Marty’s photo of the day #4512: While working on my first book, Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents, Deb and I experienced multiple close-up humpback whale encounters off the coast of Antarctica. The whales would approach our Zodiac (a small rubber boat) and—just when it looked like they might capsize us—they’d dive under and surface on the other side with a great big blow! It was, without a doubt, the most amazing and unforgettable wildlife experience of my life.

Deb and I were on Vancouver Island during the past two weeks, and we both wanted to see whales again. Neither of us expected anything close to our Antarctica experience, but that was okay.

The problem with scheduling a whale outing was that we had our dog, Nellie, with us. Dogs couldn’t be on the boat, and we couldn’t just leave Nellie in the truck for three or more hours. Also, a hotel room was out of the question, because of the (unlikely) possibility that Nellie would bark and disturb others. That meant that we almost had to be in the midst of a multi-day cabin rental.

As it turned out, we had a three-day cabin rental in Port Hardy (the far northeastern side of the island) during our first week, and a three-day cabin rental in Ucluelet (the far western side) during our second week. We set up both of those at the last second, without prior reservations.

We tried multiple times to set up whale-watching excursions while in Port Hardy, but most were already booked solid, and when we finally scheduled an open one, it was canceled at the last moment because someone put diesel fuel into the boat’s gas tank!

Once we reached Ucluelet, we also had problems scheduling, as every whale-watching excursion was already booked. Finally, I expanded my search to the town of Tofino (45 minutes away). There, every whale-watching excursion was booked except the last one of the day; coincidently the last one we could book, because we were heading across the island the following morning.

The Whale Gods smiled upon us! That last possible whale-watching outing was actually under-booked. Instead of the usual 12 passengers, it was just Deb, me, and one other couple. Essentially we had a private tour!

In Antarctica, we were sometimes within just a few feet of humpback whales—a closeness decided by the whales. In Canada, there are strict regulations (violations subject to a $50,000 fine) that boats can’t approach whales closer than 100 meters. But just like in Antarctica, the whales can make the decision to approach as close as they want to.

During our Vancouver Island outing, we saw two gray whales. Those whales are slightly smaller than humpbacks and are more difficult to photograph because they don’t have a dorsal fin that pops out of the water first—giving me a heads-up to ready my camera. Consequently, the gray whales surfaced numerous times, when I simply missed the shot because I was expecting them to surface elsewhere. Also, while the gray whales definitely approached closer than 100 meters, they never came as close as the humpbacks did.

All in all, we had an outstanding, wide-smile-inducing experience. I have a ton of whale, sea otter, and harbor seal photos from our outing, which I will be sharing in the coming weeks. Here’s the first gray whale shot.