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West coast whale watching

Hi,

I am starting to plan a trip to the West coast next fall, the primary purpose of which is to see orcas in the wild. Seems like Victoria B.C and the San Juan islands off Seattle are equally good and I am wondering about how to compare the two in terms of costs (food, hotel, etc..) between the two places. As a Canadian, I am all too aware of how expensive it is to travel in my own country. However, as I will be paying in CAD, that might negate any benefit Seattle has. Thanks for any tips.

Posted by
6148 posts

A few years ago, I planned on spending most of my vacation trip in Seattle and going to Vancouver/Victoria as just a side trip. Once I discovered how insanely expensive Seattle hotels were, I switched my whole trip around and spent most of my time on Vancouver Island and only the last day in Seattle (because I had to fly out from there). Obviously this is largely due to the USD-CAD exchange rate, but in general, Seattle has gotten very expensive for locals and tourists alike. For me, Canada is a dream trip in terms of value per USD. I would not be able to match the accommodations and location on Vancouver Island in Seattle for a similar price. I think food is excellent and fresh in both places, so that's not a factor. For what it's worth, maybe you should consider Portland instead of Seattle. I found it to be more affordable (I have to confess that I don't know about the whale watching there though).

Posted by
2704 posts

I grew up in Victoria - at a time when whale populations were pretty low, so actually never saw any despite countless ferry trips to Vancouver or Port Angeles. Last year in May I had occasion to go back and spend a week and I took a whale watching trip. It was wonderful and out of the ordinary as at the end of the trip, one of the small 'wild' pods actually entered the narrows and went all the way to the Empress Hotel, put on a bit of a show and then left again. Made the news, for sure. I haven't done any other whale watching on the West Coast, so can't compare it, but in that area of water, the US and Cdn borders run pretty close....in fact my phone went to roaming part way through the trip...so sometimes tours overlap areas. If it matters to you, consider reviewing what the legal distance limits are between BC and Washington state. I know I chose my company, Eagle Wing, because of their ethical practices. (growing up in BC during the 70's left a strong ecological influence)
You want to decide which appeals to you more as far as type of vessel. The fast cigarette type boat may seem 'cool' but you need to wear provided gear for wet options, no covering during rain, bad for certain ailments - like neck or back issues - and if you want photography or are a bird watcher, have you too close to the ground. You want some height to get good views (though it can sway some making things challenging).
You want to also time your visit. Better viewing months for Victoria are May to Oct. For what it is worth, there are 'resident' and 'wild' pods of orcas. They act a bit differently, of course, but seem to be relatively easily identifiable by the companies.
My mom and I used to do day trips to Port Angeles so that is feasible from Victoria - or spend the most time in Victoria and head to Seattle for a couple of days - fly home from there. Victoria has the advantages of being in close proximity to other Gulf Islands (same chain as San Juan Islands) by ferry, Butchart Gardens, and if you like wild and can budget it, drive to Long Beach on the open mid island West Coast for a memorable night or two. Cheap version is Sooke's Point No Point. Western Vancouver Island puts you right out on the Pacific, wheras Victoria and up the coast to Port Renfrew actually sit in the Straits (seems they now call it 'The Salish Sea'), so there is land on the other side of the water. Up at Pacific Rim (Long Beach) you may just be able to watch pods of whales, sea lions right from your room with binoculars. Storms will be starting to come through providing its own majesty, and otter and seal play closer to shore. I am not sure whether you can get similar on Washington's Olympic Peninsula or not, but the west coast would be open to the Pacific as well.

As anywhere, you can get a variety of lodgings in Victoria. Classic hotels are expensive primarily due to the amount of conferences that take place. Coworkers have attended conferences on the cheap by booking AirBnB lodgings. There will be plenty of pied a terre type apartment short lets in James Bay, Dallas Road or around Cook St. All within walking distance of town and usually in converted old Victorian or Edwardian homes....but cheaper than the boutique B&Bs in the same neighbourhoods. Alternatively are cheaper tourist hotels in Esquimalt, Vic West or Tillicum areas. Then you take the bus or rent a car. The down side of being in 'downtown' Victoria is that the places readily accessible for short let apartments are in the trendy more affluent areas so groceries are more like Whole Foods than Safeway. James Bay does have a Thrifty Foods standard grocery store, so costs can be saved there.
For comparing, I guess you can only do some pricing research for Victoria, divide by the exchange rate and see what that buys in the US.

