British Columbia wildlife

British Columbia Wildlife

Encountering giants in British Columbia

Can you imagine photographing a grizzly bear at such close range that you can see every hair on its face? Or a Pacific grey whale, at the very peak of a magnificent breach? These are the kind of world-class wildlife watching experiences that you can expect on a British Columbia wildlife vacation. You may need a hefty lens on your camera, of course. And a steady hand, or a sturdy tripod. You’ll definitely want an expert guide, too – preferably one whose ancestors have lived in the territory for generations. Make sure that’s all fixed up, and you can get thrillingly close to bears and whales in the wild.

Where to see wildlife in BC

Our top British Columbia wildlife spots

British Columbia, Canada’s most westerly province, stretches from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Rockies in the east. There’s more wildlife here than in any other Canadian province, and a good proportion of the species found here are unique to the region. Vancouver, a cosmopolitan, lively city with a stunning location between the Pacific Ocean and the North Shore Mountains, makes an ideal starting point for a trip to some of the state’s impressive acreage of parks, conservancies and reserves.

You don’t necessarily have to visit a protected area to feel immersed in the wild. In some parts of British Columbia, you’ll see animals and birds right beside the highway – or, indeed, wandering across it. But for your best chance of some truly memorable sightings, it’s worth considering a stay at one of the luxury eco-lodges, camps and resorts in or near the national parks and reserves. Created with respect for the landscape, local communities and the wider environment, these offer great guiding and photographic opportunities.

Bear watching in British Columbia

For bears, head for the Great Bear Rainforest. Covering the island-scattered coast from northern Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border, this magnificent wilderness is one of the most ancient and best-preserved temperate rainforests in the world. Its fragrant cedar and spruce forests and shimmering waterways provide habitats not just for bears and the migratory salmon which sustain them, but also for other iconic species of the North American wilds, such as wolves, cougars and bald eagles.

If you’d like to come face to face with Great Bear’s signature species, the grizzly bear, your best plan of action is to book a licensed boat or floatplane to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, northeast of Prince Rupert. This, Canada’s first grizzly bear reserve, remains one of the finest places in the world to see these animals in their natural habitat. There’s a population of over 50 bears here; visit during the long spring and summer days between May and September, and you’ll see them roaming close to the shore.

But it’s not just grizzlies that you can see in Great Bear in summer. Princess Royal Island on British Columbia’s Central Coast is home to rare, ghostly-white bears, sometimes called Spirit Bears. These, kermode bears, are a subspecies of black bear in which around ten per cent have a recessive gene that gives them a white coat. The Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nations people who live in the nearby village of Klemtu run guided tours to view them.

For a complete set, you may also want to look for American black bears, North America’s most common bear species. Keep your eyes peeled when exploring the lower reaches of Vancouver Island and you may be in luck– the population of black bears here is one of the densest in the world.

Whale watching in British Columbia

To encounter the giants of the deep, you’ll need to time your visit a little earlier in spring. Between mid-March and mid-April, Pacific grey whales pass close to the coast of British Columbia as they make the long journey from their winter breeding grounds, the lagoons of Baja California, to their summer feeding grounds in the cold, nutrient-rich Bering and Chukchi seas. Several operators on the west coast of Vancouver Island run whale-watching boat trips during this time for fantastic, close-up views of flukes and fins.
Other marine creatures to look out for include orcas, dolphins, porpoises and sea lions, which can be seen in the southern Georgia Strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island throughout the summer months. There’s also a large population of orcas in the Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago off Vancouver Island’s northeast coast, where humpback whales, minke whales, porpoises, harbour seals and sea lions can also be seen.

On Vancouver Island itself, where grey whales can often be seen from the shore, the annual appearance of these peaceable creatures is always cause for celebration. In the villages of Tofino and Ucluelet on the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, it’s heralded by the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a nine-day springtime knees-up featuring exhibitions, guided rainforest walks and chowder parties – where a whale of a time is, of course, guaranteed.
Photo credits: [Bald eagle and chick: John Critchley] [Grizzly bear with cubs: Charles Sharp] [Bear with Salmon: Jitze Couperus]
Written by Emma Gregg
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