Few areas in the world are as beautiful to explore by kayak as the coastal waters of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, whether you’re new to the sport, looking for an exciting adventure getaway or simply out to improve your paddling skills. View killer whales, seals and otters as you glide through BC marine parks into scenic bays and lagoons and go ashore on secluded sandy beaches and uninhabited islands.
Discover abandoned native villages, toppled totems and natural marine caves that are millions of years old. Your exciting day ends with a glowing sunset and absolute tranquility as you rendezvous with the rest of your group on your comfortable mothership, or set up camp for the night on one of the islands, just as native people did thousands of years before you.
Whether you have a few hours or a few days, prefer to canoe, kayak, or raft, or you are a beginner looking for a guided tour, British Columbia has 27,000 kilometres of shoreline, 843 rivers, and 861 major lakes. The province offers boundless paddling opportunities as you begin your explorations.
Mothership Kayak Tours: Kayak trips aboard motherships are popular along the more desolate stretches of Vancouver Island’s west coast, Desolation Sound, Broughton Archipelago, and the central coast of British Columbia. You sleep aboard the mothership; a large, luxurious sailboat or a rustic tugboat or barge. For some, the adventure of sea kayaking, when combined with the comfort, hot showers and good food provided by organized mothership trips takes a lot of beating.
Experienced paddlers can rent kayaks and supplies upon arrival, or bring their own equipment. Hire a guide, unless you are familiar with local conditions or possess adequate sea kayaking experience. Many areas in the region are extremely remote. If you’re planning a multi-day trip on your own, be well-versed in the skills of navigation, self-rescue, first aid and wilderness camping. If you bring your own kayak or canoe with you, BC Ferries treats them as hand baggage with no extra charge.
Tour operators take all the hassle out of a vacation kayaking trip by providing qualified guides, and all the equipment, food, and tents for camping on shore. No kayaking or paddling experience is necessary for most trips – just a basic level of fitness. For added stability, novice paddlers usually rent double kayaks with seating for two people. The coastal waters of British Columbia are cold, so kayakers should be suitably prepared.
Sea Kayaking around Vancouver Island
The sheltered waterways of Quatsino Sound provide a pristine wilderness paradise for kayakers who find themselves surrounded by beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. Sea life is prolific, and marine mammals include Humpback whales, transient Orcas (killer whales), and Sea Otters. Quatsino Sound is remote and unpopulated by kayakers, covering approximately 70 miles (113 kms) of waterways. The northernmost of the sounds on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Quatsino Sound has three arms; Neroutsos Inlet, Rupert Inlet, and Holberg Inlet. Communities located on Quatsino Sound include Coal Harbour, Quatsino, Port Alice, Winter Harbour and Holberg. Access to Quatsino Sound is via Port Hardy by paved road to Coal Harbour, continuing on gravel roads to Holberg and Winter Harbour.
You’ll feel as though you’re on the edge of the world in Port Hardy. To venture any farther north you’ll need a boat, kayak, or a plane. Port McNeill and its surrounding areas have terrific kayaking destinations, as do the waters off Telegraph Cove, a prime destination for kayakers who wish to explore Johnstone Strait and Robson Bight. Robson Bight (Michael Biggs) Ecological Reserve is an ecological reserve; it’s here that killer whales come to rub their bellies on the barnacle-encrusted rocks. The whales can be seen from just beyond the park boundaries and as they swim along the shore.
From Gold River, the sheltered waters of Muchalat Inlet run toward the Pacific Ocean like a long corridor through steep-sided fjords. Landing places are few, but the surrounding scenery is entrancing. Once in the waters off historical Nootka Sound, a much more weather-beaten landscape begins to reveal itself. Bligh Island Marine Provincial Park sits at the mouth of the Muchalat Inlet. The MV Uchuck lll stops nearby at Yuquot (Friendly Cove) or will drop off and pick up kayakers beside Bligh Island and at various locations along the way by prior arrangement. There’s much to explore in this group of six islands, scattered where Muchalat Inlet converges with two adjacent inlets and their channels. The waters in this region can get choppy, so small craft must cross with care. Large Bligh Island is named for the much-maligned British Navy Captain who sailed here with the equally well-known Captain cook in 1778.
The federal dock in Fair Harbour, northwest of Zeballos, is the launching point for exploring Kyuquot Sound, Checleset Bay Ecological Reserve, and Brooks Peninsula / Muquin Provincial Park. This is a vast, windswept, sea-sprayed section of Vancouver Island’s northwest coast. The snout of Brooke Peninsula offers some protection for Checleset Bay from the winter storms that blow south from the Gulf of Alaska. Sea kayakers should beware the fury of the winds and surf that build around its protruding bulk, especially at Cape Cook and Clerke Point. The rewards for making the journey are the solitude provided by the surroundings and the sight of magnificent stands of Sitka spruce, the only species of tree able to thrive under the constant salt and magnesium-loaded spindrift that the winds whip from the tops of the swells and carry ashore in the breeze.
