With more coastlines than any other country on Earth, it’s no surprise that Canada is one of the best countries in the world for a whale watching tour. Bordered by three oceans – the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans – whale watching occurs all across Canada in places such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Nunavut.
Whale watching is very popular with both tourists and locals, with the possibility of viewing up to 33 whale species from shorelines, ships, sailing boats, zodiacs, kayaks, and more. Depending on where you are, there’s lots of other sea life as well, including seals, dolphins, walruses, and a variety of birds.
In this guide, we’re going to fill you in on where to go whale watching in Canada, the most common whales you’ll likely see, and the best times to go.
Best Time to Go Whale Watching in Canada
The best time to go whale watching will vary on where you go and what species you want to see, but in general, the best times for whale watching are between May and October. As most whales are migratory, they visit rich waters for feeding. By locating the foraging waters for several whale species, whale watching tour companies know where to expect regular visits from these giant mammals.
Most whales spend the Canadian winter in warm southern waters, which is where the calves are born. That’s why Canada’s whale watching season is in the warmer months. During spring, most whales migrate north, often passing through Canadian waters. Some go as far north as the Bering Sea and Davis Strait. Others stay all summer in nutrient-dense Canadian waters. For example, Vancouver is home to resident killer whales that never leave the area.
How to Prepare for Whale Watching in Canada
For first-timers, the excitement of witnessing one of the largest animals on Earth will become a memory of a lifetime. We’ve been on many whale watching tours and it’s just as exciting every time we go. It really can be a magical experience.
But before you go, there are things you should know, just to make sure you’re prepared for such a moment.
Before you Depart
Seeing whales on a whale watching tour is never guaranteed. It’s often very likely you will see them, but there are times when no whales can be found. This is nature, after all. Before booking your tour, you might want to check if they offer to rebook a second trip for free if no whales are found. Many companies offer this. It helps if you go into this with the idea that, even if no whales are found, you’ll be able to enjoy the splendour of being out on the waters enjoying the sights and sounds. The whales are a bonus.
Whether you’re on a big boat or in a zodiac, it will move with the motion of the ocean. If you’re someone who is prone to seasickness, you may want to consider taking medication prior to departure. While some locations are smoother than others, anything can happen, and you don’t want to be sick while trying to spot whales.
How Close Do You Get?
While we all would like to get as close to whales as possible, please keep in mind that Canadian regulations REQUIRE boats to stay a minimum of 100 metres away. For large boats, the distance is longer. This doesn’t mean that a whale might not venture over to the boat and get up close and personal. But if the whales are seen, the boat must not approach.
How to Dress for Whale Watching
Although the summers can be hot, Canada is a “cool” place, and the waters are much cooler. Even if it’s 20 degrees on land, the temperatures can be dramatically different out at sea. With wind and humidity tossed into the equation, it can be quite chilly at sea. Even in summer, be sure to dress warm, including some sort of jacket, sweater, warm socks, and perhaps even gloves and a hat. Ask your tour operator what they recommend as it will vary from coast to coast to coast. For example, when we did a zodiac tour around Tadoussac, we were given think jackets that double as life jackets. So, in this case, only a light sweater would be needed.
What to Bring
In addition, you may want to consider sunscreen as well. Due to being around water, the harmful rays of the sun can be magnified. Polarizing sunglasses are a nice addition as well, reducing the glare and helping you see whales in the distance.
Another piece of equipment you might want is binoculars. Personally, we’ve never had them but they can certainly come in handy, especially for smaller animals. Due to the movement of the boat, binoculars can increase the possibility of sea sickness, so just make sure you take medication if you’re someone who does get seasick.
Lastly, don’t forget your camera. They can be hard to capture due to their quick and sudden movements, and the most important part is that you witness them with your own eyes. However, if photography is especially important, you’ll likely want a good zoom lens as well. For this reason, we sometimes tell people that if photos are not especially important, it might be better to just enjoy the experience and buy a postcard later. It’s not an easy task on a moving boat.
Whale Species in Canadian Waters
Although more than 30 species of whale can be found amongst Canada’s 200,000 km2 of coastline, some species are much more common than others. We won’t go into detail on 30 different whales species, but we will show you the types of whales you’ll most likely see.
Humpback whales are perhaps the most common type of whale you’ll see on a whale watching tour in Canada. They can be found on the east coast, the west coast, and even in Quebec. They’re truly magical animals to see up close, especially when they breach the surface and show off their beautiful tail. This migrating baleen whale forages near shorelines on krill, plankton and tiny fish. After 3-5 shallow dives, it regularly shows a tail fluke when diving for deeper waters. This is what makes Humpbacks so popular to see.
