Sidney Whale Watching

Going on a Sidney Whale Watching tour was one of the reasons that my wife and I decided on a brief vacation on the Saanich Peninsula of British Columbia. I had done some research and discovered that there are some resident pods of Orcas living in the area.

This increased our chances of seeing some of these magnificent creatures. After checking the local weather I picked the best day and reserved a couple of spots online.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

We’d been on whale watching tours in the past in other areas of the world, and most of them had been a disappointment as all we were able to see were a few fins off in the distance.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 11mm, efov 29mm, f/6.3, 1/500, ISO-160

Undaunted we decided to give this type of adventure another shot. I somehow ‘overlooked’ telling my wife about the size of the vessel that we’d be on…it’s pictured above. Once the captain saw I had a camera bag slung over my shoulder he suggested we sit in the front seat.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/16, 1/125, ISO-160

We walked down to the harbour to board our vessel, and once everyone clambered aboard we were off. I was setting up my Nikon 1 V3 with my 1 Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 as we cruised out of the harbour, when the scene above caught my eye.

I quickly dug into my camera bag and snapped off this quick image without even having time to check my J5 settings. I didn’t purposely shoot at f/16 nor include the flairs for creative effect…but I liked the image nonetheless.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 24mm, efov 65mm, f/5, 1/1600, ISO-160

As we rounded the final bend in the channel on our way to open water I was able to quickly grab the image above.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/16, 1/1000, ISO-160

There is a special kind of intimacy when going out on a vessel of this size, especially when one considers that the whales we were going out to view were very likely going to be larger than our boat.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-560

Our captain was in radio contact with other whale watching boats that were cruising in the area. They were from Victoria, Vancouver and also from some ports in the United States. After finding out where the nearest whale sightings were, the captain ‘put the peddle to the metal’ and got our craft up to 30 knots (about 34.5 mph). We made a stop at a local seal colony where I was able to capture a few images. We spotted a bald eagle but it was too far in the distance to get a decent photograph.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-220

As was the case with our previous whale watching tours our initial sightings were somewhat distant as illustrated by the photograph above.

To provide readers with a good sense of what our tour was like I have not cropped any of the images in this article at all. I did straighten the horizons where needed.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70mm, efov 189mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-560

It wasn’t long before we were treated to some Orcas up close. The image above was captured at 70mm or an equivalent field of view of only 189mm. I was able to get a short AF-C run of this particular whale. I was shooting in AF-C with subject tracking at 10 fps.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70mm, efov 189mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-800

The whale watching boats have very strict government regulations to follow and are not allowed to come within a couple of hundred metres of the whales while the boats are under power. They are also not allowed to position themselves in the path of the whales. Once whales are spotted the boats shut down their engines to ensure the whales cannot be injured by propellers. This allows some time for passengers to view the whales and try to capture some images.

At times Lady Luck is in your boat, as the whales sometimes change directions as they are hunting which can bring them quite close to the bobbing boats. The image above was captured at 70mm (efov 189mm) as one Orca swam right by our stationary craft.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250mm, efov 675mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-640

We had two highlights during our tour. The first began with the captain spotting this dorsal fin heading straight towards our boat. Apparently this was a well-known, large male Orca that has been named “Mike”.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 229mm, efov 618mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-640

To say that “Mike” cruised by pretty close to our boat would be an understatement almost as big as he was!

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204mm, efov 552mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-720

I’ve certainly never been this close to an Orca in the wild where I could clearly see the colour shading on its dorsal fin. “Mike” only made this single swim past our boat. We saw him a few more times, but at a distance.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-320

The second highlight was seeing a mother Orca with its calf swimming next to her. The image above captures the mother as she is submerging and the calf is taking a breath of air.

Unfortunately none of the Orcas did any spy-hopping or breaches which would have been spectacular to photograph.

Overall we had a great time during the Sidney Whale Watching tour. Our captain was knowledgeable and did his best to have us view the Orcas, as well as dolphins, seals and some sea birds. If we ever make it back out to this part of Canada, we’ll definitely do this tour again, but perhaps at a warmer time of year. Zipping through open water at 30 knots during the first week of April was a bit nippy to say the least!

Technical Note:
All images in this article were captured hand-held using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All photographs were produced from RAW files using my standard processing with DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “Sidney Whale Watching”

  1. Thomas, if you are ever on the West coast down San Fran way stop by Moss Landing on Monterey Bay and go whale watching (I use Sanctuary Cruises as Dorris and Mike are extremely knowledgeable and Chase is a great photographer). I have many breaching whales shot with my Nikon 1 v3 and the 70-300 and dolphin so close I could only get dorsal fins!

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks for the heads-up on Sanctuary Cruises! It is always great to get a recommendation on a good quality supplier. Unfortunately we did not have any breaching or spy-hopping behaviour on our cruise.

  2. Hi Tom, My wife and spent our honeymoon in the Vancouver area, and spent a few days on Vancouver Island. We met up with some friends in Tofino, and one of the highlights was going whale-watching with them. We got all the wet weather gear on, got in the boat (slightly bigger than yours, but not much), and went out to sea. We did see plenty of other sea life, but no whales anywhere close – like most of your trips. Still, we got some good photos of seals etc, and enjoyed the trip out… The whales were obviously down near Sydney!

    1. Hi Dave,
      Yes…there are some pods of resident Orcas that are in the area all year long. Rather than feed on marine mammals and other whales, these resident pods eat fish…mainly salmon.

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