Travel

Whale-watching in Canada: Where to spot them — and when

Local guides from coast to coast reveal the best tours are so much more than boat trips with photo ops.

Local guides from coast to coast reveal the best tours are so much more than boat trips with photo ops

the back of a mother humpback whale and the back of her calf surfacing from the open ocean
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

With 35 species of whales — nine baleen whales and 26 toothed species — frequenting our waters, Canada is one of the best places on earth to spot the world's largest mammals, and summer is peak season for whale-watching in coastal communities from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. 

As the weather warms up, the whales, dolphins and porpoises begin to arrive in our cool waters in search of food, and tour companies are ready to take you out to see them. However, not all whale-watching experiences are created equal. The best tours are so much more than a boat trip with a photo op — they can provide a meaningful opportunity for appreciation and learning, especially when led by an experienced local guide. 

"Education is so important. We want people to fall in love with these whales," said Nicole Leavitt, a senior marine biologist with Island Quest Marine in Saint Andrew's, N.B. "People protect what they love," she said, quoting Jacques Cousteau. 

Leavitt explains that many expert guides in the whale-watching community also consider themselves citizen scientists, conducting ongoing research on the animals that frequent their communities. "We are the eyes on the water," she said. "If there is a whale that's unhealthy or entangled or stranded, we are usually the first call to say … this whale needs help."

In addition to aiding in marine research efforts, reputable tour companies will also adhere to strict codes of conduct. "These guidelines may include maintaining a safe distance from the whales, limiting the number of boats around the animals, and avoiding any behaviours that could disturb or harm them," said Simon Pidcock, a former Pacific Whale Watch Association executive, and captain and owner of Vancouver Island-based Ocean EcoVentures. "Look for operators that explicitly mention their commitment to following these guidelines and promoting responsible whale-watching practices." 

Ready to get out on the water? We asked local experts from some of the best whale-watching spots in Canada to dive into the details of what makes each location so special. Read on to discover more about the destinations, the best times of the year to visit, the resident whales of each waterway and the passionate people who make it their business to help cultivate connections with these awe-inspiring creatures.

North Atlantic Ocean

The tail of a whale surfacing from the ocean with an iceberg towering over it in the distance.
(Source: Shawna Prince/Sea of Whales Adventures)

It's no secret that Canada's East Coast is a go-to spot for marine adventures, but when it comes to whale-watching destinations, Newfoundland and Labrador is hard to beat. The area plays host to the world's largest population of humpback whales each summer as they, along with 21 other species of whales and dolphins, gather to feed along the coast.

Where to leave dry land: Head to Trinity, N.L., to explore the waters around the Bonavista Peninsula, where whales feast on capelin (a small, silver fish) and squid. Sightings of sperm whales, 75- to 85-foot finback whales, minke whales and humpbacks are common. Orcas are also present in the area but are more elusive.

Bonus encounters: Moose, black bears, caribou, otters, dolphins, seals, bald eagles and puffins can also be spotted on tours.

When to go: Tours operate from May to October. Icebergs add to the jaw-dropping experience on whale-watching tours earlier in the season. Book in May or June for the best chance to see this combined spectacle.

Local love story: "There are too many cool experiences that I have had … over the years," said Shawna Prince, who owns and operates Trinity-based Sea of Whales Adventures with her husband, Kris. "The last two weeks of July and first two weeks of August are when we see the greatest numbers of animals visiting our area. Mid to late June has become very popular for photography groups as this is the time when it is more likely that someone could see icebergs, whales and puffins on the same trip…. The fall is also a great time on the water: beautiful colours, crisp air and superpods of dolphins are definitely worth experiencing. I guess what I am saying is that it is always a great time to visit our area!"

Who to book with:

Sea of Whales Adventures is a top-rated family-run business with more than 25 years of experience offering Zodiac tours. 

Trinity Eco Tours offers tow-and-go kayak whale-watching tours for the adventurous set.

