A grizzly bear feeding on salmon in the wild; a whale breaching just off a kayak's bow, eagles gathered in their thousands: images like these are the stuff of life lists, but they're surprisingly accessible in British Columbia.
BC is home to more fauna than any other province in Canada, with more species in total, and more unique species of birds and mammals, than any other part of the country. In all, 183 mammal, 536 bird, 24 reptile, 23 amphibian, 515 fish species live in or travel through the province.
Although much of this wildlife is sheltered in BC's 13.9 million hectares (34.34 million acres) of parks, conservancies, ecological reserves and protected areas, animals are not, of course, limited to these. In many areas, especially in Northern BC and the Kootenay Rockies, it's not uncommon to spot wildlife from (or on) the highway.
To maximize the odds of seeing the large animals, especially bears and whales, the best bet (and, in some cases, the only option) is to join a licensed wildlife viewing tour. Tour operators follow strict regulations to avoid disturbing the animals and their habitats and, of course, to protect the safety of the human visitors.
Here are some coordinates for wildlife viewing in BC:
When: Mid-March to mid-April
What: Migratory Pacific Grey Whales
Where: The West Coast of Vancouver Island
Every March and April, about 20,000 Pacific grey whales migrate along the west coast of Vancouver Island, making one of the longest migrations of any mammal — the 8,000-kilometre (5,000-mile) journey between their winter calving lagoons in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas.
Each year, the residents of Tofino and Ucluelet, the villages bracketing the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, welcome back the whales. Charter boats and scheduled boat tours head out to see the animals in the open water (keeping a respectful distance), or stand on shore and watch for the tell-tale spouting, as these massive mammals travel quite close to land. The residents also throw a party: The Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a nine-day event at the start of prime whale-watching season, has over 90 events from arts shows to chowder contests and interpretive rainforest walks. You can also see resident grey whales in Clayoquot and Barkley sounds anytime between March and October. www.pacificrimwhalefestival.com has details.
When: winter and spring months
What: Rocky Mountain Elk
Where: Columbia River Valley, East Kootenays
Elk can be spotted throughout southeastern BC, but near the communities of Golden, Radium Hot Springs and Invermere, on Highway 93/95 north of Cranbrook in the Kootenay Rockies, you can see large herds of the animals gathered in meadows, especially at dawn and dusk. You may also see mule deer, white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep in the area.
When: Early May
What: Wings Over the Rockies Bird Festival
Where: Invermere, Kootenay Rockies
Based in and around the town of Invermere, this early May event celebrates the annual return of birds to the Columbia Valley Wetlands, home to more than 250 feathered species. Approximately 70 events held over the course of a week include such diverse activities as guided nature walks and voyageur canoe trips to art exhibits, presentations and workshops, and wildlife photography tips. Visit www.wingsovertherockies.org for details.
When: Early May to September
What: Grizzly Bears
Where: The Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary, northeast of Prince Rupert
The Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary, 45 kilometres (28 miles) northeast of Prince Rupert, was established as the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears, and is one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Accessible only by boat (or boat and floatplane), the site is home to about 50-65 individual bears, and is best visited between May and September (especially in May) when the bears can be seen roaming the shore. To protect the bears, there is no land access in the sanctuary, and the river estuary is only accessible with a licensed operator.
When: June to October
What: The Kermode (Spirit) bear
Where: Princess Royal Island in the Great Bear Rainforest
The Great Bear Rainforest, on BC's Central Coast, is said to be the last intact temperate old-growth forest in the world. Just offshore is Princess Royal Island, home to the rare Kermode (Spirit) bear, a subspecies of black bear found only in this part of the world. About 10 per cent of the black bears born in this area carry a recessive gene that gives them a naturally white coat. (These bears are the official mammal of BC.) Companies operated by the local Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations people in the nearby village of Klemtu offer tours to view the bears, with September and October being the months offering the best chance of a sighting. Klemtu is accessible through scheduled service by Pacific Coastal Airlines, by chartered floatplane or by BC Ferries' service.
When: May to October
What: Orcas or Killer Whales
Where: Georgia Strait and Johnstone Strait, east of Vancouver Island
Throughout the summer, whale-watching boats leave from Victoria, Sooke and Sidney on Vancouver Island, and from Steveston, 35 minutes south of Vancouver, to look for the estimated 85 Orcas, or killer whales (actually large dolphins), residing in the southern Georgia Strait between the BC Mainland and Vancouver Island. Porpoises, dolphins and sea lions also live in the area.
BC's richest Orca habitat, though, is the Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago off Vancouver Island's northeast coast: approximately 250 resident Orcas are found in these waters. They come for salmon, socializing and, unique among Orca populations, to rub their bodies on the area's smooth pebble beaches. Minke and humpback whales, porpoises, harbour seals and sea lions also thrive in these waters. Whale-watching boats and kayak tours leave from the towns of Port McNeill and Alert Bay, and from Telegraph Cove, a historic fishing village built on stilts along the ocean's edge. (While in Telegraph Cove, check out the Whale Interpretive Centre’s collection of sea life skeletons.)
