Orcas, Totems & Grizzlies

Northern Vancouver Island

Northern Vancouver Island Northern Vancouver Island

Johnstone Strait is the best place in the world to see orca / killer whales. Visit Alert Bay and Village Island, see diverse marine mammals and view grizzly bears up Knight Inlet! Departs: Port Hardy, BC / Port McNeill, BC

A maze of islands and waterways, full of wildlife, beautiful scenery, and the history and traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

At the northern end of Vancouver Island lies a maze of islands and waterways, full of wildlife, beautiful scenery, and the history and traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw people (Kwakiutl). The Pacific Ocean funnels into the protected waters of Johnstone Strait creating strong tidal currents, and incredibly nutrient-rich waters. Millions of salmon, returning to spawn in the mainland rivers, must converge to pass through the Strait. Groups of orca (or killer whales) hunt the salmon in the passages.

Trip Highlights

The waters of Johnstone Strait are considered the best place in the world to observe Orcinus orca (killer whales). We expect to see massive humpack whales exhibiting very similar behaviours to their toothed conterparts - orca. Here are a few of the exciting whale behaviours we have seen from our vessel:

• Orcas swim over to the boat, surface, giving us a chance to see their full bodies under the water, and sometimes roll on their side to look at us.

• Breaching is when a whale leaps clear of the water and falls back with a huge splash.

• Whales often spyhop, raising their upper bodies clear of the water to look at the above-water environment

• The ship’s hydrophone (underwater microphone) enables us to hear whale vocalizations
 their method of communicating under the water. We will learn to distinguish the difference between species.

• Large numbers of orcas congregate in Johnstone Strait a few times each summer. These ‘superpod’ groups are extremely exciting and we can only hope to be there - and have lots of film on hand.

Johnstone Strait is considered the core killer whale area where we expect to also encounter humpback whales. However, we could encounter whales at any point during the voyage as they travel miles every day.
Very close to Robson Bight is the old Kwakwaka’wakw village of Mimquimlees. In 1921, police arrested the elders holding a “potlatch” ceremony here, and confiscated their prized ceremonial masks.

The potlatch is a community event to witness changes in status (weddings, deaths, achievements). The government outlawed the ceremony believing it would help native people gain a good work ethic and speed their conversion to Christianity. Many of the masks and priceless pieces of art were then secretly sold to museum collections across North America. Today, at Mimquimlees, with permission of the band, we will see elaborately carved totem poles and the remains of native “great houses”. Inhabited for perhaps thousands of years, the village withstood attack, disease epidemics, and the laws banning the “potlatch”, before abandonment earlier this century.

The Kwakwaka’wakw people from most of the old villages moved to the government cannery town of Alert Bay. The excellent U’Mista Cultural Centre now holds some of the famous potlatch masks and other interesting artifacts. Today in Alert Bay, children are once again being taught the native language, traditional dances, and art and family stories.
Black bears are frequently spotted among the islands on these trips. They like to roam the shore, feeding on crabs and other intertidal organisms. However, it is the opportunity to see grizzly bears feeding on spawning salmon that makes this trip unique! It is a classic wildlife experience. There are few places in the world that can provide consistent, safe and incredible grizzly bear viewing. Glendale Cove up Knight Inlet is one of them, and has now become one of British Columbia’s premier wildlife viewing sites.
This area has a very rich and varied bird population. Many people will be amazed at the number of bald eagles we see on the trip. Colorful seabirds such as oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets are common and we see large numbers of smaller water birds, such as phalaropes. With the help of interested trip members we will keep a list of the birds and animals we sight during the trip.

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Vancouver Island North
Trip Brochure

See our 4-page brochure on Vancouver Island North.
Includes: Coastal History, Whales, Bears, Birds, Research and more.


