British Columbia’s vast swaths of temperate rainforests and rich marine environments offer some of the finest wildlife viewing in North America. The northwestern Canadian province of British Columbia covers an enormous 944,735 square kilometres, much of which remains a vast forested wilderness, home to perhaps the greatest populations of grizzly and black bears in the world. In remote parts of the Great Bear Rainforest the rare, ghostly white spirit bear also finds refuge. Coastal wolf, mountain lion (puma), beaver, elk, American marten, river otter, mink and racoon also thrive in the British Columbian wilderness. Besides its lush forests and rugged mountains, British Columbia’s scenic coastline provides superlative cetacean viewing and has been dubbed the orca (killer whale) capital of the world for its reliable sightings of these apex predator “wolves of the sea”. Humpback and grey whales, super pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises, huge Steller’s sea lions and adorable sea otters can also be found along the wild British Columbian coast. The region plays host to one of the world’s most exciting and celebrated wildlife spectacles: the annual salmon run which takes place between August and October. This natural phenomenon, in which thousands of adult salmon migrate from the sea up ancestral breeding rivers to their spawning grounds, attracts impressive gatherings of hungry grizzly and black bears. Intrepid visitors are rewarded with excellent wildlife action as magnificent grizzly and black bears stalk, dive and desperately chase as many salmon as they can. British Columbia’s sheltered and calm fjords, channels and lakes also make it the perfect destination for exploration by kayak and canoe, a thrilling and intimate way to watch its wildlife and enjoy its beautiful landscapes. There is plenty of interest too for those intrigued by anthropology, learning about the First Nation cultures and history, as well as modern day vibrant cities such as Vancouver. A wildlife holiday to British Columbia combines many of the planet’s most charismatic species with exploration of some of Earth’s last remaining temperate wilderness.
To British Columbia
Known for its long windswept beaches, ancient cedar forests the small fishing village of Tofino is a popular base for exploring the west coast of Vancouver Island.
There are many beaches and trails to enjoy walking from Tofino and the area also offers good birdwatching in the spring and autumn as migrating waders and seabirds pass through. Tofino is also an excellent wildlife watching hotspot with abundant blacks, whales, sea lion haul outs and a chance of spotting sea otters.
The calm waters surrounding Meares Island offer excellent black bear watching. At low tide often, several bears can be watched from stable boats as they go about their business turning rocks along the shoreline looking for crabs to eat. During September and October, the bears can also be seen at local rivers feasting on the returning salmon.
Tofino also offers excellent whale watching with a slightly longer season as Pacific grey whales pass through these waters from March onwards on their northerly migration. However, the best time to visit is from June to October when humpbacks and lingering grey whales can be seen together alongside sea lions, seals and occasional sea otters. The seas off Tofino are less sheltered than those on the East coast of Vancouver Island so can be affected by rough weather more frequently. On rare occasions wolves and orcas are also spotted on excursions from Tofino.
One of the largest untouched expanses of coastal temperature rainforest in the world, this vast 21 million acre wilderness is a nature lover’s paradise. Huge ancient cedars smothered in lichens, some 1000 years old spread for hundreds of miles through rugged mountain landscapes and along and wild and windswept rocky coasts.
This is the domain of magnificent grizzly and black bears and a particular special white race of black bear known as the Kermode or Spirit bear which is found nowhere else.
It also supports packs of coastal wolves, cougars, mountain goats, mule deer, bald eagles, orcas, humpback whales and massive sea lion colonies. The Rainforest is also the home of many First Nations communities that live miles from civilisation.
With just a handful of lodges to explore this wilderness from, the extraordinary wildlife experiences that can be had here including some very close encounters with bears are sure to be memorable. Perhaps the highlight of a visit to this region for many is a chance to view the rare spirit bear. The white coloration of these black bears is caused by a recessive gene.
Despite its remoteness, this rainforest is still under threat from logging though in 2006 it was agreed that 5 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest would remain completely off limits to any logging activity.
Although not the capital of British Columbia, Vancouver is certainly the largest and most populous city in the province. Named after Captain George Vancouver who explored the area in 1792, the city has a particularly diverse history and ethnicity with only around half the population speaking English as a first language.
Vancouver is recognised for its quality of life, green spaces and accessibility to nature. One of the metropolitan highlights is Stanley Park, an urban oasis first officially opened in 1888 which is a pleasure to explore by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The park has surprising wildlife viewing potential as it is inhabited by beaver, racoon, striped skunk, river otter, pacific harbour seal, bald eagle and even a few coyotes.
Vibrant downtown Vancouver supplies many visitor attractions such as the fascinating Museum of Anthropology, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Gastown Markets and the Vancouver Lookout Tower. A little further out of town are the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain Cable Car, a must for its wonderful vistas.
Vancouver is the natural starting point for trips into the Great Bear Rainforest and Vancouver Island.
Called the salmon capital of the world, Campbell River sits on the sheltered eastern coast of Vancouver Island opposite Quadra Island and the Discovery Passage.