When: May to October
Where: The North Coast, off Prince Rupert
Prince Rupert, on BC's North Coast, is also a great base for whale-watching trips. Depending on the season, you can see humpback, grey, Orca and minke whales in these waters. You'll likely also spot marine birds and waterfowl as well as sea lions, seals, porpoises and eagles in the area. Whale-watching boats leave from Prince Rupert throughout the summer.
When: June to October
What: Moose, bison and other large land mammals
Where: The Muskwa-Kechika Management Area
In much of Northern BC, simply driving down the highway or gazing through a train window can reveals a wealth of animal and bird life, from deer grazing at roadside meadows to Stone sheep at salt licks or bald eagles soaring over the treetops.
Highway 97, the Alaska Highway, for example, will take you through Stone Mountain Provincial Park and Muncho Lake Provincial Park, two of the parks within the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area. One of the last tracts of true wilderness in North America, this spectacular region is so rich in fauna it has been dubbed the Serengeti of the North. Moose, caribou, Stone sheep, black bear and mule deer roam in abundance here, and can often be spotted from the highway. Herds of bison, with as many as 30 to 50 individuals, are common sights in the summer months, while fall is the prime time for viewing woodland caribou.
When: May to October
What: Grizzly Bears
Where: The Great Bear Rainforest
This vast tract of wilderness (more than twice the size of Belgium) on BC's roadless mid-coast is, like the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, home to a rich population of grizzly bears. Two floating lodges in the vicinity, Knight Inlet Lodge (www.grizzlytours.com) and Great Bear Lodge (www.greatbeartours.com) offer grizzly bear and other wildlife viewing tours from spring through fall, though September and October, when the bears gather to feed on salmon runs, are the best viewing times. Several companies also offer ship-based grizzly bear tours of the area. In addition to the coastal bear viewing lodges, Tweedsmuir Park Lodge (www.tweedsmuirparklodge.com) offers mountain grizzly bear viewing and specializes in small group viewing.
When: September to November
Where: Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, near Kamloops, and the Capilano Salmon Hatchery, North Vancouver; Goldstream Provincial Park, near Victoria; Campbell River and Bella Coola
Each autumn, all five species of North American Pacific salmon leave the ocean and return to the streams and rivers of their birth to spawn. The great salmon runs are fascinating to watch as thousands of fish battle their way upstream, attracting eagles and other predators en route.
One of the richest runs takes place on the Adams River, north of Kamloops in the Thompson Okanagan. Each September and October, millions of salmon make their way back to the 11-kilometre (seven-mile) stretch of river which runs through Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park to lay their eggs before they die. The run reaches its height in late October. A dominant-year run, when literally millions of fish return to the river, occurs every four years (the next will be in 2014). Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park is 70 kilometres (43miles) east of Kamloops off the Trans-Canada Highway.
Other good places to watch salmon runs are in Goldstream Provincial Park, north of Victoria, and the Capilano Salmon Hatchery in North Vancouver.
A little more unusual is swimming with salmon: with Destiny River Adventures' Snorkel with the Salmon tour in Campbell River, wetsuit clad participants float down the river while thousands of salmon swim upstream. Kynoch Adventures in Bella Coola also offers an equally memorable salmon snorkeling excursion.
More offbeat water activities are available off Vancouver Island's eastern shore, where several operators take visitors out kayaking with Orcas, or killer whales, in the Orca-rich waters of Johnstone Strait. Alternatively, from Nanaimo, some diving outfitters offer a snorkeling with seals tour.
What: Snow Geese
Where: The Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta
More than 280 bird species live in or visit the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, one of Canada’s top birdwatching sites, located about an hour south of Vancouver. The best bird viewing takes place during the spring migration in March and April, and the fall migration in October and November. November is, however, the popular favourite, when between 30,000 and 80,000 lesser snow geese stop in en route from Siberia.
When: Mid-November to mid-February
What: Bald Eagles
Where: Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, Squamish and Goldstream Provincial Park, Victoria
Between mid-November and late January each year, one of the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles gather to feed on salmon at Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, just north of Squamish, about an hour from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Peak eagle-viewing time is from mid-December to mid-January, though large numbers of eagles can be seen from November through to mid-February. Between 650 and 1,000 eagles are usually spotted during a single day each January. Guided walking tours are available, while several rafting companies offer guided eagle-viewing float trips — watching from a gently floating raft on the Cheakamus River is one of the best ways to observe the eagles without disturbing them.
Eagles also gather in record numbers at Goldstream Provincial Park, 19 kilometres (12 miles) north of Victoria, to feed on the salmon runs there. The peak time here is December, though the viewing is excellent anytime from mid-November through January. A video feed and telescopes in the Visitor Centre provide close views of the eagles and naturalists are on hand at all times to answer visitors' questions.
When: Late December to March
What: Sea Lions
Where: Hornby Island
During the winter, hundreds of California and Steller sea lions haul out on islets just off Hornby Island, a northern Gulf Island reached from Vancouver Island. The sea lions are attracted by large schools of herring, and bald eagles usually show up to hunt for the same prey. The whole scene is easily viewed from shore.