BC & Alberta, Part 3: Whale Watching

Just south of Vancouver’s downtown core you will find Granville Island, located underneath the Granville Street Bridge. I’ve written about the island’s market before, but one thing you can also do is catch a whale watching tour with Wild Whales Vancouver, right from the docks of English Bay.

Upon booking we were advised that our tour could run anywhere between three to seven hours, so we decided to it was best to leave the whale watching for our third and final day in the city. That way we can get all the walking out of our system before we go to sea on a seven-hour tour (and yes, the Gilligan’s Island theme song rang through my head as I typed that).

I’ve been whale watching before out of Victoria, however it was off-season for sightings. February isn’t the best month to go whale watching, especially on a zodiac with the Pacific’s winter winds whipping your face with salt water. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget, or probably ever do again at that time of year. I honestly thought I was going to be catapulted out of the boat at one point from the waves we were hitting. My tail bone and thighs hurt for days afterwards (metal benches for seats + bouncing up and down like a rodeo rider + what felt like the longest squat held in the history of squats = ONE SORE BEHIND).

We unfortunately didn’t see any whales on that tour, although we did see other wildlife like bald eagles, seals and the plethora of exotic sheep and deer on Spieden Island. My heart was set on whales though, so it was disappointing to walk off that boat after hours on the ocean with no Free Willy moment to share. I was certain we’d spot something seeing how we caught a brief sighting of two transient whales while we were on the ferry to Vancouver Island, but no dice. The whales weren’t feeling it that day.

I have to admit that this first experience dampened my hopes for my second whale watching tour. Not only was I scared of the thought of being on a zodiac again, but I had doubts that we’d even spot anything. However, I didn’t let it dampen my mood as well. I was going to be on a boat with one of my best friends on the beautiful waters of the Strait of Georgia. It was still going to be a worthwhile experience, whales or no whales.

We entered the tour company’s office and were immediately met by about twenty other passengers signing in for our scheduled tour. My first thought was “How the hell are we all going to fit on the bloody zodiac?!” There was only about a dozen people on the last tour I was on. Faint stirrings of hope entered my mind as I quickly realized that we won’t be on a boat similar to my first tour. We were taking a BIG boat, which meant that I wasn’t going to feel like I was going to die from going overboard or the impact of waves and/or maintaining a never-ending squatting position. First small victory of the day!

Once we were signed in we were given our full-body floatation suits by our tour guide, Ashley. She was bubbly and friendly, and just proved my theory that all Ashley’s are awesome 😉

For some reason I thought it’d be a good idea to wear flip-flops that day (my head must have been up my ass while getting dressed that morning), so I felt like a fool wearing this equivalent of an adult snowsuit with floppy pieces of rubber on my feet. It was almost like from the ankles up I decided to go to the Arctic for vacation, but from the ankles down my body was protesting and wanted to be in the warm sands of the Caribbean. I had to take a picture to show how foolish I looked.

This got posted to Facebook with the following caption: "Full-body life preserver suit and I wore flip-flops. Idiot. Bring on the whales!"

This got posted to Facebook with the following caption: “Full-body life-preserver suit and I wore flip-flops. Idiot. Bring on the whales!”

I asked Ashley #2 about my footwear and she chuckled, saying “We wear flip-flops onboard all the time!”. Huzzah! Small victory #2! I’m not that much of an idiot after all!

We all boarded the vessel, got comfy in our seats, and made our way out of English Bay in perfect weather conditions. Within just a few minutes we spotted a few Harbour Porpoises. Things were looking promising.

Before the tour got fully underway, Shannon and I took the opportunity to document our apparel. There’s no way you can put us on a boat in those suits and expect us to behave.

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We were on the boat for about three hours when we were advised that we were nearing the maximum distance that we could travel. Hope. Slowly. Dissipating…

Then, no less than ten minutes later, we were told by Ashley that there was a whale sighting approximately fifteen minutes out from where we were.

Whales!! Nearby! We were going to see wild whales! Finally!!

This was the level of excitement that I was feeling. I kept it in though, using only a few smiles to show it. C’mon, there were kids on board. It was their job to get all giddy and bounce around (mind you, one young girl was a miserable little bugger. Maybe I should have piped up to make up for her lacking).

After Ashley’s announcement everyone had their eyes glued to the waters. We eventually reached a group of idling boats and knew that we were in the right spot. Within just a few moments we finally got to partake in our first whale sighting as a group — a dorsal fin broke the water, followed by a few more of varying sizes. We had found a transient pod.

I wish I had been able to get better photos, but alas, I had to take my camera in to get fixed one week before our trip (funny enough, I got a call the day we were coming back to say it was ready to be picked up. Figures…). Relying on my mother’s tiny digital camera and my iPhone was frustrating. More than one person on that boat had cameras to make any professional envious, and there I was with my phone, trying to capture a moment I’d been dreaming of for years.

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Squint hard enough and maybe you’ll see the black spot in the distance.

Canadian law prohibits any vessel from coming within 100 meters of a whale. Also, you can only be that near a whale for a maximum time of one hour. I think it’s safe to say we used up the full hour.

In the end our tour guide counted eight orcas. EIGHT. She was able to confirm that it was the J Pod based on the notches on their dorsal fins. The J Pod is part of the Southern Resident Community of orcas, which also includes the K and L Pods. I couldn’t have told you the difference between one or the other, only that they were majestic, and beautiful, and I was standing in awe with my mouth open for the entire duration of our visit. After a while I gave up on trying to get any good shots with what I had and just watched the whales as they surfaced, spouted, then dove back under the black water. Sometimes the best pictures are those you capture with your mind.

Once our time was up we started to back track and prepared ourselves for the three-hour return trip. I actually had a nap on the way back to the city. After hours of being in the sun and on the water I was exhausted. I fell asleep so quickly and so deeply that my head was bobbing around like a marionette doll (I may have even drooled a wee bit lol). When I woke up I looked at Shannon and she just snickered at me.

We saw a few more porpoises on our way in and were offered the view of the southern Vancouver skyline as we approached English Bay. It was amazing.

Here are a few more scenic shots I took from the boat:

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Once we were docked and stripped of our suits we made our way back through Granville Market, caught the Aquabus back to the other side of False Creek and once again hit up Umeda for dinner ($7 gets you three sushi rolls AND miso. It’s a traveller’s dream!).

We had an early departure the next morning as we were going to be picking up our rental car and hitting the Crowsnest Highway, so we gave ourselves an early bedtime. We were also sunburnt and sore from spending seven hours on a boat, so going to bed was exactly what these two girls needed.


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