The Johnstone Strait is a magical, glacier-carved waterway that is truly a sea kayaking dream. With gorgeous summer weather, glass-calm waters, and some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery on earth, the location alone makes for a stunning trip. But, there’s more - the Johnstone Strait is the single best place in the world to sea kayak with orcas (killer whales). More than 220 orcas swim through this protected channel each summer!
ROW Adventures’ four-day kayaking trip in the Johnstone Straight is a whale-watcher’s paradise. The campsite we use, by exclusive permit, is close to Robson Bight Orca Preserve—the only orca sanctuary in the world. Our beach camp site has been a hotspot for orca encounters for decades. The basecamp's shoreline is composed of sea-polished stones that lure an orca to rub its massive body along the beach, or herd salmon into the curve of the shore. Orcas regularly pass by directly in front of camp, allowing you to stand at water’s edge to watch the black and white beauties cruise by just below your feet! Spend a full four days and three nights kayaking out from this site, or extend your stay in the area on our unique basecamp-to-basecamp six-day paddle.
The 'Namgis First Nation hold the licenses for our sites. The camping techniques we practice are Leave No Trace. Areas stay clean and wild for the other 9 months of the year. Each of our camps have already set-up and spacious standing-height canvas tents all furnished with cots, sleeping bags, and thermarests for two guests. These are the most comfortable and spacious tents provided by any kayak company operating in the area and they are set on cedar bark. A small kitchen and dining area are also provided and built with materials found overlooking the Strait. A toilet platform with self-contained pit is located at the back of each camp.
Located just off of northern Vancouver Island, Port McNeill is a waterfront fishing village nearest our launch site in Telegraph Cove. The Haida Way Motor Inn will be the site of the evening orientation before your adventure begins. You can reserve a room here or elsewhere in Port McNeill. You'll have a chance to get acquainted with one another and distribute drybags, wetsuit booties, and other supplies for the adventure ahead.
You'll start the day with a morning commute to the launch site in Telegraph Cove. On arrival, our superbly talented guides teach a lesson in kayaking safety. After launching from the cove, we begin our paddle within the roadless, densely-forested Johnstone Strait in the heart of orca territory. After marveling in the beauty of orcas, eagles, seals, and other marine animals, we paddle to our base camp in the heart of the "orca loop." After settling in, enjoy a happy hour of local wines and hors d'oeuvres while our guides prepare a salmon bake for dinner. After dinner conversation drifts to the highlights of the day, relish a freshly baked dessert around a crackling campfire. As the stars rise and gain brilliance, we settle in for a restful night of slumber. Oftentimes, the sound of orcas blowing offshore will sing us to sleep.
Leisurely rise with the sun as it crests over rainforest boughs. Your guides are already hard at work preparing a warm breakfast, coffee, and tea. Spend part of the morning strolling along the beach, reading, or watching for orcas. Plan to kayak nearly four hours per day, with time for lunch and floating rest-breaks. A morning paddle leads us to our lunch site, where we can also hike and learn about the natural history of the area. An evening paddle brings us back to our base camp for another happy hour and dinner. Then, there's time to relax around the cozy campfire and listen to your guides tell stories and narrate local legends. During the trip, we paddle to Robson Bight Orca Preserve as well as First Nations pictograph sites. Orcas may appear any time on our tour.
After breakfast, we break camp and paddle to our take-out location at Telegraph Cove. Along the way, we stop for lunch and a visit to the Telegraph Cove whale museum. In the afternoon, a taxi returns guests to Port McNeill. We invite you to stay overnight in Port McNeill so you can join us for a no-host farewell dinner as a group! You can depart this evening by car, or fly out the next day.
Dates & Rates
Looking for an alternative basecamp option? Check out our Humpback Basecamp Tour! In the early season, late June to early July, we host this Humpback viewing adventure from our base camp in the Blackfish Sound!
• All meals as indicated on the itinerary
• Transportation to and from the launch site
• All kayaking instruction
• All kayaking and camping equipment
• Full service of our certified professional Guides and Adventure Consultants
• Transportation to and from Port McNeill
• Hotel before and after the tour
• Meals before or after the tour
• Gratuity for guides
• Items of a personal nature.
ALL PRICES IN US DOLLARS. We will do our best to adhere to the itineraries and trip descriptions listed on our website. However, tour itineraries or sub-contractors (such as taxi, cruise boats or hotels) may change slightly due to reasons beyond our control including but not limited to Acts of God, wind, waves, inclement weather or other. We always welcome you to call us to clarify any item - often this is the best way to fully clarify expectations - call us collect or on our toll-free number. You will be sent pre-trip email with latest details within a month of your tour - it is your responsibility to check in with us prior to your trip to see if you have all the information you need. We will always do our best to provide you with the best possible tour and to fully meet your expectations to the best of our ability.