Posted by
11677 posts

The US San Juan Islands are well North of Seattle, closer to Bellingham. Either there or Victoria would be a good place to stay. However, note that the resident orca population has been dwindling and has reached critically low numbers. There is some pressure on the whale-watching tours to restrict their operations to protect the remaining orcas.

You can read more about these magnificent animals and see reports of recent sightings here:

http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/

While the resident orcas rarely visit southern Puget Sound these days ( due to dwindling salmon stocks), they have been seen this September in the waters between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. Normally they are up around the San Juan Islands this time of year, but perhaps they are moving around more in search of salmon.

Posted by
669 posts

As noted above the San Juans are not "close" to Seattle. It can easily take 6+ hours to drive from there to SeaTac. Traffic sucks.

Cost wise I find Vancouver and the Island to be less expensive than Seattle, and the San Juans. You can use Numbeo to get a fair idea of cost comparisons. However, you can save money (on lodging) by staying in one of the casinos. I travel a fair amount, with at least one long weekend into Canada every year (this year it's 5 days around Victoria over our Thanksgiving weekend), and can easily find rooms around $100/night up there. What adds up are the other fees; parking, resort fees, etc... It's hard to find a good room in Seattle for that money.

Also, as mentioned previously, there are growing restrictions on tour operators. Most of those operate out of Anacortes, so you probably want to stay at least a couple nights near there. Look for a nice B&B around Friday Harbor, I know folks who have seen orca just riding the ferry back and forth.

Be advised that this time of year we are into the rainy season, and it's cold out on the water.

Posted by
225 posts

Thank you so much for the informative and thoughtful replies. It is much appreciated.You’ve given me lots of information to research further, so I’ll likely be back with more questions when I’m done.

Thank again :)

Posted by
116 posts

Orca are seasonal visitors to the west coast.....numbers tend to go down in October as they head south. Same for the humpbacks. Victoria’s Eagle Wing has a good rep here. Prince of Whales has been running for years. Be aware that new regulations state that whale watchers must maintain a distance of 200 metres - of course the whales are not aware of this and will sometimes pop up beside the boat!

I llive in Sidney, 22kms north of the city of Victoria. Victoria International airport is 10 mins drive away, and the ferry from Vancouver is also 10 mins away and we have a small whale watching company. Check out www.sidney.ca to find out more or pm me.

Posted by
317 posts

I'm in Victoria and happy to help! Peak whale watching season is May - October. If you plan to stay in Canada, BC's Gulf Islands (reachable from both Vancouver and Victoria). Check the BC Ferries Vacations website for ferry/hotel packages. Feel free to PM me any specific questions.

Posted by
4207 posts

Seattle's a fine place but not for whale watching. Victoria is probably your best bet for whales, urban choices, and other sightseeing. Other candidates, all smaller cities, would be Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Anacortes, and Bellingham (all in WA state). As Lola noted, resident orcas are in real trouble and have been scarce this past season. Transient orcas ("wild" applies to both kinds) are less likely to be predictably seen because, well, they're in transit. Humpbacks have become more frequent in these parts, also minke whales.

Hope your plans work out for next fall.

Posted by
2943 posts

I would base out of either Victoria or Vancouver. Whale watching trips are available from locations in Washington, but I think you will be ahead going from Canada if you are Canadian.
Seattle hotel prices are shockingly high anytime during the Alaska Cruise Season.

There is a great deal of "politically correct" discussion about whale watching tours. There are several elements that scientists are concerned about in preserving the ORCAs. Noise is one of them. Responsible tour providers (and there are several) keep their distance and limit their time near the whales.

Here is a current article from the Seattle Times. I hope that this link will work for you

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/how-to-help-puget-sounds-orcas-and-salmon-what-seattle-area-leaders-say-can-make-a-difference/

Posted by
225 posts

HI again,

Thanks again, everyone, for you comments. I had no idea that Seattle was as expensive as it is, so looks like we'll stay on Vancouver Island. I wanted to narrow it down before choosing travel guides. If anyone has a specific guidebook recommendation, please share it. I typically use RS and Lonely Planet, but try to start by borrowing titles from my library, then buying whichever ones work best.

