By far the best place to view orcas is in the Johnstone Strait/Blackfish Sound area of northern Vancouver Island. Robson Bight, where orcas mysteriously congregate to rub against submerged rocks, is an especially important part of the northern residents' habitat and, as such, was formally protected in 1982 as an ecological reserve. This tiny portion of Johnstone Strait is therefore off-limits to humans.
On one occasion I witnessed from close quarters, two or three pods of orcas feasting on salmon in a narrow passageway between islands. On another occasion our boat was surrounded by a giant pod of some 200 Pacific White-Sided dolphins. On all sides the frisky creatures danced and dove, surfing in the bow wake, seeming to play tourist tag with the awestruck onlookers, zigging and zagging from port to starboard and back again.
In addition to orcas and dolphins, expect to see colonies of basking Harbour seals, porpoises, Stellar sea lions and maybe even a minke whale or two. Minkes are the smallest of the baleen whales.
Telegraph Cove, where most formal whale watching tours in the Johnstone Strait area begin, is not at all easy to get to. While most whale watchers drive, there are a couple alternatives. Maverick Coach Lines services Port McNeill on a twice daily basis. Be forewarned though: it's a grueling nine hour slog. For those with money to burn it is possible to fly from Vancouver to Port Hardy via Pacific Coastal Airlines. From the airport Port McNeill is a 90 minute taxi or limo ride. See Getting Up Island.
Orcas: Distinctive dorsal fins allow scientists to identify individuals in the field. Under scrutiny, unique personalities manifest themselves alongside species-wide traits. Should orcas be captured, put into cramped pools to perform circus tricks for the consuming masses? View these gentle giants on their own terms just once and you’ll most likely agree they do not belong in jail. The lives of captive orcas are often woefully short.
Upon reaching Port McNeill walk to the Alert Bay Ferry dock at the foot of the main drag and head immediately to Cormorant Island. [See schedule] Be prepared to discover a island steeped in 'Namgis history and tradition. The charms of Alert Bay far outweigh any advantages of staying in either Port McNeill or Telegraph Cove. The tiny fishing community of Alert Bay, population 691, boasts the world's tallest totem pole, a gigantic longhouse with colourful frontispiece, fascinating U'Mista Cultural Centre, an ecological preserve oddly called Gator Gardens, native burial grounds, a very photogenic chapel dating from the 19th century as well as ample opportunity to fish for salmon or watch for orcas.
Cormorant Island Totems old and new stand sentinal over grave markers at historic Alert Bay. This one states: "Kla LiLiKla Ke Died April 8 1928 Chief of the Nimpkish Tribe"
Based in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, Seasmoke Whale Watching offers 5-hour whale watching tours from the deck of a 44-foot [18.3 m] sloop. Under ideal conditions this vessel with its teak and Honduran mahogany cabin, polished brass fittings and low profile would be perfect for checking out the sea mammals. The north coast, however, rarely boasts ideal conditions. Inclement weather is not uncommon even during the dog days of summer. The cabin cannot comfortably accommodate a full complement of 14 passengers so some customers must necessarily brave the elements for an extended period of time. Obviously the elderly and those with children would be less than satisfied with such arrangements. The crowded, sloping decks are also not really practical for serious photography either. On the other hand, Seasmoke Tours boasts a 90% plus success rate backed up with the offer of a free, second day of whale watching in the event that the elusive orcas cannot be located.
Alternately you can take a $20 foot passenger ferry, directly to Telegraph Cove. This historic boardwalk community is certainly worth visiting though camping here is not recommended. Unfortunately, the private campground operated by Telegraph Cove Resorts is perhaps the world's worst, obviously ripped out of the forest in a simple grab for money. Not only is it ugly but it is noisy with campsites cramped together to maximize profits. Bathrooms and showers are filthy. The only plus is the proximity to Telegraph Cove itself.
Whale watching tours in Telegraph Cove are operated by Stubbs Island Charters and depart from the main wharf in the tiny tourist community. Tours are conducted from one of two 60-foot sea craft capable of transporting 40 or more passengers. An optional lunch can be booked in advance for $8 but is pretty dull stuff. Bring your own. All whale watching vessels are certified for passenger service by the Canadian Coast Guard. Additionally, most boats are equipped with hydrophones to eavesdrop on the underwater vocalizations of whales. Passengers on all whale watching tours are advised to bring extra warm clothing even on the hottest of days as weather on the north coast can change abruptly with little warning.
Most whale watching companies offer two tours a day. The second one is usually the best bet not least because it allows you to sleep in. Often much of the first tour is spent just locating the whales. By the time they have been found it may be time to return to port. Once they've been spotted there is enough local marine and air traffic to keep track of each pod's movements while loading customers for the second tour of the day.
Salmon and ground fishing charters are easily arranged in Port McNeill, Telegraph Cove or Alert Bay. Combining a day of fishing with whale watching is certainly a possibility and can even be a very cost-effective option if travelling in a group of four or more. Before booking a fishing charter be sure the boat is equipped with a good marine radio to zero in on the chit-chat between dedicated whale watching vessels. Your skipper should also have radar to follow the whales into more open water even when the fog banks roll in. Ask at the local travel information center, your motel or campground or even at the dock to find a skipper willing to take you out on a private excursion. Visit the Alert Bay Community website for further information.
For the truly adventurous a number of companies offer kayak rentals and guided kayaking adventures to Johnstone Strait. A multitude of steep-sided islands, fog, heavy maritime traffic and raging riptides makes doing it yourself ill-advised for all but the most experienced paddlers.