Whale watching is a popular activity to do while in Vancouver. The local whale watching season lasts from May until October as it's then when the weather, daylight hours, and temperatures are ideal. The Strait of Georgia - the nearby body of water that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland - is home to 3 residential pods of orcas: J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. Orcas (also known as killer whales) are actually the largest member of the dolphin family! It's these creatures (and not humpback or grey whales) that you'd be seeing while on a Vancouver-based whale watch tour. Of course, you're equally likely see other wildlife such as harbour seals, porpoises, and bald eagles!
Differences between whale watching companies
Vancouver is currently home to 3 whale watching companies: Wild Whales Vancouver, Steveston Seabreeze Adventures, and Vancouver Whale Watch. Here is a map that I created to illustrate the locations of the Vancouver-based whale watching companies and how their locations relate to the range they'll cover to find orcas on any given day.
All companies guarantee sightings and will provide professionally narrated commentary by naturalists on board. They will all travel down through the Strait of Georgia to the Gulf Islands and to the San Juan Islands, sometimes as far as Victoria at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. All companies have hydrophones (so you can listen to the orcas underwater) and yes, they do have washrooms on board each boat. They also follow strict guidelines in terms of how close they get to the whales before they must cut their engines. While experiences aren't dramatically different from one company to another, there are certainly variations which will help you determine which company to go with.
Wild Whales Vancouver is the only Vancouver-based company that's actually located in the city of Vancouver. They're a relatively new company based out of Granville Island, so it's extremely close to downtown Vancouver. However, being the closest company to downtown means they're the furthest away from the whales, so they typically have to travel even further to get to the whales than other Vancouver-based companies. Since they only have one departure per vessel, they don't have to rush back, so they are able to spend more time out on the water looking for whales and other marine life. As a result, their tours can last anywhere from 3-7 hours in length. They have a choice of open or closed vessels.
Steveston Seabreeze Adventures is a company based out in the city of Richmond in Steveston - a historic fishing village at the mouth of the Fraser River - about a 45 minute drive from downtown Vancouver. They offer whale watching tours in reconverted fishing boats that have a closed seating area in addition to an outdoor viewing deck upstairs and in the back. Although they are located further from downtown, they are actually closer to the whales. As a result, their tours last from 3-5 hours in length. In the summer months they offer morning and afternoon departures. In addition to whale watching, Steveston Seabreeze offers a variety of other activities such as bicycle rentals, fishing, sea lion tours, and bird-watching tours. For $15 extra, they will provide door-to-door shuttle service.
Vancouver Whale Watch is the longest established whale watching company in the Vancouver area and are the only company with open and closed zodiac vessels. With zodiacs, they can often travel in conditions when other companies have to cancel. Like Steveston Seabreeze, Vancouver Whale Watch is also located in Steveston and also provides round trip shuttle service from downtown hotels for $15. Their tours generally last anywhere from 3-5 hours in length and offer morning and afternoon departures in the summer months. In addition to whale watching, they offer sea lion tours from March until mid May. They also offer a 45 minute narrated tour of the Fraser River estuary and Steveston's fishing history aboard the River Queen. The River Queen is a reconverted BC Ferries lifeboat and it sails up and down the Steveston harbour to provide a completely unique perspective of the historic fishing village.
Open vs. Closed boats
It's common to wonder whether an open boat or a closed boat is better, and it really depends on your preferences.
I find open boats more adventurous, especially zodiacs. Life suits (those big padded orange suits) are mandatory on open boats, not only because they keep you afloat (if you decided to go for a swim!) but they also keep you warm and protected from the wind and water. Now a lot of people think a zodiac is the same as an inflatable raft (they are not!) or that they're not secure (they're very secure), but zodiacs are actually some of the safest and most maneuverable vessels available for whale watching tours. Unlike other boats, zodiacs are built to carve through the waves, so the ride is not only faster, but it's less bumpy compared to other vessels. And no, surprisingly, you don't get wet on a zodiac unless a) it's raining, or b) your captain wants to play a prank on his willing passengers. ;)
The benefit of closed boats is, although they tend to be slower, you have the choice of being able to sit comfortable inside or walk to the viewing deck outside. By contrast, you are typically seated the entire time on open vessels due to the nature of the seating arrangements. But on a closed boat there tends to be more flexibility. You also don't have to worry about wearing the big orange life suit, which means you also don't have to worry about wind in your hair or rain or mischievous splashes from your captain! So over all, it's just a matter of preference.
A lot of people worry about motion sickness on whale watching tours. Whale watching in this region is done through protected waterways like the Georgia Strait and through the narrow channels between the Gulf and San Juan Islands. This is not the open ocean - there are no large sea swells or big waves. If it happens to be stormy or particularly windy (even on a sunny day), they will cancel the tour if they think it'll be too rough. Otherwise, If you are prone to motion sickness, by all means, I'd recommend taking Gravol ahead of time, but motion sickness is otherwise quite rare. The worst case scenario is that some companies, like Vancouver Whale Watch, carry candied ginger on board which is supposed to help in those situations.
Guarantee of seeing whales
All Vancouver-based companies will offer guaranteed sightings. The likelihood of seeing whales is anywhere from 90-95%. The pods of orcas travel large distances over the span of one day. In the morning they might be closer to the mouth of the Fraser River and in the afternoon they might be closer to Victoria. This is why the tour length can dramatically vary. The only time that whales are not seen is if they have travelled to the open Pacific Ocean for the day. In that case, the captains of the tour will travel around in hopes of finding whales and other marine life. If you don't see orcas (even if you see the elusive Minke whale!), you'll be treated to a certificate to come back any time in the future to go whale watching again for free. Because you're dealing with wild animals, there is never a 100% guarantee for sightings.
Because seating is limited, it's always best to make reservations at least one week in advance, if not earlier. While you may be able to reserve a spot a day or two before, the tours typically sell out by the day of departure. Remember that when you reserve a whale watching tour that the length of the tour is uncertain - you could be out on the water for 3 hours or up to 5-7 hours! It's best to set aside a good portion of your day to the tour and try not to cram anything else afterward.
Whale Watching in Vancouver vs. Victoria
Frequently the question comes up as to whether or not one should pick a company based out of Vancouver or Victoria, and honestly? The experience doesn't differ - one is not better than the other. The only thing that really differs is the point of departure. The orcas are always going to be in some location between Victoria and Vancouver so it really doesn't matter whether you leave from Vancouver or from Victoria, you're going to end up at the exact same location when viewing the whales.
There tend to be more Victoria-based companies, so if you're particular about what kind of boat you want to go out on - a zodiac, a reconverted fishing vessel, a luxurious yacht, etc. - you have more choice in Victoria. Victoria-based companies also have to travel shorter distances. As a result, you spend less time on the water and most tours will stay out for a maximum of 3 hours. This often makes the tours less expensive as well. Of course, this is only a benefit if you're already planning to visit Victoria. If you were only planning to visit Victoria to go whale watching, it really makes more sense to whale watch out of Vancouver as you'd be saving yourself a lot of time and money.
But if you're still interested in visiting Victoria and want to kill two birds with one stone, Victoria-based Prince of Whales has recently started to offer a unique series of tours that depart from downtown Vancouver, go whale watching along the way, and then drop you off in Victoria! That has got to be one of the best ways of getting from downtown Victoria to downtown Vancouver!