A Simple Guideline for deciding which Whale Watching Operator to use

In the waters that surround the southern part of Vancouver Island, there are three resident Pods of Killer Whales - J, K and L Pod - that are commonly sighted. These pods are some of the most studied Orca in the world and are frequently admired and photographed by thousands of visitors to the island each year. In fact, many people from around the world visit Vancouver Island specifically to experience the thrill of spotting one of these magnificent animals.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of choices when deciding to embark on a Whale Watching Adventure, and it isn’t cheap for your average budget traveller. So, how do you choose? What do you look for when considering which whale watching group to travel with? It can get incredibly confusing with the numerous companies claiming to be #1 in eco-sustainability, environmental friendliness, carbon neutrality and the like.

breaching orca


spy hop


How do you know if they are outlandish marketing ploys or the "Real McCoy"? Well, there are a few simple guidelines to follow which will easily give you a basic idea of what a whale watching company has to offer.

The 5 Simple Elements to consider for your West Coast experience are:

  • Price
  • Boat
  • Motors/Fuel – Environmentally Friendly
  • Qualified and Experienced Captain and Crew
  • Location of Departure

Price ~ Getting value for your money

Getting your money's worth for a whale/wildlife adventure is a MUST. As most of these experiences are once in a lifetime, you don't want to settle for a lesser tour operation just to save a couple of dollars. It’s recommended that you spend that couple of extra dollars to turn the experience from good to AMAZING! Very often with whale watching operators, you are getting exactly what you pay for. Our best advice is that you be picky with your money and don’t immediately choose a company based on the cost without looking a little deeper or asking a few questions.

Boat ~ Safety, Speed & Comfort

BC LUNA at speed on the water


The type of vessel, the size and the number of passengers is another aspect that you should seriously consider when selecting a whale watching operator. A large sized vessel gives good comfort in all weather conditions when compared to smaller vessels. However, larger vessels also tend to have a large number of passengers, and crowding is far from ideal for a good personal experience. In other words, we advise you to avoid crowding at all times. The reason being, if you are on a crowded vessel, the difficulty in obtaining a prime viewing location and adequate exposure of these majestic creatures dramatically increases.

Overall, a quality purpose-built vessel that has combined the perfect balance between comfort, excitement, fun-factor, safety and security is the one that promises to be the best value for your money. Also, a vessel such as the one mentioned is not cheap to build or maintain. A lot of the time, this can be the reason for the more expensive cost of a ticket.

Motors/Fuel – Environmentally Friendliness

Firstly, keeping it very simply, there are two main types of outboard engines used by whale watching operators – 2-stroke marine engines and 4-stroke marine engines. 2-stroke marine engines are notoriously known for NOT being environmentally friendly; they are incredibly noisy, smoky and they produce a significantly larger amount of carbon emissions than 4 stroke marine engines.

One of the reasons that they produce more emissions is the fact that 2-stroke marine engines have an inability to separate inlet gas with the exhaust gas, which results in up to 30% of the fuel mix in the engine remaining unburned and being less fuel economical. Furthermore, the 2-stroke marine engines require more oil than 4-stroke marine engines for lubrication (Comparative Assessment of the Environmental Performance of small engines, 2007).

So, now it’s going to get a little more technical with engine emissions, the type and the amount that they produce. The Outboard Engine Distributors Association (OEDA) engine rating that was conducted in 2009 tested and rated outboard engines on their environmental competency. As the report clearly states, the larger the engine, the more efficient they become from an environmental point of view. In particular, the Yamaha V8 F350hp outboard series has the lowest emission rating of 9.71g/kw/hr, the first ever outboard engine to go below 10g/kw/hr (www.oeda.com.au/index.php/engine-ratings). In laymen terms, this outboard series from Yamaha is currently the cleanest outboard on the market today. It produces the lowest amount of emissions possible, which is a combination of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides - lower than any of its known competitors.