Northern Vancouver Island - Orcas   Totems - Northern Vancouver Island   Roamer Misty Morning - Jen Pukonen
Humpback tail - Bruce Whittington   Northern Vancouver Island - The Black Bear   Northern Vancouver Island - aboard the vessel

Map & Location

Trip ItineraryOrca watching in Johnstone Strait

On all our voyages we intentionally keep our itineraries flexible to take advantage of wildlife sightings, weather and tides, and the interests of the group. This sample itinerary describes a typical 7-day trip, however, activities may occur in a different order or be substituted by suitable alternatives.

Day 1 - This trip starts and finishes in Port McNeill, BC. Guests will meet in the morning at the top of the Cab’s Fuel Dock on the Port McNeill waterfront. Upon boarding “Island Odyssey”, cabins will be assigned and an introductory safety briefing will be completed.

We have chosen Port McNeill as the starting point for this voyage because it is the closest port to the core killer whale area. We expect to discover our first pod or group of whales the first afternoon. You will agree that orcas are one of the most exciting marine mammals to watch as we see them foraging for salmon, spyhopping, and breaching (leaping clear of the water). Guests will learn about the behaviour of these fascinating creatures, listen to them calling on the ship’s underwater microphone, and learn how to identify individual animals. Each night we anchor in a secluded anchorage.

Days 2-6 - Our focus these days will be on the waters of Johnstone Strait, the core whale watching area. In addition to multiple encounters with orca, we expect some wonderful experiences with humpback whales also. We have bveen gifted with visits from super pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins and Dall’s porpoise often come over to the boat to play on the yacht's bow wave.

We will visit the modern Kwakwaka’wakw community of Alert Bay to visit the U’Mista Cultural Centre and see a fascinating collection of potlatch masks. If we have a good wind, we expect to raise the sails and enjoy the silence and beauty of sailing. There will be time to explore the protected waters using our stable, sea kayaks that we carry onboard.

At the entrance to Knight Inlet is the abandoned Kwakwaka’wakw village of Mimquimlees. With permission from the local native band we will explore the old village to discover fallen totem poles and a rich heritage. With a good low tide, we may explore the shore for different species of colourful sea stars, anemone, and algae. We often hike into the coastal forest to see big trees and learn about the forest plants.

Day 7 - Mid morning we return to Port McNeill to complete our voyage. Participants can catch afternoon flights back to Vancouver. For additional information specific to your trip please refer to your Bluewater Adventures Reservation Package or contact our office.


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Sample Trip Itinerary

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2019 Schedule, Prices & Trip Availability

Aboard SV Island Odyssey

Dates Duration CAD Price Embark / Disembark Availability
July 25 - 31 7 days CAD $4665 Port McNeill / Port McNeill

Space Available

August 1 - 7 7 days CAD $4665 Port McNeill / Port McNeill Booked
August 8 - 14 7 days CAD $4665 Port McNeill / Port McNeill


August 15 - 21

7 days

CAD $4665

Port McNeill / Port McNeill




Orcas in Johnstone Strait


Fall Whales & Totems of Johnstone Strait

This natural history voyage explores the protected waters of Northern Vancouver Island. Whale researchers consider this area the best place in the world to observe orcas or killer whales. In addition, we expect to see humpback whales, black bears, bald eagles and sea otters. The Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations people have lived here for thousands of years and we will explore their culture and art at the U'Mista Cultural Centre located at Alert Bay. We look forward to the quiet that fall brings on the water and expect to enjoy some wonderful wildlife experiences as a result.

Aboard SV Island Solitude

Dates Duration CAD Price Embark/ Dismebark Availability
 Oct 16 - 20 5 days CAD $3650  Port McNeill / Port McNeill  Space Available
 Oct 21 - 25 5 days  CAD $3650  Port McNeill / Port McNeill  Call for Availability


If you don't see a date that works for you this year, we invite you to visit our 2019 Rate Schedule to secure your booking today!

Sustainability Fee

To support conservation efforts on the west coast, a $100 Sustainability Fee will be applied to rates at time of booking. Dates and prices are subject to change. Some departures may be reserved for groups. If you are interested in chartering a date for your group, special pricing is available.

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