In the sheltering forest, marbled murrelets nest in the deep moss that enshrouds the thick branches of the spruce. Herds of Roosevelt elk graze in the lush, green understorey, while black bears forage in the berry-laden bushes. If you are among the few visitors who make their way here each year, you will be treated to one of the last remaining environments on the west coast where logging has been held mercifully at bay. Brooks Peninsula / Muquin Provincial Park is huge; 51,631 hectares of wilderness that is best explored with the help of a guide.
Port Alice is the perfect place from which kayaking enthusiasts can explore the inlets and waters of Quatsino Sound.
The municipal boat launch in the centre of Ladysmith is the place to begin exploring the 8-km length of Ladysmith Harbour. Dunsmuir Island and Woods Island on the north side of the harbour are good destinations in summer, while the marshy lagoon at the head of the harbour attracts migrating birds in the spring and fall.
There’s a public boat ramp at Pipers Lagoon Regional Park in Nanaimo. It’s one thing to putt-putt around the sheltered lagoon, but quite another to brave the open water of Horswell Channel on the east side of the narrow headland that shelters the lagoon.
Explore the scenic and sheltered Inner Harbour of Victoria from the superb vantage point of a rented sea kayak. You can relax in awe at the grandeur of The Empress Hotel and the magnificent Legislative buildings before paddling off under the classic Johnson Street bridge toward The Gorge, a meandering waterway that leads from Victoria’s upper harbour before finally widening into pretty Portage Inlet. A daily tidal surge occasionally creates near-whitewater conditions in the narrowest passages, a thrill that kayakers will particularly enjoy. The best place to launch is the dock at Gorge Park, just west of downtown Victoria. There’s more paddling here than you can explore in one day, which guarantees a return visit.
The shoreline on southern Vancouver Island is particularly scenic, with a rich natural beauty. Kayaking allows the visitor to view and explore the numerous inlets, bays and maze of islands with absolute freedom. Launch from either the boat ramp or the wharf in Sidney, nestled on the inland coast near Swartz Bay north of Victoria, and head across the channel to Sidney Spit Marine Park, or explore the coastline of the Saanich Peninsula and Princess Margaret Marine Park (Gulf Islands NPR) on Portland Island.
Sooke: For those who have paddled only in sheltered passages, sea kayaking along the outside waters of Vancouver Island is another world, one where you go big or you go home! However, if you pick your time, particularly in summer months, you’ll find that the Pacific can be as well behaved as a sleeping giant. The 60-km ocean route between and Port Renfrew, with its string of beaches to touch on, can be paddled in a lengthy summer day. Of course, you don’t have to do the entire length of this coast to enjoy an outing. Pick your launch location, such as from French Beach Provincial Park, one of the few beaches where you can drive to within a short distance of a launch site. Two other good locations include Jordan River and Pacheedaht Beach in Port San Juan.
Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands comprise one of the three main recreational components in Pacific Rim National Park. The popularity of these islands with paddlers and boaters has soared over the past decade, much to the dismay of long-time observers. One of the main reasons that the Broken Group Islands are so popular is that they provide a true west coast experience in sheltered water. Barkley Sound is not normally subject to the extreme ocean conditions encountered farther west in the open waters around Ucluelet and exposed sections of the West Coast Trail and the Long Beach Unit, the two other areas that attract visitors to Pacific Rim National Park.
Kayakers usually begin their exploration at Gibraltar Island and make their way through the chain, stopping at campsites on Gilbert, Clarke, Turret, Willis and Hand Islands. Camping is also allowed on Gibraltar Island and Dodd Island. All of these sites are easily reached within a day’s paddle (or less) of each other. Numerous kayak operators lead tours through the Broken Group Islands.
The ease with which less-experienced sea kayakers can reach the Broken Group Islands contributes greatly to their allure and charm. The MV Frances Barkley is a sturdy wooden packet freighter based in Port Alberni. The sailing route leads through the Broken Group Islands to the fishing ports of Ucluelet and Bamfield. If you visit the area in July and August, be sure to reserve space for your kayak or canoe on the deck well in advance.
Tofino: Explore the quiet inside waters of Clayoquot Sound – a premier sea kayaking destination offering miles of sheltered inlet waterways. Paddle to Hot Springs Cove, located in Maquinna Provincial Park in the remote northern end of Clayoquot Sound – it’s a splendid hot spring still enjoyable in its natural state.
