Wildlife Tours Around Vancouver Island
This dynamic coastal environment is home to some of the most spectacular wildlife in the world, in the water and on the land. Well-qualified operators offer various exciting excursions to see whales, grizzly and black bears, dolphins, harbour seals, otters and more wildlife up close. Several excursions also offer the chance to learn about First Nations culture and local history.
The east shore of Vancouver Island is on the Pacific flyway, making it a great place to see migrating sea and shore birds. Campbell River and Telegraph Cove are popular jumping off points for the tours, and they journey through the calm waters of the Discovery Passage, Johnstone Strait and other nearby inlets in pursuit of wildlife and adventure.
Excursions offered by knowledgeable operators travel along inlets and sheltered bays, and are often fortunate to see black bears come out of the rain forest to feed on crunchy crabs, clams and barnacles. Along the way, there are opportunities to watch bald eagles nest and hunt, and enjoy the playful antics of sea otters.
Knight Inlet is a popular destination to watch Grizzly bears in the wild. Bute Inlet is also home to a population of grizzlies. Another way to experience and explore is sea kayak, and day trips paddling the waves provide a fun, active way to get up close with the scenery and enjoy the wildlife.
If you’re looking for some heart pounding adventures, consider a tour that includes the thrill of tidal rapids and some of the fastest ocean currents in the world that reach 15.5 knots (29 kilometres per hour). The water really moves, but there’s very little of the rolling motion often found in the more open ocean along Vancouver Island's west and south coasts. That makes tours here particularly appealing for those prone to getting sea sick.
There’s plenty of wildlife in the high country, too. Strathcona Provincial Park is home to the critically-endangered Vancouver Island marmot. In 1998, biologists estimated the population had dropped to barely 50 due to clear-cut logging and predators. Over the last dozen years, a captive breeding program has helped rebuild the population to more than 200. The park is also home to Roosevelt elk, black bears, wolves, Trumpeter swans, deer and beavers, and other creatures.
Parksville’s annual Brant Wildlife Festival every March and April celebrates the migration of up to 20,000 Brant geese from Mexico to their breeding grounds in Alaska. The beaches and marshlands around town and neighbouring Qualicum come alive every spring with the black-hued sea geese. They pause here by the thousands to rest and feed on the herring roe, algae and sea grasses. Guided tours of the feeding areas take visitors to special viewing locations.
The Comox Valley and Baynes Sound are home to the second highest concentration of overwintering waterfowl in British Columbia. No wonder this area has been designated as a “Globally Significant” Important Bird Area by the BC Federation of Naturalists and Bird Studies Canada. Birds come for the protected waters and nearby farmlands, which provide habitat and abundant food supplies—creating a cacophonous performance binocular-clad birdwatchers just can’t resist. This valley is also the winter home of about 2,000 Trumpeter Swans, a once endangered bird that can be spotted in many fields from October through March. Near twilight, flocks of swans frequently gather in the Courtenay River Estuary, easily viewed from the Courtenay Municipal Air Park Walkway located near the Visitor Centre. The centre sells a comprehensive “bird checklist” for the area, itemizing the numerous bird species that can be found, including diving ducks, 10 species of gulls and terns, and more than a dozen species of raptors.
The 18.6-hectare Buttertubs Marsh in Nanaimo is an urban oasis for Canada Geese, ring-neck ducks, American Widgeon, Hooded Mergansers, Great Blue Herons and more than 20 species of songbirds. It is the only documented breeding site of American Bitterns on Vancouver Island. Once threatened with extinction in the Lower 48 States, the Bald Eagle is now flourishing on Vancouver Island, and is found along coastlines and up estuaries, especially during salmon spawning season. These majestic birds, with their distinctive white heads, are often spotted sitting atop dead trees near water.
Did You Know?
Bald Eagles can live 30 years or longer. While they prefer a diet of fish, they’ll eat whatever they can sink their talons into: carrion, rodents, snakes and birds.
Harbour Seals can stay submerged for up to 28 minutes. They forage in shallower waters for fish, crustaceans and mollusks.
Black Bears are smaller than their Grizzly Bear cousin (which do not live on the Island) and eat berries and meat, with crabs and mussels found under rocks at low tide a summer treat.
In British Columbia, waters there are three distinct populations of Killer Whales: resident (fish-eating), transient (mammal-eating) and offshore. Resident populations are divided into two communities: southern (Victoria/San Juan area) and northern (Northern Vancouver Island and north). Killer Whales are the largest of the dolphin family. Female killer whales range from 2.5 metres at birth to 8 metres (up to 26 feet) and weigh in at 6,500-7,500 kilograms (up to 16,500 pounds). Males reach 9 metres (nearly 30 feet), and weigh 9,000 to 10,000 kilograms (up to 22,000 pounds).