Orcas - Explore Vancouver Island (2023)


Wiktoria, Campbell River, Telegraph Cove

Scientists from all over the world have been coming to Vancouver Island for decades to study killer whales (killer whales), making them the best-studied whales in the world. In the 1970s, Michael Bigg developed a photo-identification technique that allowed scientists to identify individual killer whales. Soon, researchers were able to connect pods and clans and estimate population size, social structure, birth and death rates, diets, and travel patterns. There are three different groups of killer whales: sedentary, transitional and coastal killer whales.

(Video) Pod of orcas surprise swimmers off BC coast, video shows

The resident orcs
The whales living on Vancouver Island are divided into two separate communities: northerners and southerners. Just over 80 killer whales visit the southern region of Vancouver Island and the Juan De Fuca Strait. These whales are quite accustomed to boats and will often allow whale watching boats to come close to them. The Northerners number about 260 and patrol the coastal areas from the Campbell River to Queen Charlotte Strait.

Residents of both northern and southern Vancouver Island communities live in a matriarchal social order. Sons and daughters stay with their mother even after the birth of their offspring. Sibling bonds can remain strong after the death of the mother, and these cetacean families are called matrilines. They almost always travel together, except perhaps foraging or mating for a few hours. The capsule consists of 1 to 4 matrilines that may be related and travel together. Unlike matrylines, the pods can separate over several months. A clan is a group of pods with similar dialects and a common but older maternal heritage. A community is defined as a group of clans that mix regularly but do not necessarily share vocal patterns.
Southerners are a clan (J clan) that has 3 pods (J, K and L pods). The northerners are 3 clans A, R and G, with a total of 34 matrilines and many pods in each clan. In the last 30 years of orc research here, the northern and southern clans have not been seen in the same waters together.

The local killer whale's favorite meal is salmon (especially Chinook salmon), and they may hunt individually or in groups. Killer whale behavior can be quite different depending on what species of salmon are present. In the north and southeast of Vancouver Island, Chinook salmon are often found close to shore and are a favorite food of killer whales. Killer whales will prey on Chinook salmon, and occasionally Chinook will escape to seaweed or rock crevices. Instead of just finding another salmon, the whale can swing its body until the salmon comes out. Whales can dive very deep for all types of salmon, or swim near tidal crevices and peck at salmon when they come close. Killer whales have been seen swimming through shoals of pink and coho to catch Chinooks, and eat up to 150 kg (330 lb) per day.

(Video) Sea kayaking with Orca, Humpbacks and Grizzly bear Vancouver Island, Canada

Orcas are very sociable and may spend hours with other mother groups or other groups from different clans. In a northern community of residents, a group may escort another group that does not visit the area very often. The whales can be quite boisterous when new pods arrive, and you may witness breaches, spy jumps (with the head fully out of the water), tail wagging, and killer whales rubbing against bodies.

Transitional (Bigga) killer whales
Transient killer whales travel in smaller groups to successfully hunt smaller marine mammals, usually seals, sea lions, dolphins and porpoises. On rare occasions, they kill the calf of a larger gray or humpback whale. Transitional animals do not feed on salmon like natives do, and therefore do not usually echolocate when hunting for prey, as marine mammals can hear underwater. Their singing can often be heard after a successful catch or when the catch is approaching. Transient killer whales have a similar matrilineal group to native killer whales, but the offspring may leave their mother as adults.

Transients are not seen as often as locals, but will be seen mainly in Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait, and the west coast of Vancouver Island near the coast and number about 260. Their dorsal fin is more pointed and they generally make longer dives. Their vocalization frequency and different calls will help you tell these whales apart.

