Unforgettable Wildlife Encounters: Exploring British Columbia’s Riches on a Small-Ship Cruise

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This article is brought to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Late summer on Vancouver Island unveils a remarkable spectacle, aptly known as the “humpback soup.” During this season, ships near the shore become a front-row seat to a mesmerizing display. The sea roils and boils with the powerful presence of humpback whales, their massive bodies breaching and slapping the water’s surface, adorned with barnacle-covered flukes. The reverberating sound of air rushing into their gargantuan lungs creates an awe-inspiring symphony.

Ordinary whale-watching transcends into an exhilarating adrenaline sport, as enthusiasts dash from port to starboard, eagerly seeking a glimpse of a tail fin or being doused by the lingering spray. While the Johnstone Strait, a seemingly unremarkable channel separating Vancouver Island from the rugged mainland of British Columbia, hosts a diverse range of marine life, it is renowned for its abundance of humpback whale sightings. This region also serves as a haven for numerous other species, including majestic grizzly bears, stealthy black bears adorned with salt-crusted fur, elusive sea wolves with a penchant for fish, as well as porpoises, dolphins, and cougars. Bald eagles majestically perch on the island’s coniferous fringes, their white heads sharply contrasting with the green foliage.

For Canadian wildlife enthusiasts, few destinations compare, especially for orca lovers. Three distinct orca populations frequent these waters: the “resident” orcas, vocal and feasting on the annual salmon run that brings life and shimmering silver hues to the waterways each summer; the “transients,” cunning seal-hunters displaying wolf-like pack behavior, silent except for celebratory moments during a meal; and the enigmatic “offshores,” which traverse deeper waters and rarely reveal themselves.

Navigating this maze of waterways is only possible by seaplane, providing a wide-angle but often less detailed perspective, or by boat. Embarking on a small-ship cruise unveils the finer intricacies and the essence of this coastal stretch. It is an opportunity to experience the hushed tranquility beneath the rainforest canopy, with the heavy scent of sap hanging in the air like incense. It’s a chance to hear grizzly bears crunching mussels like breakfast cereal while beachcombing, and to savor the salty tang of freshly plucked samphire from the intertidal zone while aboard a rigid inflatable boat. Moreover, there’s the unforgettable sight of a mighty black fin slicing through the waves at eye level, not just glimpsed from above but experienced up close, right from the bow.

Embarking on a small-ship cruise with Bluewater Adventures’ Island Odyssey unveils an opportunity to observe orcas and other marine life at eye level, a truly immersive experience.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEREMY MATHIEU

The journey commences in the picturesque community of Port McNeill, nestled along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. From there, each day unfolds with flexibility and a leisurely pace, allowing the ship to follow the wind and wildlife sightings. Time slows down, dictated by the rhythm of the tides. On fortunate occasions, when weather conditions permit, the mighty sails are unfurled, and the engines are silenced, allowing only the sounds of cruising whales’ puffing breaths and the gentle washing of waves against the bow.

Highlights along the route include West Cracroft Island, where the Pig Ranch Trail showcases majestic cedars reaching toward the shallows, gracefully mingling with fiery orange seaweed. The sandy banks of the Otter River bear witness to a web of wolf tracks, and Knight Inlet presents a stunning aquamarine lagoon occasionally frequented by families of swimming bears. This archipelago of islands lies at the heart of a vibrant natural world, where all thoughts of modern life gradually fade away with the ebb and flow of the tides.

How to Plan Your Adventure
Bluewater Adventures offers a seven-day Northern Vancouver Island itinerary starting from $4,620 (£2,738) per person, with full board accommodations aboard the Island Odyssey or Island Solitude.

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 encounters

What is the best time to spot humpback whales in British Columbia?

Late summer is the ideal time to witness humpback whales in British Columbia, particularly in the Johnstone Strait off the northeast shore of Vancouver Island. During this period, the whales can be spotted close to the shore, creating a thrilling spectacle known as “humpback soup.”

What other wildlife can be seen during a small-ship cruise in British Columbia?

In addition to humpback whales, a small-ship cruise in British Columbia offers opportunities to encounter a diverse range of wildlife. This includes grizzly bears, black bears, sea wolves, porpoises, dolphins, cougars, and bald eagles. The region’s rich natural ecosystem supports an array of fascinating animal species.

What types of orcas can be observed in the waters of British Columbia?

There are three distinct types of orcas that can be observed in British Columbia’s waters. The “resident” orcas are known for their vocal nature and feed on the annual salmon run. The “transients” are stealthy seal-eaters that display pack-like behavior and remain silent unless celebrating a meal. The “offshores” are elusive orcas that traverse deeper waters and are rarely seen.

How can I explore the coastal paradise of British Columbia?

Exploring the coastal paradise of British Columbia is best done through a small-ship cruise. Companies like Bluewater Adventures offer immersive experiences where you can observe wildlife, including orcas, at eye level. These cruises allow you to navigate the intricate waterways, witness breathtaking scenery, and experience the tranquility of the rainforest while enjoying the comfort and flexibility of a small ship.

What are some recommended stops during a small-ship cruise in British Columbia?

During a small-ship cruise in British Columbia, there are several recommended stops to enhance your wildlife encounters. These include West Cracroft Island, where you can explore the Pig Ranch Trail and marvel at majestic cedars meeting vibrant seaweed. The sandy banks of the Otter River offer a chance to observe wolf tracks, and Knight Inlet provides opportunities to witness swimming bears in its beautiful aquamarine lagoon. Each stop offers unique and unforgettable experiences in this natural paradise.

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