Story by Tricia Edgar
Vacay.ca Outdoors Columnist
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — BC Ferries are grand: the salty spray, the wind in your hair and, of course, the amazing views of the coastal mountains, inlets and islands. Whatever your destination, the ferries offer much more than a way to connect between west-coast communities, which is their intended purpose. A ride on one of these boats, which sees roughly 8 million passengers a year, gives you an opportunity to enjoy the ocean and island views, look for wildlife from the ferry itself, and explore the many coastal communities of British Columbia.
Coastal Naturalist Program on BC Ferries
If you’re on BC Ferries’ two most popular routes in the summer months, you’ll have the opportunity to meet one of the company’s coastal naturalists. This 20-minute program runs on the Vancouver-Victoria and West Vancouver-Nanaimo sailing routes. Learn about species at risk and marine protected areas, and get introduced to some of the amazing animals of the BC coast.
Whale Watching in British Columbia
What can you see from the ferry? You’re almost certain to catch sight of a number of birds as they ride the air currents above the boat. On some routes that move close to the shore, you may have the opportunity to see shore wildlife or seals as well. One of the more coveted sightings from the ferry is the glimpse of a whale. While whale watching on BC Ferries isn’t a sure thing, if you spend enough time sitting on a ferry, you’ll likely hear a crackling report coming over the speaker system, letting you know that the whales are moving close by the boat.
From shore or from the ferry, you might see a group of Pacific White-Sided dolphins carousing in the water near the boat, or you could see the slip of a fin as a harbor porpoise slides quickly away. If luck is with you, you could also see a larger whale such as an orca. Orcas are divided into two populations: the resident whales who feed on fish, and the transient whales that move across larger distances, feeding on marine mammals like seals. These black and white whales are best viewed from May to September along the southern Vancouver Island routes. If you’re in the northern Vancouver Island area, you may see the orcas from July to September. If you’re very lucky, you might be in for some water play, as orcas love to engage in breaching and fin-slapping actions.
Searching for the Elusive Grey Whale
What’s that huge shadow off in the distance? Grey whale populations have rebounded since whaling stopped. These huge whales scoop up mud and strain it with their comb-like baleen, looking for tiny sea creatures to munch. They move up the coast of British Columbia from their calving grounds in Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. In recent years, they’ve been seen in the waters close to British Columbia’s mainland, between Vancouver Island and coastal communities. These huge, mottled whales often look like large logs or rocks moving in the ocean.
Wildlife Experiences in Coastal Communities
British Columbia’s ferry system gives you the opportunity to explore the coast. Visiting remote coastal communities and islands is a wildlife adventure unto itself. At the major Vancouver, Sunshine Coast, Nanaimo, and Victoria terminals, you’ll have access to many of BC’s smaller islands such as Gambier, Gabriola and Salt Spring. A short ferry trip from Horseshoe Bay, and you can access kayaking trips and hiking on Bowen Island, a small bit of territory that lies just 20 minutes outside the city. If you’re in northern British Columbia, a day cruise will take you over to Haida Gwaii, where fishing, kayaking and First Nations culture meet. Once you’re there, you can also take a ferry down the coast to Port Hardy on Northern Vancouver Island, a day cruise that also occasionally stops in the remote coastal communities of Klemtu and Bella Bella.
Even if you’re not planning to go cruising this spring or summer, a mini-cruise on a BC Ferry will introduce you to some of British Columbia’s coastal sights. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the coast and the islands, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of marine life even before you step onto the shore.
More About BC Ferries
Fares: The one-way fare between Tsawwassen (Vancouver’s closest ferry terminal) and Swartz Bay (30 minutes from Victoria) is $14.85 for adult passengers and $7.45 for children. Each passenger vehicle costs $49.25 for the sailing that takes approximately 90 minutes. Fares and sailing times on other routes vary. For complete prices on all routes, download the BC Ferries Fares document (PDF).
Reservations: When travelling at peak times or on the most popular routes, it is highly recommended that you make reservations before your departure. Visit the BC Ferries website to make your reservation.