For wildlife, there’s no better place in Canada than British Columbia. From salmon and whales to bison, bears and beyond, world-class widlife experiences are out there. Here's how to find them...
For wildlife, there’s no better place in Canada than British Columbia. Its waterways form super highways for salmon, and rich feeding grounds for whales, while its moss-swathed rainforests provide soggy shelter for some of the world’s rarest bears. Mule deer and elk tip-toe through its woods, while bison browse at the roadsides. And then there are the eagles, moose, bighorn sheep, caribou and elusive coastal wolves. In total, British Columbia’s diverse landscapes, ranging from glacier-carved fjords to moss-clad peaks, are home to 1,100 species of animal, more than any other province. World-class wildlife experiences are out there – and here are a few to get you started.
In a province known for its unparalleled ecological diversity, the Great Bear Rainforest still manages to stand out. Though it’s really no surprise, considering this beautiful sweep of impossibly green forest is the only place where you can spot the elusive kermode or spirit bear, which has long been revered in First Nations legends. This unique subspecies of black bear carries a recessive gene, resulting in unusual naturally creamy-white fur. Take a guided tour in September or October, at the height of the salmon run, for the best chance of a sighting. Alongside these exceedingly rare bears, you can keep an eye out for coastal wolves prowling along the water’s edge and gigantic grizzlies fishing in the fjords, not to mention regular black bears, eagles, sea lions, dolphins and whales. As the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, this pristine corner of BC is a wildlife-lover’s paradise.
For much of the year, the village of Radium Hot Springs snoozes at the southern entrance to Kootenay National Park. But every autumn, between October and November, the community gets a rude awakening when their resident 140-strong herd of bighorn sheep enter their rutting season. At this time, rams violently clash to win the affection of the rabble’s ewes, and you can watch as they charge, kick and rear up before viciously butting heads. The amusing annual ruckus has inspired Radium Hot Springs’ two-day Headbanger Festival, which now runs in November each year with bighorn sheep viewings, photography workshops and guided hikes. Afterwards, you can recover from the excitement with a dip in some of Canada’s largest natural hot springs.
Desperate to spot a bald eagle? Well British Columbia hosts the largest winter gathering of them, so you won’t need much birdwatching experience to finally see one of these iconic creatures in the wild. Between October and January every year, thousands glide some 1500 miles south from as far as the Yukon and Alaska to escape the bitter temperatures, converging just two hours east of Vancouver to feast on salmon in the Fraser Valley. The best time to visit is during the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, held annually in the third weekend of November. You’ll be able to learn more about these mighty birds of prey, and get up close to them in jet boats and from dedicated viewing sites.
There are few better places to see orcas than the Johnstone Strait and Broughton Archipelago, just off Vancouver Island’s rocky northeast coast. Here, between July and September, you can find up to 300 killer whales navigating the choppy waters, socialising and feasting on the migrating salmon. For an exhilarating front-row seat, hop in a kayak in the tiny fishing village of Telegraph Cove and join them at sea level, where you can feel dwarfed by their pointed dorsal fins, which can reach over two metres in height. Along the way, keep an eye out for minke and humpback whales, porpoises and harbour seals, as well as grizzly bears foraging for seafood on the shore.
With bears, eagles and whales all vying for your attention, it would be easy to overlook the humble salmon. But every year between July and October, these tenacious fish converge in BC to spawn in one of the biggest salmon runs on the planet. The community of Campbell River, on Vancouver Island’s east coast, is otherwise known as the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’, and you’ll find all five Pacific species of salmon in its waters – steelhead, coho, pink, chinook and sockeye. For a unique fish-eye view, you can don a wetsuit, pick up your snorkel and ride the current alongside thousands of crimson-hued fish dashing upstream.
Canada may be well known for its gangly moose, but for animals so large they’re surprisingly tricky to spot in the wild due to their solitary ways. But you can track them down in British Columbia around Prince George, the largest city based in the northern wilderness, as its old-growth forests, lush meadows and streams combine to make perfect moose habitat. In total, over seventy percent of the province’s moose can be found up here. Prime time for would-be moose spotters is late autumn (September and October) during the rutting season, when the cows’ calls echo through the woods and enormous bulls (some weighing as much as 1100 lbs) form groups and do battle with their colossal antlers in the hopes of impressing the girls.
With their winter calving lagoons in Mexico’s balmy Baja Peninsula and their summer feeding grounds up in the Arctic, Pacific grey whales embark on a whopping 5000-mile migration each year, which leads them along the craggy west coast of Vancouver Island. Between March and April, around 20,000 of them can be sighted from the coastal villages of Ucluelet and Tofino, thanks to the whales passing close to the beach to filter feed on the shallow sea floor. From Tofino, you can set off on whale watching tours, which take in not only the Pacific grey whales but also killer whales and humpbacks that feed and play in the waters of Clayoquot Sound.
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