Everything you need to know about exploring BC’s Whale Trail

Mar 1 2021, 8:45 pm

Did you know that a great way to watch whales is from the shore?

A network of viewing sites from California all the way to northern British Columbia, the Whale Trail was made to inspire the appreciation and stewardship of whales and other marine life. The route was expanded to BC as part of a partnership with the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN) at Ocean Wise and is open to visitors itching to get away from their computers and explore.

There are now some 25 whale trail sites in BC, with more being added each year — including those in West Vancouver, Squamish, Victoria, Gulf Islands, Tofino, Cortes Island, and Prince Rupert. Some recent additions include Discovery Passage (Campbell River) and Milner Gardens.

Instead of scratching that itch by travelling despite public health guidelines, keep it safe in beautiful British Columbia with a visit to a viewing spot along BC’s underrated Whale Trail. World Wildlife Day on Wednesday, March 3, gives you the perfect occasion to celebrate nature and get a healthy dose of fresh air.

Whale Trail panel in Irvine’s Landing, Sunshine Coast/Lee-ann Ennis (left) and Amelia Gray (right)

Here are some need-to-know tips for first-timers: Before you leave, brush up on Coastsmart’s online resources, which provide tips on staying safe near and in the water. Check the daily tidal information and weather and wave forecasts in the area you want to visit and pack smart.

You’ll also want to wear weatherproof clothing and footwear, bring a camera, binoculars, and a communication device (that’s a cell phone if you’re modern and a personal locator beacon or VHF radio if you’re old-school).

Additionally, be sure to download Ocean Wise’s WhaleReport app on the App Store or Google Play beforehand. It allows you to report your sightings of dolphins, whales, and porpoises to help experts at Ocean Wise and other organizations keep track of sightings, populations, and important habitat areas.

Humpback whale blow/Ocean Wise

The southern resident population of killer whales is critically endangered, with only 75 individuals left. Aside from boats, these whales face threats such as underwater noise, pollution, and limited availability of prey. You may be lucky enough to spot them on the Whale Trail this year, along with humpback whales, grey whales, and certain species of dolphins and porpoises.

Once decimated by whaling, humpback whales have made an impressive recovery in the North Pacific in the last 40 years. Although humpbacks are strongly migratory, they can be seen year-round in BC’s coastal waters, and March is a good time to spot early arrivals.

Identify humpback whales through their dorsal fin two-thirds of the way back along their body and extra-long pectoral fins. These whales can reach a maximum length of 16 metres and tend to be very acrobatic, so watch for breaching, tail-lobbing, and pectoral fin-slapping.

There are only two distinct populations of grey whales left in the world, and both are found in the North Pacific Ocean. Similar to humpbacks, grey whales use BC waters as a migration corridor between breeding and feeding grounds. Northbound migrating whales begin appearing off the west coast of Vancouver Island in late February through to May, with a peak in sighting reports in March — great times to be on the Whale Trail.

These mottled grey whales like to be close to the shore, and their 11- to 14-metre bodies are generally covered in barnacles and whale lice. You can identify these solitary creatures by their tails with convex, trailing edges, and a deep notch in the middle or by the series of “knuckles” where a dorsal fin would be.

Grey whale/Ocean Wise

Perhaps the most recognizable to British Columbians, the killer whale comes in three populations, all of which frequent the waters along the Whale Trail. Their dorsal fins are black, triangular, and between 1 and 1.8 metres in height, and they have obvious white markings around their eyes, underbelly, and dorsal fins. Their striking markings are hard to miss, and they can be quite acrobatic and playful at the surface.

You’ll need a keen eye to spot the smaller dolphins and porpoises along the Whale Trail, including Dall’s porpoises, harbour porpoises, and pacific white-sided dolphins.

Dall porpoise dorsal fin/Ocean Wise

Harbour porpoises are frequently seen in BC’s inlets and fjords as they prefer more shallow coastal waters. You might see them near Lighthouse Park, although they’re hard to spot as the smallest cetacean in the province. Dall’s porpoises are found only in the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas, ranging from coastal waters to deep offshore waters. They have bold white and black coloration, with a white flank and triangular dorsal fins, and are a bit more social than harbour porpoises, travelling in groups of 10 to 20.

Meanwhile, Pacific white-sided dolphins are found throughout the North Pacific’s open-ocean and coastal waters. They have a curved, bi-coloured dorsal fin and grey or white countershading and are often seen in large groups of up to 1,000. You’ll know these boisterous dolphins when you see them because they love to leap out of the water.

Pacific white-sided dolphin/Ocean Wise

Whether you line it up with World Wildlife Day or not, a visit to the province’s breathtaking coast could be the sigh of relief you need to unwind in nature. Visit the Whale Trail website to find locations in your area of BCand remember: Follow health guidelines, don’t travel, and keep it local!

This project was funded by the Government of Canada. To learn more about the Whale Trail and the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, visit thewhaletrail.org and wildwhales.org.

You can also download the WhaleReport app to report your sightings.

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