Ensuring that we are not contributing to the negative impact on the whale population is of paramount importance to me, so finding the right tour operator is a must.

MariaF, I am looking at doing a Eagle Wing tours as you suggested. Thanks also for the tips about Long Beach, Sooke's Point No Point, Esquimalt, Vic West and Tillicum areas

Lola: thanks for the link to the orca network

Posted by
326 posts

If anyone has a specific guidebook recommendation, please share it. I typically use RS and Lonely Planet, but try to start by borrowing titles from my library, then buying whichever ones work best.

As a fellow Canadian, I like Moon Handbooks: Victoria and Vancouver Island. The only drawback is that the last edition was a number of years ago. However, the author lives in Canada and a lot of the information is likely still relevant. At the very least, a good read from the public library.

You could also ask Tourism British Columbia (hellobc dot com) and TourismVictoria dot com to send you their travel guides. Tourism Victoria also has an excellent e-newsletter.

Posted by
101 posts

I'm glad you decided to go with Vancouver Island for your whale watching. The difference between the Transient or Bigg's orcas ( what one poster called wild?) and the Southern Resident orcas of the San Juan Islands is that the Transients eat mammals, like seals, and the Southern Residents eat only salmon. The Transients, found off Vancouver Island and elsewhere are not in decline and the Southern Residents are. There was talk earlier this year of a moratorium on whale watching in the San Juans to help protect the SRKWs, but the legislature didn't have the guts to enact it. Vancouver Island is lovely and there are many tour operators, especially on the east side near Johnstone Strait that follow only Transients. However, I have seen several Canadian operators out of Victoria chasing the SRKWs. Please ask your tour operator to only follow the Transients. There are only 73 SRKWs left.

Posted by
2704 posts

I think 'wild' comment was mine. I should have used transient. The reason I recommended the company I did was because they didn't go chasing after any sealife like some around us. They kept good distance and explained the rules and requirements. The trip was a nature trip with visits to a bay where a recent dead seal on shore had bald eagles visiting like sea gulls, and slow passes by Race Rocks for birds and other sea life.
I know some are not as eco conscious

Posted by
225 posts

Thanks, Mardan, for the tips about Moon Guides. I have picked up one in Vancouver & one in Victoria from my library.

I’ve been reading that Telegraph Cove might be a good place to spot Orcas as well. Given that’s the primary reason for our trip,I want to maximize our chances of seeing them.

Posted by
359 posts

Bxrlover, chiming in re: whale watching from Telegraph Cove or Port McNeil on the north east coast of Vancouver Island. The Orca whale watching industry in BC started with two men from Telegraph Cove (Stubb’s Island Charters) who took people out to watch the northern resident “killer whales” that spend summer months in the Johnstone Straits area as they follow and eat the Chinook salmon runs as their preferred diet. There are many more Orca in the northern resident group and don’t appear to be endangered at this point. Bill & Donna MaKay, one of the original Stubb’s Is. Tour operators now offer tours from their base in Port MacNeil and I can highly recommend them based on personal experiences. The whale watching operator Prince of Whales has recently opened a second tour operation in Telegraph Cove in addition to their Victoria base. There is an airport nearby @ Port Hardy or you can drive north from Campbell River or further from Victoria, BC. There are also tours from Campbell River where you’ll see Humpback whales and occasionally Orcas. I was fortunate to see both this past August. I hope that this additional information helps you plan your whale watching adventure. Please feel free to PM me with any other questions. Sherry

Posted by
225 posts

Sherry, I looked into Stubb's Island and it seems they are, sadly, now out of business. Looks like they had a lease with Telegraph Cove Resort that ended in January and wasn't renewed. Instead, the resort teamed up with Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures. Wondering if anyone know's about this company's reputation for being ecologically sound.

If we choose to do the whale tour in Victoria, I will likely go with Eagle Wing, but if we choose instead to go to Telegraph Cove, just wondering if anyone knows of an equally reputable company there to use.

Thanks again.