Gracie Bay is a sheltered niche of ocean waterway tucked in beside Meares Island in the backwater of Clayoquot Sound. At low tide, the bay drains so low that it takes on the appearance of a green marshland. Eelgrass covers much of the mudflats in Browning Pass, which links Grice Bay with Tofino to the north.
Gracie Bay lies within the northern limits of the Long Beach Unit of the Pacific Rim National Park.
Paddling in the waters of Clayoquot Sound is one of the most rewarding ways to experience this environment. Depending on your skill level, you can either plan a trip on your own or join up with one of the tour operators that use Tofino as their base. Day trips close to town include Meares Island, Stubbs Island, Wickaninnish Island, and Vargas Island, all within sight of the federal dock in Tofino. Far afield is Flores Island and Flores Island Provincial Park. The sandy beaches on Stubbs Island makes it an ideal getaway within sight of Tofino. You can land on the east coast of Vargas Island, a 5-km paddle from Tofino, and make the one-hour journey across island on foot to Ahous Beach. Visit Vargas Island Provincial Park.
If you paddle to Ahous Beach, rather than hike, be prepared for a stretch of open ocean as you round the exposed southwest corner of Vargas. If it’s blowing too hard, check out isolated Medallion Bay on the south end of the Island, a delightful place to land. Nothing on Vargas, however, tops Ahous Beach’s lengthy expanse, which rivals Long Beach in size. So vast is its hard-caked, sandy surface that light planes occasionally land here.
Sea Kayaking in Desolation Sound, Sunshine Coast BC
Warm waters and wildlife! Desolation Sound with its unusually warm Pacific waters (74F), prolific marine wildlife and spectacular scenery provides some of the best sea kayaking opportunities in the world. Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park possesses a magical magnetism that draws boaters and paddlers from distant shores. You’ll find plenty of isolated bays and campsites throughout Desolation Sound’s more than 37 miles (60 km) of coastline. One of the prime attractions of these waters is their warmth in summer months, which makes them ideal for swimming and snorkeling. More on Kayaking in Desolation Sound.
Sea Kayaking around the BC Gulf Islands
One of the most soulful ways to explore the Gulf Islands is in a sea kayak. Safer and more stable than a canoe, sea kayaks allow you to travel in comfort, with as much gear and goodies as you can manage to stow into the ample storage compartments fore and aft. Plan to launch from any of the ferry docks or federal wharfs on the Gulf Islands and paddle off towards the nearest Marine Provincial park.
Tidal currents present difficulties in several places, most notably Active Pass and Porlier Pass at the south and north end of Galiano Island, respectively. Consult tide tables to determine the most favourable times to negotiate these routes. As Active Pass is used by BC Ferries, use extreme caution when navigating here. As a general rule, camping is only permitted in designated sites in the Gulf Islands. A ban on campfires is in effect in the Gulf Islands from April to October, and freshwater and toilet facilities are extremely limited, so plan accordingly.
Some of the more popular and easier-to-reach places include Beaumont Marine Park Beaumont/Mt. Norman (Gulf Islands NPR) on Saturna Island (no camping here though), Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park and Dionisio Point Provincial Park on Galiano Island. Galiano Island is the centre for sea kayaking in the southern islands. Other marine parks include Cabbage Island, off the northeast coast of Tumbo Island, east of Winter Cove Park (Gulf Islands NPR), and the large Princess Margaret Marine Park on Portland Island between Saltspring and the Pender Islands. Kayaking affords the kayaker close-up views of the wonderful sandstone formations that abound in the Gulf Islands. The towering sandstone cliffs of Valdes Island, south of Gabriola, and the nesting seabird colonies in the islands are highlights worth visiting. Maps and paddling information for each of the marine parks are available from BC Parks.
Octopus Islands Provincial Park is both remote and accessible at the same time. Nestled among the maze of islands through which the waters of Johnstone Strait funnel into the Strait of Georgia, the Octopus Islands are most easily reached from Quadra Island. From the ferry dock at Quadra’s Quathiaski Cove, journey east across island to Heriot Bay, where another ferry connects to Cortes Island. This is one of two good places to launch, along with Village Bay farther north. Tidal currents around Quadra Island are notorious for their strength, particularly at Surge Narrows on the east and Seymour Narrows on the west. Paddlers should avoid Seymour Narrows completely, and only transit Surge Narrows at slack tide. In addition, you should be well versed in the reading of tidal-current charts to safely explore the fascinating waters around tightly packed Quadra, Cortes, Maurelle, Read, and Sonora Islands.