Orcas – Killer Whales
Killer whales can also be seen across both the west coast and east coast of Canada but are most common on the west coast. In fact, they’re an iconic animal for both Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The orca whale belongs to the Dolphin family and suborder of the toothed whales. There seem to be 3-5 different types of orcas, but the most common ones you’ll see on the west coast are resident killer whales and transient killer whales. In Eastern Canada, killer whale movements are often in response to seal and rorqual whale migrations whereas in western Canada, resident killer whales feed on salmon and therefore follow the salmon run.
The Beluga whale resides more or less permanently in Canadian waters and can be found in Manitoba, Quebec, and in the arctic regions. We saw one Beluga whale while on a whale watching tour in Quebec but had one of the most magical experiences of all time in Churchill, Manitoba, where we were able to snorkel with an entire pod. The Beluga is a white coloured, toothed whale and belongs to the Narwhal family. Their diet consists mainly of fish and invertebrates, such as squid, clams, sea snails, and crabs. In the arctic regions, such as Tuktoyaktuk, the indigenous hunt them for food. A popular dish is called Muktuk.
With a maximum length of 10 metres (30 feet), the Minke whale is one of the smallest baleen whales. It eats small fish, zooplankton and krill. In cold regions, Minke whales will migrate south whereas they will become “resident whales” in warmer regions. We’ve seen Minke whales in both Quebec and in Newfoundland. They are quite common to find but they do not make as big a show as humpbacks and killer whales do. Upon first glance, they can almost be mistaken for a porpoise.
The blue whale is the biggest animal on Earth, weighing up to 200 tons and measuring 100 feet/30 metres in length. This migrating giant belongs to the suborder of baleen whales. It is less common to see this whale, but it does happen.
Most commonly seen in offshore waters, Fin whales feed primarily on schooling fish, squid and small invertebrates. Fin whales are migratory and they belong to the suborder of the baleen whales. They are also not as common as others.
Only found along Canada’s west coast, the Gray whale uses its baleen to filter tiny little creatures from the ocean floor. The Gray whale’s skin is rougher looking as it’s home to barnacles and sea lice. These giant whales can travel great distances. Within a year, they migrate up to 20.000 km (12.500 miles) from their winter home in Mexican waters to the colder summer feeding grounds up north.
Whalers named right whales, as they were supposed to be the ‘right’ whale to hunt. These migratory baleen whales were almost hunted to extinction and are still the most endangered large whale species in Canada. Right whales feed on krill and plankton. In contrast to their pray, Right whales reach an impressive maximum length of 18 metres and can weigh up to 100 tonnes.
Long-finned Pilot whale
The long-finned Pilot whale is a toothed whale and belongs to the Dolphin family, just like the Orca. These very social animals, unfortunately, have the tendency to ‘strand’ themselves, and often the entire pod follows suit. These migrating dolphins are nicknamed ‘potheads’ as a result of their big, round forehead.
Dolphin and Porpoise Species
Other Dolphin and Porpoise species, such as white-sided dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, and Harbour porpoise, are occasionally viewed while whale watching in Canada. These highly intelligent and social animals sometimes approach boats and even seem to enjoy riding bow waves. We’ve spotted many porpoises in Newfoundland while cruising around and sometimes confuse them for small whales.
Best Places to Go Whale Watching in Canada
Whale watching happens all across Canada, including the west coast, the east coast, Quebec, and in the arctic regions as well. Each place is unique and beautiful to experience.
Whale Watching in Nova Scotia
Possible Sightings: Humpback whale, Fin whale, Right whale, Long-finned Pilot whale
Nova Scotia is a great place to spot Humpback whale, Fin whale, Right whale, and Long-finned Pilot whales. The most common sighting would be the Humpback whale. Another benefit of whale Watching in Nova Scotia is exploring other beautiful areas of the province such as Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Halifax, Lunenberg, and even rafting the highest tides in the world.
Cape Breton Highlands
The beautiful Cape Breton Highlands area consists of a mountainous coastal region surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and home to one of Canada’s most scenic drives – Cabot Trail. From the shores or from a Zodiac or catamaran, you can catch sight of whales primarily during the peak season of July and August. The best places to go whale watching from would be Pleasant Bay/Ingonish. Possible sightings include minke, pilot, and humpback.
Bay of Fundy
The Bay of Fundy is absolutely full of wildlife, and there can be as many as 300 whales in the Bay at one time. The best places to go whale watching around the Bay of Fundy is around Brier Island and Digby, with the season running from June to October. August would be the best month overall. Common sightings include humpback whales, minke whales, and finback whales, but it’s possible to also see a pilot whale, blue whale, or killer whale as well.
If you’re exploring Halifax, regardless of whale watching, you simply cannot miss a quick jaunt out to the charming town of Lunenburg. It’s very, very beautiful. However, it’s also home to whale watching, with possible sightings including minke, fin, and humpback. You may also see dolphins, puffins, and leatherback turtles! Whale watching season runs from May to October.
