Whale watching has become synonymous with Victoria.
Of all the activities available when you visit the B.C. capital, this one is the must-do.
There are a bevy of companies that run whale watching tours out of the area, the best known being the Prince of Whales.
The company was started in the early 1990s when founder Alan McGillivray — who ran a marine mail service in Victoria that delivered to the Southern Gulf Islands — realized all the orca whales he saw along his route would no doubt attract paying tourists.
Situated in the famous Inner Harbour near the provincial legislature, the company offers the choice of riding in one its 10 rigid-hulled inflatable Zodiacs (complete with full lifejacket coveralls) or the slightly less windy but more family-friendly tours aboard one of their two 74-passenger Ocean Magic Expedition Cruisers.
The summer offers the best chance of seeing humpback and gray whales, but orcas can be found year-round.
The waters around Victoria are filled with local pods, as well as transient orcas which travel in smaller groups up and down the coast.
The day we went out, two groups of orcas were sighted some 23 nautical miles north of Victoria, past Sidney and the ferry terminal at Schwartz Bay. After what seemed like a quick ride (but was more than an hour) on one of the larger cruisers, we found the whales near Fulford Harbour.
The transient orcas (eight in total, with two grown females and six younger whales ranging in age from two to five) were hunting a steller sea lion. The crew were able to identify the whales from a catalogue of pictures they keep on board in a binder. Distinctive colour variations and other identifying marks help tell them apart to the trained eye of those who see the whales on a regular basis.
It was clear there was a battle going on under the water as the prey sea lion — weighing likely in the neighbourhood of 2,000-lbs. and providing enough food for all the whales for the day — tried in desperation to escape the orcas, its tail breaking the water every now and then during its attempt at flight.
The orcas seemed to relish in the hunt as they taught the young ones how to secure their dinner. The larger whales leapt out of the water and breached as the battle raged on below the surface.
Word travels fast on the open water and there were already five whale watching boats on scene when we arrived. More soon joined. All boats are required to stay 100 metres away from the whales.
It was amazing to watch these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. The only downside was they remained at least a few hundred metres away from our boat. One of the Zodiacs from Prince of Whales had the best seats in the house with the orcas coming within metres of their craft. Even as the captain tried to back off to keep a safe distance, the whales seemed to follow during their hunt giving the onlookers an enviable bird’s-eye view.
On the way back to Inner Harbour, we passed by the 1,033-ft. Celebrity Solstice cruise liner at Ogden Point which was on a 10-hour layover. The ship was alongside the mooring dolphin, installed in 2010 to allow for larger ships such as the Celebrity Solstice to be handled more easily and increase cruise ship traffic to the city.
It was the biggest ship of the season to dock in Victoria, boasting 2,850 passengers and 1,200 crew. More than 500,000 people visit the city via cruise ships each year.
WHERE TO STAY & WHAT TO EAT
If you’re going to visit Victoria, the best place to stay is on the Inner Harbour.
The newly-renovated Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa offers amazing views of the bustling harbour. Rooms start at $159 a night.
Along with the spa and plenty of amenities (sauna, pool and tennis courts), the Delta is home to Lure Restaurant and Lounge.
If whale watching is the No. 1 reason to visit Victoria, eating fresh seafood and the local cuisine has to be No. 2 (sorry to all the golfers out there).
Lure has an incredible menu focused on and infused with local products and ingredients. I’d recommend from the breakfast menu the Eggs Benedict a la Lure with smoked salmon and on the evening menu, pan-seared scallops as a starter followed by oven-roasted Pacific halibut.
If you’re out and about during the day taking in the sights, the best place to eat a casual lunch is at Barb’s Fish and Chips on Fisherman’s Wharf. In business for 29 years, it recently got a facelift and while it doesn’t serve its fare in rolled-up newspaper anymore, you still get a guaranteed quarter-pound of fish in each piece.
The food tastes as great now as I remember it when first visiting the joint as a kid with my parents.
After eating, you can check out the eclectic community of floating homes or buy some less-prepared fish (read raw) to feed the seals that have come to expect a meal at the wharf.
Simply kneel down on your knees, hang the fish by the water and the seals — including one missing an eye who my son nicknamed One-Eyed Willy — will literally take the food from your hand.
Other attractions of note in Victoria:
- Walking tours of downtown
- Aerial floatplane tours of Victoria and area
- Horse-drawn carriage tours
- Double-decker bus tours
- ‘Hippo’ float buses — go for a drive and a water-cruise
- Underwater garden in the Inner Harbour
- Inner Harbour tours by water taxi
- The world-famous Butchart Gardens