Atlantic Adventures caters to those looking to sail in comfort aboard its trawler sailer.

Bay of Fundy

The dorsal fin and the back of a whale surfacing from the ocean. Forest, a house and cliffs are in the background.
(Source: Nicole Leavitt/Island Quest Marine)

The Bay of Fundy may be world-renowned for its tides, but its summer residents are equally alluring. As the warm weather arrives, so do the migratory whales who summer off the coast, gathering to feast in the nutrient-rich waters. Four main species can be spotted from June through October. The first to appear are minke whales, usually in June, followed by finback whales in July, humpbacks in July and August, and finally endangered North Atlantic right whales in late August into September. 

Where to leave dry land: The picturesque town of Saint Andrews, N.B., makes the perfect jumping-off point for a whale-watching excursion. Instead of heading into the open ocean, you'll take in the whales from the bay — framed by gorgeous island scenery, lighthouses and the ever-shifting tides.

Bonus encounters: Expect to spot seals, harbour porpoises, white-sided dolphins, a multitude of migratory seabirds and maybe even a few sharks during your tour. If you're lucky, you might spot a great white or come across Old Thom, the Bay of Fundy's resident orca.

When to go: Crowds disperse, the water is warm and all four species of whales are typically present at once in September, making it an ideal time to visit the area.  

Local love story: "It's always interesting to be mugged by a humpback whale. They'll spy hop sometimes… [and] bring their rostrum or their head up out of the water just enough so their eye is out. And they'll literally look in through the window at you … or they'll lay right beside the boat," Leavitt said. "There was one instance where we had two whales … [and] they just lay beside the boat and roll, and their pecs [pectoral fins] would come out of the water. And then they'd flip and their tails would come up out of the water. They had us surrounded — we were sandwiched between them…. So we just sat there in awe and listened to them breathe…. It's always amazing to see how gentle a creature that's that large can be."

Who to book with:

Island Quest Marine is a family-owned business that prioritizes education and boasts a 44-foot cruiser custom-built for whale-watching as well as marine biologists on all tours. 

Jolly Breeze Whale Adventures offers "whales plus sails" tours aboard a classic tall ship.

For travellers to Nova Scotia, Brier Island-based Mariner Cruises offers another option for those wishing to whale-watch in the Bay of Fundy. The company boasts tours narrated by local naturalists. 

St. Lawrence River and Seaway

A whale's tail sticks out of the ocean. Rolling hills of the coastline are slightly visible in the background.
(Source: Mathieu Dupuis/Tourisme Côte-Nord)

Belugas and blue whales comingle in the St. Lawrence Estuary in Quebec making it a particularly special whale-watching locale. Twelve different types of whales arrive between May and October each year to feed in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf, joining a beluga pod that lives there year-round.

Where to leave dry land: Depart from Tadoussac or nearby Les Bergeronnes to tour the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, a 1,245-square-kilometre protected area encompassing the St. Lawrence Estuary and Saguenay River. Leave time to take in the stunning fjord views and pay a visit to the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre, where you'll learn about whale ancestors that walked on land.

Bonus encounters: More than 2,200 species inhabit the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. In addition to whales, you may spot harbour porpoises as well as several types of seals, dolphins, molluscs and seabirds.   

When to go: Avid photographers will want to head to the area at the end of August or the beginning of September when the autumn light makes for particularly stunning images out on the water.

Local love story: "Back in 2019, at the end of August, two humpback whales decided to observe our boat for more than an hour," remembers Agathe Poitras, a naturalist guide with Croisières AML. "Their heads were completely out of the water. We saw their eyes — it was exceptional."

Who to book with:

Croisières AML operates whale-watching tours from Tadoussac led by naturalist guides via Zodiac and sea kayak.

Indigenous-owned Croisières Essipit operates 12- or 36-person Zodiac tours departing from Les Bergeronnes that uphold the traditional Innu value of environmental respect.

Croisières Neptune out of Les Bergeronnes boasts 30 years in the business and special Zodiac boats with retractable windows.

