wolves that feed on fish. Porpoises, dolphins, cougars, and bald eagles with their striking white heads perched among the island’s green conifers further enrich this coastal ecosystem.

Few places rival the richness of Canadian wildlife, and when it comes to orcas, there are few destinations on Earth that can compare. The waters here host three types of orcas: the vocal ‘residents’ that feast on the annual influx of silvery salmon; the ‘transients,’ who cunningly stalk seals in a wolf-like pack and remain silent except when celebrating a meal; and the enigmatic ‘offshores’ that roam the deeper waters and are rarely encountered.

The only routes into and out of this maze of waterways are by seaplane, which provides a wide-angled but distant perspective, or by boat. Opting for a small-ship cruise allows you to immerse yourself in the intricate details and truly grasp the essence of this coastal stretch. Delve into the hushed atmosphere beneath the rainforest canopy, inhale the aromatic scent of sap that hangs in the air like incense, witness grizzly bears cracking open mussels like breakfast cereal on the beach, savor the tang of freshly plucked samphire from the intertidal zone while aboard a rigid inflatable boat, and catch sight of a majestic black fin slicing through the waves at eye level.

Embarking on a small-ship cruise aboard the Island Odyssey operated by Bluewater Adventures presents an unparalleled opportunity to observe orcas and other marine life from a unique vantage point.

The journey commences in the picturesque community of Port McNeill, nestled along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. From there, the itinerary unfolds at a leisurely pace, guided by the wind and the serendipity of wildlife sightings. Time seems to slow down, dictated by the ebb and flow of the tides. Weather permitting, the sails can be unfurled, and the engine silenced, leaving only the rhythmic sounds of cruising whales and the gentle lapping of waves against the ship’s bow.

Highlights along the route include West Cracroft Island, renowned for its majestic cedars that stretch toward the shoreline to meet vibrant orange seaweed; the sandy banks of the Otter River, crisscrossed with the tracks of wolves; and Knight Inlet, a tranquil lagoon occasionally traversed by families of swimming bears. Within this labyrinth of islands, a thriving natural world envelops you, gently dissolving any remnants of modern life as they ebb away with the tides.

How to Experience It:
Bluewater Adventures offers a seven-day Northern Vancouver Island itinerary aboard the Island Odyssey or Island Solitude, starting at $4,620 (£2,738) per person, including full board.

This story was made possible with the support of Bluewater Adventures and Destination British Columbia.
Originally published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here (available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about wildlife-rich adventure

What is the best time to go on a small-ship cruise in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait?

The best time to go on a small-ship cruise in Johnstone Strait is during late summer when whales, including humpbacks and orcas, can be spotted. This period offers abundant wildlife encounters and thrilling whale-watching experiences.

What can I expect to see during the cruise?

During the cruise, you can expect to see a variety of wildlife, including humpback whales, orcas (residents, transients, and offshores), grizzly bears, black bears, sea wolves, porpoises, dolphins, cougars, and bald eagles. The diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the region provide opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

How long is the cruise and where does it start?

The cruise typically lasts for seven days and begins in the picturesque community of Port McNeill, located on Vancouver Island’s northeast coast in British Columbia, Canada. From there, the itinerary unfolds, guided by wildlife sightings and the natural rhythms of the tides.

What is the accommodation like on the small-ship cruise?

Accommodation on the small-ship cruise is provided aboard the Island Odyssey or Island Solitude, operated by Bluewater Adventures. These ships offer comfortable cabins and amenities to ensure a pleasant and enjoyable experience throughout the journey.

How much does the cruise cost and what is included?

The seven-day Northern Vancouver Island itinerary starts at $4,620 (£2,738) per person and includes full board, covering meals and accommodations on the ship. This all-inclusive package allows you to focus on wildlife encounters and exploration without worrying about additional expenses.

Is this cruise suitable for all ages and experience levels?

Yes, this cruise is suitable for all ages and experience levels. Whether you are a wildlife enthusiast, nature lover, or simply seeking an extraordinary adventure, the small-ship cruise offers an immersive and unforgettable experience for everyone. Professional guides and crew members ensure the safety and enjoyment of passengers throughout the journey.

More about wildlife-rich adventure

  • Bluewater Adventures – Official website of Bluewater Adventures, the operator of the small-ship cruise mentioned in the text.
  • Destination British Columbia – Official website of Destination British Columbia, providing information about travel and experiences in the region.
  • Johnstone Strait – Wikipedia page providing details about Johnstone Strait, the narrow channel mentioned in the text.
  • Vancouver Island – Official tourism website for Vancouver Island, offering insights into the attractions and activities available on the island.
  • Whale-Watching in British Columbia – A guide to whale-watching in British Columbia, highlighting the best locations and species to observe.
  • National Geographic Traveller (UK) – Official website of National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, where the original article was published.

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