(Video) Explore Telegraph Cove- Ecosummer Expeditions Orca Basecamp

Orcas off the coast
Sea killer whales spend most of their time on the continental shelf, although they have occasionally been sighted in coastal inlets. Sea killer whales have not been the subject of as much research as whales, although scientists have made some guesses about their behavior. A 2011 study published in the journal Aquatic Biology argues, based on DNA evidence, that coastal killer whales prey on large dormant sharks from the Pacific. Shark skin is abrasive and therefore wears down the whale's teeth considerably compared to other sedentary and transitional killer whales. Most encounters with offshore killer whales occur more than 20 miles off the west coast of Vancouver Island or near the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Orca Whale Taksonomi
Killer whales (killer whales) are the largest mammals of the dolphin family. The largest male measured 9.8 m (32 ft) and weighed over 10 tons, while the largest female was 8.5 m (28 ft) and weighed 7.5 tons. Males are usually 7 to 9 meters (23 to 30 ft) long and weigh over 6 tons, and females are usually 6 to 8 m (20 to 26 ft) and weigh 3 to 4 tons. Males have noticeably larger pectoral fins than females, and the dorsal fin is approximately twice as large. Killer whales are the fastest marine mammals around Vancouver Island, although the speed we can achieve with dolphins is rarely seen because dolphins follow cruise ships for short periods of time.

Killer whales can be identified by the pattern on the surface of the saddle and dorsal fin. The saddle patch is the gray patch just behind the dorsal fin and is called the "saddle" because it resembles a riding saddle. It is often unique to each whale. Other clues include a white patch just behind the eye, cuts and scrapes, and possible scars or tears on the fins. Killer whales have good vision above and below water, although they do not develop pigment cells called shortwave (S-) cones that are sensitive to blue light. Scientists have concluded that whales cannot distinguish colors in the blue wavelength. They have a good sense of touch and good hearing. Whales are known to be unable to smell because they do not have an olfactory bulb and there is no evidence that they can taste. They have amazingly advanced echolocation skills and can detect the location and features of their prey by emitting clicks and listening for echoes.

(Video) Orca whale watching Vancouver Island Canada

Life cycle and reproduction
Males reach sexual maturity around age 15 and start mating around age 20, and live an average of about 30 years. The oldest known male was J1, who was estimated to be 59 years old when he died in 2010. Female killer whales start puberty around 10 years of age and reach peak fertility around 20 years of age. They are usually no longer fertile after 40 years. Women go through menopause and can live to be 90 years old. J2 (Grandma), a killer whale who frequents South Vancouver Island, is 104 years old in her lifetime. This is a very rare case.
Pregnancy usually lasts 15-18 months. Mothers usually give birth to one calf about once every 5 years, and births can occur at any time of the year for resident pods, although winter is more common. Calves are weaned at around 12 months of age and weaned at 2 years of age. Up to 50% of calves die in the first 7 months. Studies have shown that both male and female group members help care for the calves. Resident sons and daughters stay with their mother for life, even after the birth of their own offspring.


Where is the best chance to see orcas in Vancouver Island? ›

Campbell River is a city on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, near the Discovery Passage strait. This is a prime area for whale spotting on Vancouver Island, as well as the nearby Johnstone Strait. During a tour around Campbell River, you're likely to see humpback whales, orcas, and dolphins.

How often do you see orcas at Orcas Island? ›

But Orcas Island IS a great place to go whale watching! Orca (or killer) whales live in these waters year-round with the most sightings between May and October, when the salmon runs are strongest. This region is one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent animals in the wild.

What time of year can you see orcas on Orcas Island? ›

Orcas can be sighted all year long, but the three Southern Resident pods (J-, K- and L-pods) generally forage for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea during the summer months (May - September).

When can you see orcas in Vancouver Island? ›

From May to October, it's prime viewing time to see southern resident orcas feeding on migrating salmon in the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands. But the late summer months are ideal for spotting northern resident orcas, which feed in the Johnstone Strait.

What time of day are orcas most active? ›

This means they are most active during twilight hours which are both before sunrise and after sunset. They can communicate with one another without being detected by predators or prey during these twilight hours because the water will absorb the sound of the whales' communication.

What time is best to see orcas? ›

The best time to spot orcas is mid-April through mid-May and August through October, though you can experience a whale-watching Zodiac boat tour year-round. Book an unforgettable cruise vacation to one of the best places to see orcas with Celebrity Cruises.

Is it better to see orcas in the morning or afternoon? ›

Orcas are most active in the morning, so try to get an early start. They often feed near shore, so keep an eye out for them while you're on land. They tend to travel in groups, so if you see one Orca, there's a good chance there are more nearby.