Salish Sea

Orca breaching entirely out of the water close to shore. Forest is visible in the background.
(Source: Garry Henkel/Destination B.C.)

The Pacific Ocean's pods are hardly a secret at this point, particularly the migratory whales that draw visitors to Vancouver Island's west coast each summer. However, the Salish Sea may be British Columbia's best under-the-radar whale-watching destination. Sandwiched between the mainland and Vancouver Island and stretching from Campbell River down to Washington state, the waterway is home to whales year-round, with tours typically running from March to October. Northern resident orcas tend to live year-round in the Salish Sea while Bigg's killer whales (transient orcas), humpbacks and grey whales are spotted seasonally.

Where to leave dry land: Head north from Nanaimo and make either Parksville or Campbell River your base for exploration. Both areas are home to jaw-dropping scenery in addition to being embarkation points for cruises on the Salish Sea.

Bonus encounters: Bald eagles and sea lions are commonly spotted on tours, along with the occasional dolphin, porpoise or black bear.

When to go: May through July is a great time to catch migratory whales in the area. Alternatively, try a tour in early March when Bigg's killer whales are spotted more frequently due to the Pacific herring spawn.

Local love story: "I happened to be out on the water when three different families of orcas all converged within viewing distance from the boat," recalls JP Obbagy, general manager of Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours. "They were in what appeared to be celebration mode with spy hopping, breaching and tail slapping. It was really fun to watch the young ones jumping and playing alongside the adults."

Who to book with:

Indigenous-owned and operated Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours offers a unique People Water Land tour that incorporates a trip to a historic First Nation village alongside an Indigenous guide to learn about local legends and traditions. 

Conservation-minded Ocean EcoVentures hosts small group tours out of Parksville, including sunset whale-watching cruises from July through September.

Wild Waterways operates early-season trips from February through April out of Comox Valley Marina.

Hudson's Bay

The backs of 2 beluga whales surface from the ocean. People are standing in an inflatable zodiac boat nearby, watching the whales.
(Source: Zhang Yongpeng/Frontiers North Adventures)

Western Hudson's Bay is home to more than 50,000 belugas. During the summer months, thousands of these whales travel to the warmer waters of the Churchill River to feed and give birth. 

Where to leave dry land: Known as the beluga capital of the world, Churchill, Man., is the go-to destination for encounters with the "canaries of the sea" (so-called because of their underwater vocalizations).

Bonus encounters: An abundance of migratory birds visit Churchill each summer. Seals, Arctic foxes, Arctic hares, caribou and even the occasional polar bear may be spotted from a tour boat.

When to go: Whale-watching tours typically commence in July once the ice has fully melted off the bay, and the colours of the subarctic are at their most stunning in late July and early August as wildflowers begin to bloom.  

Local love story: "I had the incredible experience of being overwhelmed by beluga whales last summer," said Alex Cupeiro of Frontiers North, a Churchill-based tour operator. "Whale-watching in Churchill is so special in that there is such a high concentration of beluga whales, you hardly know which way to look as they pop up everywhere. The excitement in the Zodiac was contagious as we were all spinning in our seats trying to take in all the different beluga whales we could see, from mothers with young calves to pods of rambunctious young male beluga whales. It was truly an unforgettable experience."

Who to book with:

Frontiers North offers multi-day tour packages that combine whale-watching with dog-carting through the boreal forest and wildlife viewing in a Tundra Buggy. Book its Conservation Journey to experience whale-watching with a leading beluga researcher.

Sea North Tours is the original tour operator in the area, offering à la carte whale-watching trips via Zodiac and kayak.

Local tour operator Lazy Bear Expeditions boasts a new boat with underwater picture windows designed for marine life viewing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Instagram @thejenobrien.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

From life's little projects to its big questions; the latest in food, style, relationships, work and money, home, wellness, pets and travel delivered directly to your inbox each week.

...

The next issue of CBC Life Newsletter will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

now