Speaking of Halifax, not only is it the main city of Nova Scotia, but it’s also a good place to go whale watching! It’s not as good as the other places listed above, but if you’re in Halifax and not planning on going elsewhere, tours do occur.
Whale Watching in Newfoundland
Possible Sightings: Humpback whale, Fin whale, Minke whale
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is home to Canada’s most easterly point with the Rock (a popular nickname for the island of Newfoundland) surrounded entirely by the North Atlantic. This is one of the best regions in the world for whale watching. Around 22 whale species have been spotted here. For us, we’ve seen Minke and Humpback whales, but you may also see orca, blue, and fin whales. The whales feast on the abundant krill, squid, and capelin that also inhabit the icy waters. The peak season for whale watching is between May and September, and they can be seen from the shoreline or from a boat or sea kayak.
Not only is St. John’s the only major city in Newfoundland, but it’s also one of the top highlights. It’s very colourful and very historic. In fact, it’s the oldest English-founded city in North America! But here’s a bonus: it’s also a great place to go whale watching. While it might not be the best place in the province, it’s very convenient, with tours leaving right from the downtown harbour.
Even better than St John’s, Bay Bulls is just a 30-minute drive away. This area is home to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which is home to millions of puffins, perhaps the cutest little birds on Earth. What we love about Bay Bulls is that even if you don’t see whales, you’re guaranteed to see puffins, providing that you’re there in the right season. In fact, if you come in the spring, you might see icebergs as well!
Gros Morne National Park
This is one of our favourite national parks in all of Canada. It’s a spectacular place for hiking, spotting wildlife, and witnessing some of the best landscapes in the country. Plus, it can also be a good place to go whale watching! The place to go within the national park is Bonne Bay. When not whale watching, make sure you take a tour of the Tablelands, go hiking in Green Gardens, and take a boat tour on Western Brook Pond.
Trinity is one of the most magical little towns in Newfoundland. It’s about as picturesque as any town can get. It’s also full of history, including Canada’s oldest graveyard. Located just a 2-hours drive from St. John’s, we always list it as one of the top places to see in Newfoundland. However, it’s also a great spot to go whale watching.
As you can see, Newfoundland is home to a plethora of whale watching opportunities all around the island. Another great place is far north in St. Anthony’s. To get there, you’ll have to drive through Gros Morne National Park and up the beautiful Viking Trail, which is also one of Canada’s top road trips. Not only is this place home to the Iceberg Festival, but it’s also a great place to spot the giants of the ocean.
Whale Watching in New Brunswick
Possible Sightings: Humpback whale, Fin whale, Right whale
Located in-between Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in Canada, is a great place to go whale watching.
St. Andrews and the Bay of Fundy
Pretty much all the whale watching tours are located around the charming town of St. Andrews, which borders with the U.S. In fact, you can see Maine from the shoreline! However, it’s also a great place to see whales, whether from a beautiful classic 72′ Tall Ship or an adventurous Zodiac vessel.
Grand Manan Island
Another interesting place to go for both whale watching and sightseeing is Grand Manan Island, which is just off the shore from St. Andrews. Not only is it a great spot to see whales, but it’s also home to the tiny Gaskin Museum of Marine Life, which will educate you about the sea life you just might see. Ask about their Adopt-a-Right-Whale program.
Whale Watching in Quebec
Possible Sightings: Fin whale, Beluga, Humpback whale, Blue whale
When people think of Quebec, they probably don’t think about whale watching. However, Quebec is home to the mouth of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, which is home to some of the best whale watching in the world.
The best place for whale watching in Quebec is in the small town of Tadoussac, which is just a 3-hours drive north of Quebec City. The historic village of Tadoussac is located at the mouth of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers. The Saguenay River has freshwater while the St. Lawrence has salty water, and at the meeting of the rivers is truly a whale watcher’s paradise. Between May and October, up to 13 species of cetaceans are found in the salty waters of the St. Lawrence (River and Gulf), including blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. The most common sightings include minke, humpback, and beluga whales. They are best viewed from a Zodiac but you can also spot them from a much bigger boat as well. In fact, you can often spot them from shore!
If you’re wanting to explore historic Old Quebec, Tadoussac whale watching is a great place to spot these magnificent creatures.
Whale Watching in Manitoba
Possible sightings: Beluga whales
If you ask most Canadians about Manitoba, few people will think of whales. In fact, many people ignore the fact that Northern Manitoba is situated on the banks of Hudson Bay.