How close do orcas come to shore? ›

"They came in very close, about 10 meters from shore," Gary Hinds, chairman of the Hot Water Beach Lifeguard, said. Hinds explained the orcas occasionally come into shallow water to feed on stingrays: "Some people don't see them, but the ones who do are in awe of seeing these orcas so close into the shore."

Where is the best place to see orcas on Orcas Island? ›

American Camp & Cattle Point. Just off South Beach, part of American Camp on the south end of San Juan Island, lies Salmon Bank - a prey-rich hotspot for orcas, humpbacks, and other marine mammals.

How early to get to orcas ferry? ›

Recommended arrival time is 20 minutes prior to scheduled sailing. On high traffic sailings, vessel overloads may occur for travel to Anacortes.

What time of year are orcas in BC? ›

The most important part of viewing whales in B.C. is deciding the best time to go: Orcas: June through the end of September. Peak orca numbers and sightings tend to be from mid-July until mid-September.

How long does the orca encounter last? ›

The Orca Encounter is a 20-minute show with new video, storytelling, and animal trainer interaction and choreography. 2. The killer whale experience has audiences "connecting in an inspiring new way with the ocean's most powerful predator."

Do killer whales go on shore? ›

Orcas have been known to intentionally beach themselves to hunt for seals around the shoreline and then wait for waves to get them back into deeper water, but this is mostly around Argentina. Orcas rarely become beached by accident.

Can you see orcas from BC Ferry? ›

Ferries from Bear Cove travel through both coastal and deeper waters, providing opportunities to see a wide variety of cetaceans. Humpback whales, killer whales, and harbour porpoises are common in the area and are often seen by BC Ferries passengers.

Can you see orcas in Nanaimo? ›


On our tours we have a chance of seeing a number of whale species, including: Orcinus orca, Orca/Killer Whales. Megaptera novaeangliae, Humpback Whales.

How far do orcas travel in a day? ›

Orcas are massive animals that swim vast distances in the wild—40 miles a day on average—not just because they can, but because they need to, to forage for their varied diets and to exercise.

Do orcas come out in the rain? ›

And yes, Orcas come out in the rain!

How far do orcas travel in a day in the wild? ›

In the ocean, orcas travel as far as 140 miles in a single day with their family pods. However, when held captive at places like SeaWorld, they're confined to concrete tanks, often given psychoactive drugs, and forced to live in incompatible groups, sometimes leading to aggressive behaviour and injuries.

Where is the best place to see orcas in Canada? ›

On the Pacific west coast, the Johnstone Strait, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbian mainland, is one of the best places in the world to see orcas. From late June to October this spot is home to nearly 300 of these majestic, playful creatures.

Can you swim with killer whales? ›

Is It Really Possible to Swim with Killer Whales? Yes! There are a handful of tour operators that offer boat excursions allowing you to swim with killer whales off the coast of Norway. You'll also be in with a chance of seeing other whales, like humpbacks, too.

Are you more likely to see whales in the morning or afternoon? ›

Morning is the best time of day for whale watching in California. Weather is the key component to ideal whale watching conditions. Typically, there is less wind in the morning making for calmer seas, which is most enjoyable for both marine life and boat tours.

What is the best time of day to see whales in Victoria BC? ›

We have some tips to help you decide. But first, we stress that there's no “best” time of day to go whale watching. Whales are out and about doing their thing day and night, so whether you go out in the morning, afternoon or evening you'll always have a great chance of seeing whales and other marine wildlife.

How often do orca come up for air? ›

Killer Whales don't hold there breath for anywhere near as long. Their maximum is about 15 minuets but on average we see them surface at least once a minute while moving quickly or every 3-5 minutes when travelling.

What do orca do at night? ›

Orcas take resting breaks throughout the day and night, between intervals of feeding, socializing, and traveling. Usually the entire pod will go into a sleep pattern for 1-6 hours. When sleeping, they swim slowly and come together in a tight group, synchronizing their respirations.

