A salty tang in the air, the crash of waves against the shore, and the feel of the icy spray against your skin. If these things put a smile on your face, then you, my friend, are an ocean lover.
When it comes to ocean adventures, Canada isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. However, visitors to Vancouver may be surprised to know that this west coast city isn’t just an adventure destination for hikers and climbers, but also a mecca for ocean enthusiasts. Vancouver and the surrounding area offers some of the best and most exciting adventure water activities not just in Canada, but on this planet. Are you curious as to what to do in Vancouver as someone who’s happiest on the water?
So if you love the idea of swimming with seals, watching for whales, or exploring shipwrecks, then grab your swimsuit and a towel! As a fellow ocean enthusiast, I’m sharing Vancouver’s top adventures for ocean lovers, and the best hotels to go with them.
Paddle by Kayak and SUP
If you prefer to explore the ocean from the top, rather than the bottom, then head to Vancouver Water Adventures at Granville Island, English Bay Beach, or Kitsilano Beach and rent a paddleboard or kayak for a few hours. It’s a relaxing way to escape the crowds at the beach and enjoy the ocean. Not to mention each location offers some pretty stunning views of the surrounding ocean, mountains, and city. Don’t get too caught up looking at the skyline though! If you are lucky, you might spot a couple of curious seals bobbing in the waves beside you.[caption id="attachment_54161" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Ruth Hartnup CC-BY[/caption]
Rentals are offered on a first come first serve basis, so it’s best to arrive early. Vancouver Water Adventures also offers kayak and SUP tours with an experienced guide, offering a unique way to get to see and learn a little bit about the city. Or, if you’ve never tried it before, you can also book kayak or SUP lessons.
If you are in Vancouver mid-week, keep an eye out for the daily deals from Monday-Wednesday which include half-price kayak rentals on Mondays, or discounted group lessons on Wednesday evening. These deals are a definite perk for travellers looking to save money and make the most out of their visit.
Accommodation: For breathtaking views of the waterfront and mountains, stay at the Fairmont Pacific Rim. This luxury property is also home to one of the city’s hottest restaurants, Botanist, which is inspired by the principles of botany.
Watch for Whales
Whale watching may be one of the most obvious ocean adventures in Vancouver, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Vancouver is one of the best places in the country for whale spotting as thousands of whales migrate through the area between the months of March and October. You’ll be keeping your eyes peeled for humpbacks, orcas, minke, and grey whales but that’s not all you’ll find out on the waves. These ocean expeditions are also a great opportunity to see dolphins, sea lions, and seabirds including bald eagles, tufted puffins, and brown pelicans. Whale watching in Vancouver is a great family activity, just make sure to pack your camera (and maybe your sea legs!).[caption id="attachment_54168" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Kristen Mucha at Wildcoast Adventures CC-BY[/caption]
Whale watching tours tend to book up quickly, so make reservations in advance at operators like Prince of Whales or Vancouver Whale Watch. Tours start as early as April and run as late as November, though prime whale watching season in Vancouver is May until September. The half-day tours (three to five hours) are probably the most popular. There are morning and afternoon options available and they are offered by both companies mentioned above. However, if you want a truly memorable experience, consider opting for a full day tour with Prince of Whales that includes a visit to Victoria with transportation by seaplane so you can see the views from above. If you don’t see any whales during your trip, both companies offer you a spot on another trip to try again at any time in the future.
Accommodation: Landis Hotel and Suites is a perfect pick for a family-friendly Vancouver vacation. The downtown location makes it easy to sight-see and the hotel offers a large pool which kids will love.
Snorkel with Seals
Is there anything cuter than seals? How about fluffy baby seals? What if I told you that you could snorkel with them in their natural habitat? Well, you can in West Vancouver with Sea Dragon Charters.
Spend half a day with these ocean experts on and in the ocean at Howe Sound where you can get up close and personal with the local seal colony. As every ocean enthusiast knows; no chasing and no touching are the rules here, but these seals can be pretty curious and, if you are lucky, will come quite close. Insider tip: keep your camera close and be as quiet as possible, as I swam around the island I managed to turn a corner and find a mother seal and her fluffy pup napping on the rocks right in front of me. Being so close to them, and knowing that I was still following ethical animal tourism practices, was the highlight of my experience.[caption id="attachment_54167" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Allison Hill CC-BY[/caption]
There are three stops on the trip; two for swimming and the final stop is around an island where you can choose to swim or kayak. The tour is available from May 1st – September 30th, but only on certain days so be sure to check in advance. If you, or someone in your group, would prefer not to swim or kayak and just join the boat to watch, that is an option as well.
Sea Dragon Charters provide all equipment except for personal swimwear and towels (you do get wetsuits) along with soup, snacks and hot drinks to warm up after.
Accommodation: The Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront is a fun, colourful hotel offering beautiful views of either the city skyline or the harbourfront. A central location, large indoor swimming pool with a harbour view, and onsite restaurant and dining facilities make this hotel a great pick for couples, families, or solo travellers.
Vancouver may not have tropical reefs, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t offer amazing scuba diving opportunities. In fact, British Columbia was voted as the number one scuba diving destination in North America by Scuba Diving Magazine thanks to its abundance of wildlife. Seals, nudibranch, octopus, eels, crabs, and even a couple of different species of shark are all waiting to be discovered under the waves near Vancouver. When it comes to topography, divers will be rewarded with anemone-covered pinnacles, walls, and a couple of great wrecks to explore.