Long before European explorers arrived on this coastline a First Nations community had a settlement at the mouth of the Campbell River for its important salmon population. Today Campbell River is still a thriving salmon fishing town and gateway to many outdoor and wildlife focused activities.
The town also supports an active arts and crafts scene with plenty of authentic First Nations art on display in local shops, the public art gallery and even on the side of many buildings. The Museum gives an excellent insight into the history of the town and the First Nations culture. There are superb views in most directions with the lush Quadra Island across the water and the snow caped peaks of mainland British Columbia in the distance.
The Salish Sea encompasses various coastal waterways to the south of Vancouver as well as the far north of Washington State, USA.
This area includes Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and the waters around San Juan Island and Gulf Islands. The Salish Sea displays a diverse marine ecosystem with over 200 species of fish, and between June and September humpback whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller’s and California sea lions and harbour seals also inhabit the area.
The Salish Sea is notable for its orcas including a highly endangered resident population of fish-eating orcas and some transient orcas which feed mainly on mammals. Sadly, the resident orcas here are now very rare and continuing to decline due to toxins in the water and overfishing of Chinook salmon. However, it is still a great place to see transient (Bigg’s) orcas that hunt the abundant seals living in the seas there.
The marine life is best viewed on boat trips from Victoria on Vancouver Island or on longer day trips from Vancouver.
Opposite the eastern side of northern Vancouver Island and running north to south for 110 kilometres, Johnstone Strait is an exceptionally deep glacier-carved channel.
Johnstone Strait is sheltered from the wild Pacific Ocean by both Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland and is backed by beautiful old growth temperate rainforests and stunning snow-capped mountains. It is an extremely wild and unspoilt area with almost no human development and numerous untouched, wild islands.
Thanks to its shelter and rich marine environment, the strait offers some of the finest marine wildlife viewing in the world. It is most famed for its orcas which visit in large numbers between July and mid-September every year to feed on salmon and other fish species.
Marine life is abundant in the Johnstone Strait and (thankfully) increasing numbers of the majestic humpback whale spend the summer and early autumn there, along with athletic Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphin, the enormous Steller’s sea lion, harbour seal, bald eagle and rhinoceros auklet.
The calm waters and usually pleasant weather of the summer months make Johnstone Strait an ideal location in which to watch wildlife, including whales and orcas, by kayak.
The strait can be accessed from Telegraph Cove, Campbell River or Port McNeil on Vancouver Island, or from Farewell Harbour Lodge in the Broughton Archipelago.
Knight Inlet is a 125km long fjord that passes through some of the most remote and stunning scenery on the British Columbia coast. It is characterised by towering and often snow-capped peaks above and dense evergreen forests of sitka and hemlock along its edges.
Sixty kilometres from its mouth is Glendale Cove, a picturesque estuary that used to be the site of a First Nations village and cannery and is now a wildlife watcher’s dream. The estuary and surrounding coastline provide perhaps the most reliable and awe-inspiring bear watching anywhere in the world.
Glendale Cove supports a large population of grizzly bears offering outstanding boat-based viewing of these enchanting animals throughout the season. In late August the numbers of bears in the area swell with the arrival of the annual salmon run leading to a truly world-class wildlife spectacle as numerous grizzlies desperately try to hunt as many salmon as they can.
Other wildlife includes American black bear, river otter, mule deer, coastal wolf and puma (or mountain lion) although the latter two are rarely seen.
Knight Inlet is home to huge pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins and occasional humpback whales plus many seabirds including the tiny marbled murrelet and elegant Barrow’s goldeneye.
The region is best accessed on a floatplane from Campbell River or on a much longer boat ride as a day trip.
Best Time To Visit British Columbia
For most wildlife including bears, orcas, whales, sea otters, beavers and breeding birds the summer months from late May to August are best.
For the most spectacular bear behaviour and photographic opportunities then late August to October are best when the annual salmon run takes place.
Orcas are present in the Johnstone Strait between July and September but can be seen in the Salish Sea from Vancouver from June. Humpback whales frequent most areas between June and October with the best sightings in the Johnstone Strait area.
The grizzly bear viewing in May, June and July involves watching bears feeding on protein rich coastal sedges and crabs along the shoreline. While from mid to late August the salmon run attracts them to first estuaries and then rivers further inland. The exact timing of the salmon arrival and their movements up rivers varies from year to year and can depend on many factors including water temperature and large climate events, but September is usually the peak for most sites. Late August and early September is the best window for peak bear and whale watching.
Sea otters are best viewed during the summer months of June, July and August when the weather is usually calm and more settled.
Travelling in May see the arrival of spring migrant birds and fresh foliage and flowers while late August onwards is good for autumnal migrants and seabirds in particular.
The weather is generally good in most areas during June, July and August but showers are still regular in the Great Bear Rainforest at any time and can be more frequent in September and October. For beautiful autumn colours October is the best time to visit but there can be much cooler temperatures at this time too.