Where do orcas rub on rocks? ›

Information. Welcome to the Northern Resident orcas' historic rubbing beaches in the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, Johnstone Strait, BC. The orcas spend a remarkable amount of time rubbing their bodies along the smooth pebbles during the summer months.

Can you swim next to an orca? ›

Is it safe to swim or dive with Orcas? Yes, however, you have to be very cautious, because they are still wild animals and need attention all the time. Orcas owe their name “killer whale” to the early whalers Because they apparently attacked and killed all other animals, even the largest whales.

What eats orcas? ›

Do orcas have predators? Orcas are apex predators, which means they're at the very top of the food chain and they have no predators.

Where is the most common place to find orcas? ›

While they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska, they are also found in tropical and subtropical waters. The most well-studied killer whale populations occur in the eastern North Pacific Ocean.

Is Orcas Island walkable? ›

A fifteen-minute drive from the ferry lies the historic village of Eastsound, Orcas Island's downtown. This walkable village bustles with life—a visitor's dream of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and a history museum.

Can you see orcas from land? ›

There is something special about seeing Orcas from land. You can hear them breach, breath and sing and if you aren't already, this will be the moment you fall in love with them forever. San Juan Island offers some of the best whale watching in the world.

Are there shuttles on Orcas Island? ›

The Orcas Island Shuttle, OrcaShuttle.com, is a daily service running from Memorial Day to Labor Day on Orcas Island. It makes stops at the ferry, Eastsound, Rosario Resort, Moran State Park, and more.

How late does the ferry run from Orcas Island? ›

DayOperating HoursFrequency
Sun6:45 AM - 10:05 PM2 hr
Mon6:45 AM - 10:05 PM2 hr
Tue6:45 AM - 10:05 PM2 hr
Wed6:45 AM - 10:05 PM2 hr
3 more rows

Can you visit Orcas Island without a car? ›

Yes, the Washington State Ferry provides over a dozen daily sailings to the San Juan Islands from the ferry landing in Anacortes. You can either walk-on or drive-on. You should check the schedule to ensure that the ferry you're riding on is actually visiting Orcas Island at that time.

How many orcas live near Vancouver Island? ›

Resident whales along Vancouver Island are split into two separate communities: Northern and Southern residents. There are just over 80 resident Orca whales that frequent the southern Vancouver Island region and Juan De Fuca Strait.

Are orcas active at night? ›

When are they active? Orcas are not strictly diurnal or nocturnal. Instead they follow the activity of their prey and, in some cases, this may involve actively foraging at night. In fact foraging, socialising and travelling can all take place at any time of the day or night.

Can you see orcas in Vancouver in September? ›

Resident Orcas (Southern and Northern)

Southerns are best seen from May to September/October. They feed mainly on fi, and it's a feast when the migrating salmon arrive in the Strait of Georgia to the Gulf Islands. These islands are located between Vancouver and Victoria.

How often are orca attacks? ›

In the wild, there have been no reliably verified fatal attacks on humans. In captivity, there have been several non-fatal and four fatal attacks on humans since the 1970s. Experts are divided as to whether the injuries and deaths were accidental or deliberate attempts to cause harm.

Does Orca Encounter cost money? ›

Yes, the shows are included and unless you want to get SOAKED, don't sit in the soak zone - they mean it! You cannot touch a dolphin without paying for an encounter.

Will an orca save a human? ›

Because of their intelligence and social nature, orca whales are unlikely to attack humans out of aggression or hostility. In fact, there have been numerous instances of orca whales coming to the aid of humans who were in danger, such as when a group of orca whales helped a diver escape from a shark attack.

What to do if you come across a killer whale? ›

If you see an orca, Natoli said, you should keep a distance of about 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) and turn off your engine or, at the very least, slow down. "Try not to approach them from the back or from the front. Stay on their side instead," Natoli told the Khaleej Times.

Why do orcas come close to shore? ›

There is an especially valuable environment in Puget Sound made up of the beaches, bluffs, inlets, and river deltas: the nearshore . Nearshore habitat matters to Southern Resident killer whales because their primary prey, Chinook salmon, need them to grow and find safety when they are young .

