It’s a breezy, sun-dappled day off the coast of British Columbia and the salty ocean spray is speckling your face. From your seat on the boat, you’ve already spotted several bald eagles whirling overhead plus a gaggle of sleepy-eyed seals lolling on a rocky islet.
But when the vessel’s friendly skipper suddenly directs everyone’s attention to a series of dark humps cresting the nearby waves, your body tingles with excitement. The orcas are here…and you’re about to encounter them up-close.
Richmond––or more specifically Steveston––is the departure point for two of Metro Vancouver’s most popular whale watching operators. With decades of experience between them, they are experts at shepherding locals and visitors to the watery haunts of these and other marine critters during the annual spotting season. And that season starts every April and runs right through to October.
If you’ve been cooped up at home during the winter months and you can’t wait to experience the great outdoors again, now is the time to plan your bucket list whale watching excursion. Read on for everything you need to know––then book your preferred 2023 timeslot ASAP.
Who are the operators?
Celebrating its 25th year in 2023, Richmond-based Vancouver Whale Watch deploys its Zodiacs to zip you across the waves in comfort. Also departing from Fisherman’s Wharf, the equally popular Steveston Seabreeze Adventures runs its tours throughout the season, luring lots of camera-happy visitors to the area.
Where do the boats go?
Departing from historic Steveston, the tours head out to open ocean, often weaving around the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands. BC operators typically share sighting information to ensure they head straight to the best viewing spots. The tours–led my marine experts with plenty of insights to impart on the region’s amazing aquatic inhabitants–last anywhere from three to five hours, depending on where the whales are. Planning a full day out? There are lots of reasons to stick around and explore Steveston before or after your tour as well.
What will I see?
Orcas are the stars of these interpretive tours but there can also be some jaw-dropping bonus sightings as well––perhaps humpbacks, minke whales or gray whales. And it’s not only about whales. You’ll likely see seals, porpoises or sea lions, while river otters, bald eagles and an array of delightful seabirds such as dunlins and surf scoters are often spotted as well.
Tell me more about the orcas!
Also known as killer whales, the black-and-white-patterned orcas are a well-known presence in B.C.’s regional waters. But while they might look the same, there are actually two distinct types here. Transient orcas typically hunt and eat other mammals, especially seals, porpoises and sea lions. In contrast, B.C.’s resident orcas mostly eat fish––and they especially love salmon.
How do the tours interact with the whales?
Carefully and considerately. Each operator takes whale conservation extremely seriously, working hard to ensure the area’s ocean-dwellers aren’t harmed by their presence. Both operators adhere to stringent guidelines on how close their vessels can get to the region’s celebrated cetaceans.
What do I need to wear and bring?
Dress warmly in layers: even when it’s hot and sunny onshore, it can be chilly out on the water. Sunglasses and sunscreen––plus your camera––are also recommended, as well as snacks and drinks (the operators do provide water and Seabreeze Adventures also offers an add-on lunch deal). And don’t worry: all the boats are equipped with washroom facilities.
How much do the tours cost?
Each operator offers similar pricing, with most tickets priced from $165 to $175 per person. Concession prices for children and seniors sometimes apply––check with the operator at time of booking. The peak summer season is particularly busy, so booking ahead is highly recommended. Keep in kind that prices are subject to change, so be sure to check for current rates when you’re ready to make your reservation.
How do I get to my tour?
If you don’t have your own transportation or are not familiar with the region’s public transit options (see the TransLink website for handy trip-planning tools), consider the shuttle services provided by each operator. Servicing Richmond and Vancouver, the shuttles cost $20 per person (round-trip) and they need to be booked in advance.
What else is there to do in Steveston?
Your tour will take up to five hours, which also gives you plenty of time to explore one of B.C.’s most popular historic villages on the same day. You can check out two National Historic Sites, stroll the boardwalk and Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoy panoramic shoreline views from Garry Point Park, browse the independent boutiques on Moncton Street and beyond and dine at some of Richmond’s most popular restaurants. Give yourself plenty of time in Steveston; there’s a lot to see and do here!
What if we don’t see whales?
BC’s whale populations don’t operate on a schedule! But both operators say there’s at least a 95 percent chance of spotting orcas on their tours. And if you’re unlucky enough to not see any on your trip, Steveston Seabreeze Adventures and Vancouver Whale Watch both offer a similar guarantee: you can return anytime in the future and take the tour again at no extra cost.
Last Updated on March 31, 2023 by Tourism Richmond