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FAQ & More
The four-day trip utilizes one campsite for all four days. You have more time to relax and enjoy the beautiful wildlife and scenery. Families with teens, novice kayakers, or those who prefer a slower pace would be ideal for this tour. The campsite we use on the Vancouver Island side of Johnstone Strait, by exclusive permit, is close to Robson Bight. The base camp's shoreline is composed of sea-polished stones that lure an orca to rub its 6-ton body along the beach, or herd salmon into the curve of the shore. Orcas regularly pass by directly in front of camp. Paddlers can scramble down the rock outcropping and stand at water's edge to watch orcas cruise by just below their feet. The camp offers great orca viewing right off shore. We never just "wait around for orcas" on the base camp. We take daily day trips, paddling to different beaches for lunch, hike, observing wildlife. Each trip includes about 4 hours per day of kayaking: two hours paddling in morning, and another two hours paddling in the afternoon after lunch. Often there is a hike at the lunch stop, and the evenings are filled with campfires, games, or fishing. On the 6-day tour, you'll enjoy 2-3 different sites (including the aforementioned basecamp) that are located along the travel routes used by the orcas. Given this loop route and the length of the trip, you are likely to see more wilderness areas and a more diverse selection of marine life. For instance, the six-day tour includes a visit to an area that's frequented by humpback whales. You will also have a chance to explore First Nations pictograph areas, and the base of the Broughton Archipelago, while remaining firmly in whale waters.
The northern resident pods of orca are found in the Johnstone Strait between mid-July and mid-September when salmon, their primary prey, come from the ocean to spawn in the rivers of mainland British Columbia. There are more than 220 individually-identified whales in 17 separate pods within the region. The whales usually arrive around the second week of July and stay through September. The weather tends to be the best in late July through mid-August.
"Be Whale Wise" define regulations for the protection of the whales. According to these principles, no one is allowed to get within 200 yards/meters of an orca. We're privileged to have the opportunity for viewing these beautiful creatures from close vantage points. The survival of the orca and the wonder of seeing them in the wild, depends on everyone's cooperation with the "Be Whale Wise" regulations. Occasionally, because orcas are much fast than us while in a kayak, they approach us much closer than the above guidelines. That said, many of our closest encounters have been from land, as the whales often come within meters of the shoreline! Understanding the behavior and range of the orcas helps to better-set your expectations for your orca kayak tour. Feel free to explore www.BeWhaleWise.org to read more about these regulations.
Many believe that all "killer whales" are seal-eaters, but some do not even eat mammals. The orcas of the Johnstone Straight, in particular, come to eat the salmon specifically. Whales are very aware of their surroundings and we feel safe being in their presence. To our knowledge, Johnstone Strait orcas have never bumped a kayak, nor attacked a swimmer. And in recorded history, a wild orca has never killed or severely injured a human.
Trip extensions are available through our friends at Stubbs Island Whale Watching or Mackay Whale Watching tours. Both are experienced operators located on Vancouver Island. They can take you by boat where orca sightings are reported (faster than by our slow-moving kayaks).
The easiest way to get to Port McNeill by air, is to fly through Vancouver International Airport (airport code YVR) to Port Hardy, BC (airport code YZT). From Vancouver International's South Terminal you can catch a flight on Pacific Coastal Airlines direct to Port Hardy. Once in Port Hardy, it's a 35-40 minute taxi ride to Port McNeill. If arriving from outside of Canada, be sure to give yourself 1.5-2 hours between your arriving flight at Vancouver International and your departing flight from the South Terminal to Port Hardy, as you will have to clear customs and take a 15 minute shuttle from the International Terminal to the South Terminal (there should be signs to guide you). Port McNeill is also accessible by car, via a beautiful drive following BC Route 19 from Nanaimo to Port McNeill. Vancouver Island can be reached from the Canadian or U.S. mainlands by utilizing one of multiple ferry crossings from the Vancouver metro or greater Seattle areas. The BC Ferries and Washington State DOT Ferry websites are very helpful resources if you are planning to drive to Northern Vancouver Island.
If you fly into Port Hardy, you will need to arrange a taxi for the 35-minute drive South to Port McNeill. You can expect to pay about $45-60 CAD for the one-way fare, however rates do vary. We recommend sharing the ride with other members of the tour if you meet one another on the plane (or are on the same flight when departing). Please bring cash to pay the driver. The taxi companies change regularly, but we recommend Waivin Flags Taxi, 1-250-230-7655 and Town Taxi 1-250-949-7877 on the North Island.
We recommend making arrangements at the Haida Way Motor Inn in Port McNeill, BC, particularly if you do not have a car, as this is the site of the orientation meeting, as well as the pickup point for your transport to the launch site on the first day of the tour. The hotel is very basic, but clean and well-kept. Their in-house Northern Lights Restaurant has the best seafood in town. Indicate you are traveling with ROW Sea Kayak Adventures. We also recommend the Black Bear Resort, which is directly across the street from the Haida Way, and also features basic but comfortable accommodations. All hotels on northern Vancouver Island fill well in advance for summer, so wherever you choose to stay, we recommend making reservations early. Please note, hotel nights before and after the tour are not included in your tour cost.