Churchill, Manitoba is actually home to the largest Beluga whale migration in the world. We’re talking upwards of 50,000. They all congregate around the arctic town of Churchill, far north in the province. For those who have heard about Churchill before, you’ve likely heard of it because of Polar bears, as it’s also known as the polar bear capital of the world. While the bears are seen largely in September and October, the Beluga whales are more prevalent in July and August. Back when we visited Churchill in 2017, we were able to go snorkelling with pods of Belugas. It was the most magical experience of our life. We squeezed into dry suits and grabbed ahold of a rope from the back of a zodiac, singing along with Belugas as they came up to greet us. Nowadays, snorkelling with Belugas is no longer allowed, you can still get up close and personal with them on a raft. Either way, you can easily spot them from zodiacs or kayaks or even from shore.
Whale Watching in British Columbia
Possible sightings: Orca, Grey whale, Humpback whale
One look at a map will show you why British Columbia is such a great place for whale watching. Whether you’re looking to see them from the big city of Vancouver or the charming shores of Vancouver Island, this is a beautiful place to spot these massive creatures. The most common type of whale seen here is killer whales. However, we once went on a whale watching tour in Port Renfrew and witnesses dozens of killer whales and dozens of Humpback whales, many breaching at the same time. It was truly spectacular. Popular places to see whales in British Columbia include:
Despite being such a massive city, Vancouver is actually a good place to see whales, especially resident and transient orcas. Whale watching Vancouver takes place in the quaint fishing village of Steveston, which is 30 minutes from downtown Vancouver. We went on a tour here many years ago and saw more than 20 orca whales, making it one of the best tours we’ve been on.
Known as one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, Victoria is a popular place to visit. Luckily, it’s also a spectacular place to go whale watching. The area around Victoria is well known for its southern resident killer whale (orca) populations. There are about 90 whales in the group and most of the whale watching is within the protected waters of the Gulf Islands, which makes the sea conditions quite comfortable most of the time.
One of the best whale watching tours we’ve ever had was in Port Renfrew but operated by a company out of Victoria. In just a couple of hours, we saw dozens of Humpbacks breach the surface AND dozens of Orca whales jumping out of the water. The sea was as flat as glass and it was just mesmerizing to see them all at the same time.
Tofino and Ucluelet
Tofino is one of the most beautiful towns to visit on Vancouver Island and is very popular with whale watchers, surfers, fishers and birdwatchers. Possible whale sightings include killer whales, humpback whales, and gray whales. In March, the coastline waters in the area become a migration route for gray whales as they head north from the Baja Peninsula. This event is marked by the annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival. Later in the year, around October, the whales travel back south. On a calm day, some people even see whales pass by from the many beaches and trails that extend along the coast.
Even further north on Vancouver Island is spectacular Telegraph Cove, which is part of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. This is Canada’s only designated sanctuary for orcas (killer whales). The reserve is actually closed to boat traffic, as a way to protect the orca population and its abundant supplies of salmon. Therefore, to see whales, you’ll either have to team up with a local kayaking outfitter or perhaps spot them from shore.
Whale Watching in Nunavut
Possible Sightings: Narwhals
Of anywhere in Canada, Nunavut is the hardest place to get to. For one, there are no roads. Therefore, you must fly and flights are not cheap. However, this also makes it very much off-the-beaten-track. Home to the Inuit, it’s a very special place with a unique culture, history, and absolutely stunning scenery. Another unique feature is that it’s home to Narwhals. This is the whale that gave birth to the idea of the unicorn thanks to their three-metre tusks. Protruding from their forehead, these tusks are actually an enlarged tooth with amazing sensory capabilities.
Narwhals travel in pods of between four and 20 and spend most of the year feeding on squid and flatfish beneath the ice. They move closer to shore during the summer months, which is the best time for narwhal-viewing expeditions. For the best chance of seeing these magical creatures, you’ll have to contact a local guide in Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet or Resolute.
We’ve been to Nunavut before, but unfortunately, not during Narwhal time. We’d love to see them in person. Other possible sightings include Bowhead whales and Belugas.
Other Things to Do in Canada
As you can see, Canada is a wonderful place to go whale watching. Whether you spot killer whales from the mystic shores of Vancouver Island, watch the Beluga migration from Northern Manitoba, or watch a Humpback breach the surface from a boat in Newfoundland, there are all sorts of opportunities to spot these magnificent animals, coast to coast to coast. However, you’re likely looking for other things to do as well, both on land and in the water. Good news! You’ve come to a good spot. Here at Must Do Canada, we document the best things to do in Canada through written travel guides, photography, and videos. For more, check out these articles below:
Departing from Gaspe, Quebec I have been on 2 whale watching trips, one memorable one with our grandson, who was more excited than I was….he learned, directional identification, what baleen was, and was extremely excited to see minke whales while on the trip.
Matthew G. Bailey says
Very cool! A Gaspe road trip is on our bucket list. Hoping for this year