Whales, Totems & Grizzlies

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 Northern Resident Killer Whales hunt the salmon in the passages and Humpback whales are often seen feeding in the nutrient-rich waters.

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Trip Highlights

The waters of Johnstone Strait are considered one of the best places in the world to observe Orcinus orca, killer whales. We also expect to see a diversity of other marine mammals,, including humpback whales, birds, black bears and a chance to view grizzly bears in the fjords that neighbour this area.

The Kwakwaka’wakw people from most of the old villages in this region moved to the government run cannery town of Alert Bay throughout the 1900’s. The U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay displays traditional potlatch masks and other interesting cultural artifacts.



Whale Watching

The waters of Johnstone Strait are considered the best place in the world to observe mostly, the Northern Resident Killer Whales - but sometimes encounter Transients (Bigg's) which are marine mammal- eating killer whales. We expect to witness the unique feeding behaviours of humpback whales like lunge-feeding and trap-feeding . Here are a few of the other interesting whale behaviours we have seen from our vessel:
  • 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.
  • Sometimes we witness "curious whales" who approach us while viewing from a distance. It is against proper whale watching protocols for us to approach them.
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.


Cultural History

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.

GBR - Black bears  


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.

Black Oystercatcher  


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. Colourful 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.

Map & Location

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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.

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Sample Trip Itinerary

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.

Vancouver Island North
Sample Trip Itinerary

Download your 3-page Trip Itinerary on Vancouver Island North.
Includes: daily activities, travel information, accommodations & contacts

View Itinerary

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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