Where can I see whales from shore on Vancouver Island? ›

There is one place in WA State, on San Juan Island, which is Lime Kiln State Park where Orcas can be easily seen from shore. The Orcas take a 45-60 min boat ride out into Juan de Fuca Strait where the whales hang out which takes people quite a way from Victoria and makes for a 3-3.5 hour trip.

Can you see orcas from Victoria BC? ›

That said, the best time to see killer whales in Victoria is from late spring to early fall, so between May and October. During these months, the waters are full of river salmon that attract resident orcas.

Do you need a ferry reservation for Orcas Island? ›

You'll need to make 2 reservations -- one coming to the Islands (westbound) and one leaving the Islands (eastbound) if you're visiting Orcas or Friday Harbor/San Juan Island. The system will prompt you to make a round-trip reservation.

What time of year do you see orcas in Vancouver? ›

From May to October, it's prime viewing time to see southern resident orcas feeding on migrating salmon in the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands. But the late summer months are ideal for spotting northern resident orcas, which feed in the Johnstone Strait.

Can you see orcas in Tofino? ›

Orcas. Sightings of Transient Orcas are common around Vancouver Island, with many resident orcas traveling in pods throughout Tofino and Clayoquot Sound in their hunt for food. Orcas typically travel together most of the time, with the possible exception of when foraging or mating.

Where are you most likely to see orcas? ›

Best Places to See Orcas in the Wild Summary
  • Resurrection Bay, Alaska, USA.
  • British Colombia, Canada.
  • Strait of Georgia, Vancouver, Canada.
  • San Juan Island, Washington, USA.
  • Monterey Bay, California, USA.
  • Valdes Peninsula, Argentina.
  • Antarctica.
  • Olafsvik, Snaefellsnes, Iceland.
Nov 20, 2022

Where is the most common place to see orcas? ›

5 Best National Parks to See Orcas (Killer Whales)
  • Channel Islands National Park, California.
  • Olympic National Park, Washington.
  • Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.
  • San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington.
  • Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska.
Dec 8, 2022

What state has the most orcas? ›

Killer whales, also referred to as orca whales, are best known for their striking black and white coloring and tall dorsal fins. They are found in all ocean waters of Alaska, but they are most commonly seen in Southeast Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska, and in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Can you see orcas from the shore? ›

Shore-based Whale Watching: Spend an afternoon at Lime Kiln Point State Park, a 36 acre day use park on the west side of San Juan Island considered one of the best places in the world to view orca whales from shore.

Where are the pods of orcas? ›

There are two populations of resident orca in the Pacific Northwest, the Northern and Southern Residents. They live in large family groups called pods. Each pod consists of multiple related matrilines, each matriline made up of a female, her offspring, and subsequent offspring.

What is the main town on orcas? ›

Eastsound is the largest town on the island and is home to a variety of accommodations and restaurants. Four other small communities, Olga, Deer Sound, West Sound and Doe Bay are scattered across the horseshoe-shaped island and have a range of galleries, artist studios and shopping amenities.

When can you see orcas in Washington? ›

You can see orcas in Seattle, Washington and the surrounding areas year round. But summer between May and September are the best times to kayak with orcas. That's because their food source, salmon, is most active around this time.

Are there orca in Florida? ›

Killer whales, or orca whales, are not commonly found off the coast of the Southeast United States. The last recorded strandings in the region were in Okaloosa County, Florida in 1956 and Summerland Key, Florida in 1948, Erin Fougeres said.


1. Wild whale encounter in B.C. lasts two hours
(CTV News)
2. Orca Baby Boom Off Vancouver Island
(CBC News: The National)
3. I saw KILLER Whales in Canada: Whale Watching Tour in Victoria BC with Prince of Whales
(Aly Smalls)
4. Exploring Vancouver Island Final Days - Orcas, Bears, Otters and Mink, Oh My!
(Jay Wanders Out)
5. Vancouver Island - Whalewatching 4k
(Area28 by Gunter Kiphard)
6. Killer Whales (orcas) chase my boat in Active Pass, Vancouver Island Coast, BC Canada
(Explore Vancouver Canada)


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