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As North Vancouver Island is a well known spot for migrating whales, we decided on a half-day expedition with local tour operators Campbell River Whale Watching while in town.

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Campbell River Whale Watching aims to please, trying their best to ensure that passengers get to see a variety of wildlife while out on their tours.

Today, there’s 11 of us on board Roxy, their flagship zodiac vessel (12 max). We’re on the lookout this morning for Humpbacks, Orcas, sea lions and other forms of wildlife on our four-hour tour. Luckily there’s a break in the rain for now, so we get briefed on safety and COVID-19 rules on board and suit up into our warm, buoyant red suits.

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We also each receive a cute whale-themed buff designed 15-year-old Campbell River resident Claire MacKinnon Nelson. Over 27,000 of these have been produced for all Vancouver Island whale-watching tour operators (as well as Prince of Whales in Vancouver).

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Our guide Robin outlines the course we plan to take, but as sightings can change in a matter of minutes, there’s always room to navigate a new course on the fly. We begin just south of Quadra Island and head into Sutil Channel.

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Guides continually communicate with other vessels to give everyone in the area a chance to see the whales. Any time we see a whale, Robin hoists a flag that indicates a whale sighting.

We pass around the shoal at Cape Mudge, and start our search. During the tour, Robin offers a lot of local history and facts about whale behaviour, feeding and record-keeping methods to keep track of the pods in these waters.

A pod is named after the oldest female in the family. Orcas are very social, so at times, there’s even a chance of spotting a super pod. There are three types of Orcas in the area: Northern residents, Southern residents and Transients (aka Bigg’s Orcas).

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[A Spy-hopping Orca]

Within the first half hour of our tour, Robin has spotted two groups of Orcas that eventually group up to form a pod of six. We watch them in awe for awhile until it’s time to move on to Sutil Channel, where moments later, my husband spots a lone Humpback, which after verifying with my camera, turns out to be named Yogi. Robin shows us the humpback on his iPad, and we hang out with this Humpback as he slowly heads along the shore in search of food.

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After spotting a group of playful, splashing sea lions, we head up near Read, Cortes and Subtle Islands, then towards Hill Island, on the hunt for Humpbacks in that area, reported earlier in the day. With a steady diet of krill, herring and plankton, it’s interesting to learn that Humpbacks, the largest whales to be found here, feed off the smallest in the food chain!

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[Spotted: A pod of Orcas!]

Humpbacks can grow to be 15 to 18 meters long and weigh around 90,000 pounds! Their tails alone can grow to 4.5 meters from tip to tip. Each humpback has a unique design on its tail that helps with identification, migration and population tracking.

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We take a brief break in the area, and snack on granola bars and water provided by Robin. It’s a real treat when a mother and calf Humpback are later spotted a bit further out, slapping their pectoral fins in the water! Between the spouting, breaching and dives, we’re captivated by this playful behaviour between the two, and hang out for a bit to watch the action before cutting back south towards Campbell River.

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An exhilarating ride back in the rain brings us to one last sight, Quathiaski Cove, where a group of Pacific Harbour seals laze on the rocks and swim in this quiet spot of the sea.

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Wildlife tours go on through the second week of October and normally start up again in mid-March. They also offer full-day grizzly bear viewing tours beginning in mid-August. Private tour charters on their covered boat are available year-round.

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You can feel good about supporting a carbon-neutral tour operator that partners with Wilderness International, a Germany-based organization that protects pristine nature around the world.

Campbell River Whale Watching

Campbell River Whale Watching donates $1 to protect one square meter of old-growth forest (currently Toba Valley, 80km east of Campbell River) for each guest aboard their tours. We’re each given a postcard with a unique sponsorship certificate code that can downloaded via the Wilderness International website.

Wilderness International Certificate

Find Campbell River Whale Watching at 1374 Island Highway (Discovery Harbour Marina) in Campbell River, BC.

Our zodiac tour was provided by Campbell River Whale Watching for the purpose of this feature. Options, as always, remain our own.

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