Whale Watching in British Columbia: Experts Say Know the Rules Before You Go


VANCOUVER – Whale-watching season has officially begun in British Columbia, and whale researchers are reminding cetacean enthusiasts how to enjoy majestic marine mammals without putting themselves or the whales at risk

Aaron Purdy, director of Ocean Wise’s Southern Vancouver Island Whale Research Initiative, said the most important thing about whale watching is knowing the rules before you go in search of whales, whether on land or at sea.

“I just want to encourage people, make sure you know the rules before you go.”

“The worst thing you can do is scramble to learn what you’re supposed to do once you’re in this situation,” he said.

British Columbia and Canada have many marine rules that dictate how people are allowed to interact with whales and other marine mammals. The short version is that you’re not really allowed to interact, but rather observe from a distance. Even then, distances are regulated.

“You have to make sure you keep your distance from these animals at all times,” Purdy said.

The May long weekend ushers in the start of the whale-watching season, Purdy said, and whales such as humpback whales, killer whales, minke whales, fin whales, harbor porpoises and dolphin Pacific white-sided are now on the move and share the coast. British Columbia waters

“We are entering one of the best times of the year to see whales in our waters – the humpback whales are coming back strong, their populations have declined quite drastically but have started again which is fantastic to see. “

Photograph and report whale sightings

Use your phone or other camera to take pictures of the whales, but don’t use a drone. Then report the event on the whale watching app called WhaleReport.

The app then sends your real-time sighting report to nearby large boat operators, allowing them to slow down and reorient if necessary.

“The threat from ships – collisions with ships (which can kill or injure whales) – is believed to be underreported and therefore underestimated, so we want to encourage these vessels to know where these animals are,” said Purdy said.

The app also provides up-to-date information on whale watching regulations and tips on how to identify various whales in British Columbia. includes over 130,000 whale sightings, spanning approximately 50 years.

Don’t use a drone

Drones have been known to disturb whales, said Fishery Officer Dustin DeGagne of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Whale Protection Unit.

“The use of drones near marine mammals is in fact a regulated activity and largely prohibited,” he said in an email.

Although not specified in Transport Canada’s rules and regulations for drone flight, it is regulated by the country’s Marine Mammal Regulations, which specify that aircraft, including drones, must keep a safe distance half a nautical mile from an animal and must fly at least 1,000 feet above.

The rule, in place to protect whales from recreational and commercial drone photographers, can be waived for licensed scientists.

“These permits are generally only issued when a bona fide marine mammal research or animal health activity is underway,” DeGagne said.

Spot a whale from land

Spotting a whale while standing on shore is the least invasive way of whale watching, but things like your own safety and excitement should be considered.

“Make sure you’re in a safe position to see the animal yourself,” Purdy said.

“If you’re on a cliff or something, you don’t want to get distracted and fall overboard and hurt yourself in any way,” he said.

Spot a whale from a boat

On the water, people tend to see whales from private boats or special whale-watching vessels, although if they’re lucky they might see one from a ferry. Properly licensed whale-watching guides know how to differentiate between different types of whales and are allowed to get a bit closer to certain types of whales than those who are private citizens. As licensed vessels, these boats are expected to fly a purple ‘AV’ flag.

For all others, the following rules apply. If you are on a boat, the first thing to know is that you are not allowed to follow or hunt whales.

“We actually encourage people not to follow any animal, the best thing to do is approach from the side, but before you even do that I encourage you to slow down the approach,” Purdy said.

Once close (see approach distances below), Purdy recommends staying no longer than 30 minutes.

“You want to make sure that you minimize your impact on these animals by not spending too much time around them,” he said.

Within 1,000 meters of a whale, boaters must slow to a speed of seven knots or less. This decreases the chances of accidentally hitting the whales and also decreases the amount of engine noise in the water, Purdy said.

“They are very sensitive to acoustic disturbance from noise from boats, including sailboats and kayaks.”

Another thing that’s not allowed is a practice called “leap frogging,” where a boat operator positions their boat so the whale comes towards them and then swims under their boat, Purdy explained.

“We always recommend that people approach animals from the side rather than from behind or in front…to ensure that animals don’t feel like they’re locked in and feel like they’re ‘have enough space to go about their daily lives,’ Purdy said.

Distance to keep by boat

There are several different rules regarding how close you can approach whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The following rules are valid at the time of this article’s publication, but for the most recent distances see bewhalewise.org and DFO’s management measures to protect southern whales.

  • Boats must stay within 400 meters of killer whales in all coastal waters of southern British Columbia. This includes the area between Campbell River and up to the tip of Vancouver Island, then north to Ucluelet, as well as Howe Sound, the Sunshine Coast, all of the Gulf Islands and all areas around Metro Vancouver.

  • Boats must stay 200 meters from all killer whales in other Canadian Pacific waters and from all whales, dolphins or porpoises if they are resting or with a calf.

  • Boats must stay 100 meters from all other whales, dolphins and porpoises in Pacific Canadian waters.

  • Boats must stay out of the interim sanctuary areas, which as of May 2021 include certain areas around Saturna Island, Pender Island and Swiftsure Bank near Port Renfrew.


May 31: This story has been updated to correct the name and link of the whale reporting app.


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