Vancouver Island North is home to two of our favourite wildlife celebrities and whether your adventure takes place from the deck of a boat, drifting in a kayak or standing on the seashore — catching a glimpse of whales and bears in their natural habitat is bucket list amazing.
The Orca or Killer Whales that often spend time in nearby waters belong to two populations: the “Northern Residents” which rely heavily on salmon and “Transients” or “Bigg’s Killer Whales” which hunt marine mammals. They travel in tight knit family units called matrilines with mother and grandmother in charge. Matrilines of the Northern Residents are most predictably in the area when salmon are spawning and have been following the same runs of salmon for thousands of years. Photo identification research on Killer Whales began on Vancouver Island North in the early 1970’s, shattering the misconceptions about this species and leading to the understanding that there are different populations with distinct cultures. Easily distinguished by their sleek black and white body, grey saddle patch and black fin, Orca behaviour includes: breaching, fin & tail slapping and spy hopping when they poke their heads above the water to see what’s happening.
Humpback Whales cover huge distances but return here because their food is found in these rich waters. The work of the local Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) has found that in this area, the Humpbacks are lunge-feeding specialists, feeding most often on juvenile herring. Sometimes this feeding happens at the surface, wowing visitors as they gulps in a huge amount of herring and then push the water through baleen plates that line the upper jaw. They are also incredibly acrobatic and may suddenly breach, launching themselves right out of the water. Once hunted almost to the brink of extinction Humpbacks have made an incredible comeback. MERS identified 100 individuals in the Vancouver Island North area in 2016. Some were just passing through and some have a strong attachment to the area.
When a hydrophone (underwater microphone) is used whale noises can be heard from many kilometres away. Unique whistles, squeaks and whines make up distinct Orca calls. The clicking sound they make called echo-location helps them find their next meal. Humpbacks are known for their complex songs on the breeding grounds way down south but they have been heard vocalizing here as well.
Our furry neighbours the Black Bears are abundant. Vancouver Island one of the densest black bear populations in the world. And although Vancouver Island is not home to Grizzly Bears they live near the north island in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s mainland. A global treasure, it’s the largest coastal rainforest on earth. Bears all share the same search for something to eat. In spring it’s grasses, roots and bulbs. Later in the summer the search is on for high energy berries. Late summer and early fall all bears turn their attention to spawning salmon. This is one of the most exciting viewing times with the bears eating as much protein as they can to bulk up for their winter siesta.
There are whale and bear watching options ranging from 3-hour to multi-day trips. Tours depart from Port McNeill, Telegraph Cove, Alert Bay and Port Hardy. Reservations are always recommended. Whale and bear watching trips happen from mid May to the end of September. On any wildlife adventure you should pack your camera, binoculars and dress in several layers of warm clothing including a waterproof layer for wind and rain. Whales and bears don’t care if it’s raining !! Do keep in mind these animals are wild and free so their behaviour or travel route cannot be guaranteed.
Are you ready for your experience of a lifetime? Whales and bears are authentic and wild and right here. On Vancouver Island North.
Karen Stewart – Freelance Writer
Karen is the author of a blog titled This is Port McNeill