Locals love dive sites around Howe Sound which, as a marine sanctuary, is home to plenty of different species of marine life. Whytecliff Park is probably the most popular spots in the Howe Sound area. There are several dive sites here suitable for all levels of divers with lots of crevasses, overhangs, and rock walls to explore. Another favourite dive site is the HMCS Annapolis; a helicopter-carrying destroyer. It was scuttled in 2015 and has quickly become a favourite dive site not just in British Columbia, but in all of Canada.[caption id="attachment_54169" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Photo by Ed Bierman CC-BY[/caption]
As an avid scuba diver, I love diving shipwrecks. There is something thrilling, and maybe even a little spooky, about exploring these massive structures in the dark, murky waters. It’s also fascinating to see just how quickly the ocean and its inhabitants claim the wreck for themselves.
Visit The Diving Locker or Sea Dragon Charters to plan your scuba diving adventures in Vancouver.
Accommodation: You can’t stay underwater, but at the Granville Island Hotel you can stay on the water. This boutique hotel offers a homey stay in what I think is one of Vancouver’s coolest areas, Granville Island, which is home to food markets, breweries, and local artisan shops.
Skim the Surface
Whether you are an avid kiteboarder or eager to give it a shot, Vancouver and the surrounding area offer a range of spots to try this water sport. The Spanish Banks is the closest spot to the city, but perhaps the best spot, especially for lessons, is in Squamish which is an hour drive away.
The Squamish Spit is the place for world-class kiteboarding. On a warm summer day, the area will be full of kiteboarders skimming across the water. I loved watching their multi-coloured kites soar above the waves as they caught the wind.[caption id="attachment_54163" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Bradak CC-BY[/caption]
Given the popularity of this sport, there are a couple different schools in the area. Aerial Kiteboarding School, Sea to Sky Kiteboarding School, or Kiteboarding Squamish School will all see to your needs and provide lessons (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) to those willing to learn or looking to brush up on their kiteboarding skills. Or, if you are an avid kiteboarder and just looking to have some fun, you can rent gear from the schools as well. Just make sure to give 48 hours’ notice.
Accommodation: If you plan on taking lessons in Squamish, spend a couple of nights at the Sandman Hotel & Suites Squamish. Only an hour from Vancouver, it’s just off the beautiful Sea to Sky Highway. Nearby mountains, forests, and of course the Squamish Spit make this property a nature lover’s paradise.
Sightsee from the Water
Vancouver is a waterfront city, and plenty of the nearby attractions and highlights are on the water as well, so why not do your city sight-seeing from the water? Vancouver Water Adventures (the same company that rents kayaks and paddleboards) runs a unique zodiac tour that leaves from Granville Island and travels up Deep Cove and Indian Arm to a natural fjord and Granite Falls.[caption id="attachment_54170" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Jeff Hitchcock CC-BY[/caption]
This zodiac tour highlights city attractions such as Stanley Park, Lions Gate Bridge and Coal Harbour while also providing guests with the chance to see and experience some of the area’s best natural sites as well including Twin Islands and Racoon Island. The zodiac sight-seeing tours last about two-and-a-half to three hours.
Accommodation: For gorgeous coastal and mountain views, book your stay at the Westin Bayshore Hotel, located on Vancouver’s waterfront. Eco-conscious travellers will also love The Westin Bayshore’s commitment to the environment which earned them a 4 Green Key Rating from the Hotel Association of Canada.
Sail the Bays
If you love the idea of sight-seeing from the water, but aren’t too keen on a bumpy zodiac ride, then try one of Vancouver’s sailboat tours. Vancouver Sailing Club offers afternoon and evening cruises for small groups.[caption id="attachment_54166" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Dale Simonson CC-BY[/caption]
You will meet your Skipper at Granville Island where you will embark on a leisurely cruise that will take you through English Bay, Kitsilano, Stanley Park, Howe Sound, and more. The sunset cruise is only available during the summer months, however the afternoon cruise option is year-round every Thursday and Friday from 12:30-4:30pm.
Accommodation: The Pan Pacific Hotel offers classic luxury with four dining options and an on-site spa. Guests will love the spacious rooms which include floor to ceiling windows offering sweeping views of the waterfront.
Spend a Day at a Beach
Every ocean lover knows that beach days are the best days. Walking barefoot in the sand, swimming through the waves, maybe playing some beach volleyball or frisbee with your friends. Vancouver has several great beaches, all of which are free of charge. Try English Bay, Spanish Banks Beaches, Second and Third Beaches, or Kitsilano Beach during your visit.[caption id="attachment_54164" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Photo by Nick Lau CC-BY[/caption]
I personally loved spending the evening at Kitsilano Beach surrounded by families walking in the sand, teenagers playing beach volleyball, and SUPers paddling along the shoreline. The best part was the sunset views over the water, while still being able to see the mountains in the distance; the best of Vancouver’s nature all in one.
Accommodation: If you are a beach bum, book your Vancouver stay at the Sylvia Hotel which is located on English Bay, just minutes from the beach. The old world charm of this hotel makes it a favourite among travellers. If you are looking for something special, ask about the beachside dining experience.
Whether you prefer to be above or below the waves, Vancouver promises to keep every ocean lover happy with aquatic adventures for all.