BC LUNA's twin V8 F350hp Yamahas


Furthermore, the type of fuel that vessels use is also a great indicator of their commitment to local environmental issues and their actions to reduce immediate impacts. By asking your potential whale watching operator if their engines are diesel or gas you can easily determine their immediate environmental impact. It is common knowledge that diesel engines produce a lot more carbon emissions than gas does.

According to the USA Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • produces approximately 10.1kg of Carbon Dioxide emissions per gallon.
  • Gas produces approximately 8.8kg of Carbon Dioxide emissions per gallon.

From the statistics provided above, it can clearly be stated that engines using gas instead of diesel are more environmentally friendly, as they produce almost 2kg/gallon of CO2 emissions less than diesel

Why is this Important?

The reason why this should be a major factor when selecting a whale operator is because one of the main categories of threats that affect the health and the future prosperity of these mammals is environmental contaminants (Graham, G. F. 2006). According to Dr. G Graham’s SETAC Submission, presently, the Southern Resident Killer Whales are strongly believed to be amongst the most contaminated animals on the planet. Reducing the introduction of pollution into the local environment by maintaining and investing in the latest eco-friendly outboard engines is an eco-tourism operator's main concern.

The industry as a whole has the ultimate goal to achieve ZERO noise and impact on these animals and the surrounding supportive ecosystem. It must be stated here that if we as an industry would sail out to see the Killer Whales **if it was at all possible. However, due to their usual location and swimming speed you would need to be on the water for a few days in order to have a decent chance of sighting them. Captain Harold, himself, is an active and very experienced sailor with over 20,000 hours of sailing in the local waters that surround Vancouver Island. During his sailing endeavours he never actually saw the local resident or transient Killer Whales!!! Therefore, powered vessels are needed to cover the area required to locate and appropriately interact with the marine mammals.

Experienced and Qualified Crew

Qualified Marine Biologists & naturalists, as well as a highly experienced Captains are a major factor for an informative, safe and environmentally responsible tour operator. The accuracy of the information they provide in regards to the biology and ecology of the animals, as well as the ecosystem and its complex interactions will enhance your west coast experience.

Furthermore, another major reason why an experienced crew is essential for a memorable whale excursion of a lifetime is for comfort and safety. An experienced Captain of local waters around Vancouver Island who has driven whale watching excursions previously is a major benefit. The Captain not only knows the likelihood of where the animals may be but also knows how to adjust his speed and destination to suit the ever changing water/weather conditions to ensure passengers remain as comfortable as possible! Most passenger discomforts occur as a result of driver neglect by the actions/inactions of inexperienced young drivers.

Location of Departure

These animals have very long ranges and are known to travel over 100 miles/160km in one day. During our summer season we tend to have a lot of encounters around the southern end of the San Juan Islands, which is about 20-30 minute boat ride away from the Victoria harbour. The advantage of departing from Victoria is our ability to go west towards the open ocean where we have the possibility to encounter many other marine mammal species, such as, Humpback whales & other ecotypes of Orca like the Transient or Bigg's orca.

These Guidelines

These guidelines are simply suggestions and recommendations we believe you should consider when shopping around Victoria, BC for your whale/wildlife experience. We hope it makes the process a little easier, and for more information on us at BC Whale Tours, feel free to browse our website or contact us directly with any and all questions.




Call us +1-250-590-5030


Graham, G.F. 2006. Is Victoria Sewage Contaminating Southern Resident Killer Whales? SETAC Submisssion

United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Emission Fact: Average Carbon Dioxide Emissions Resulting from Gasoline and Diesel Fuel. Office of Transportation and AIr Quality.  USA.

Outboard Engines Distribution Association. 2009. http://www.oeda.com.au/index.php/engine-ratings. As seen on October 5th, 2011.

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  • Seattle Float Plane Terminal
    1234 Wharf St.
    Victoria, BC
    V8W 3H9