See puffins, polar bears and grizzlies. Love whales? How about spotting the unicorns of the sea and stand-up paddleboarding with friendly white belugas. Canada is the wild home to some of the most magical animals on earth. Here’s where and when to see them.
Get close to Canada’s iconic grizzlies
Berry Island, British Columbia
When to go: June to mid-October
“I love it when people who come here get more wildlife than they bargained for,” says Tim McGrady, managing partner and guide at Farewell Harbour Lodge, a waterside escape in the evergreen forest of Berry Island.
“One of the highlights of my 30-year career was when a mama grizzly bear and her cubs climbed a tree right next to a cabin here at Farewell Harbour Lodge. Berry Island is remote and right on the frontier of Great Bear Rainforest, but for the most part, grizzlies don’t come to us – we take Zodiacs through the surrounding Norwegian-style fjords then walk into the forest to see them. There’s nothing like the adrenalin of seeing such a huge and powerful animal at peace in their natural home.
“The evening those bears showed up, our guests had just sat down to dinner. I gathered everyone – our chef was a bit unhappy with me – and all 24 of us tiptoed behind her and crouched, just watching her feed on berries with her cubs for about an hour and a half. She knew we were there; she would sniff the air and look over our way but she treated us like part of the scenery. I’ll never forget it.
“Grizzlies are the big attraction here – though there’s plenty of black bears around, too – but when we pick you up from Vancouver Island and cross Johnstone Strait toward the lodge, you enter one of the best places in the entire world to see marine life, particularly orca and humpbacks. Sometimes there’s so many in our path we have to kill the engines and wait for them to move on. Last night, my conversation over dinner was interrupted by the sound of whale blows coming straight in through the lodge’s windows from Blackfish Sound.”
If you like to feel at one with the wilderness, you’ll love…
St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
What you’ll love… Fluffy puffins
When to go: May to September
There’s something endearingly comical about rainbow-faced Atlantic puffins flapping clumsily across a marshmallow-white sky or squabbling in their busy colonies. More than half a million of them make their home in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve each year, and you can watch them nesting with O'Brien’s Whale & Bird Tours. Day trips run out of the Atlantic coast city of St John’s during the birds’ mating season from May through September. Between June and August, you’ve also got a good chance of spotting humpback whales and bald eagles soaring over white icebergs.
Local tip: Stay at The Inn By Mallard Cottage below the cliffs of the St John’s Quidi Vidi neighbourhood. The food is hearty and the cake trolley that swings by your table during brunch offering sweet treats such as homemade madeleines, macarons and cookies is the stuff of local legend.
Eclipse Sound, Nunavut
You’ll love: Narwhals, polar bears and beluga whales
When to go: Summer
On the Arctic ice floe edge in Canada’s furthest and iciest northern reaches, you’ll find the most magical creatures on earth basking in the 24-hour sun. But to get to Eclipse Sound you’ll need some grit and a guided tour. With Arctic Kingdom, which flies you out from Ottawa, you’ll stay in a tented safari camp and ride snowmobiles with Inuit guides to search for tusked narwhals feeding at the floe edge. There’s also a chance you’ll spot polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales while you watch for thousands of migratory Arctic birds.
Local tip: When you travel to the Arctic, the Arctic is in charge. Weather and conditions can be unpredictable, so give yourself extra days either side of your booked tour and pack your spirit of serendipity.
When to go: July and August
You’ll love… Polar bears and paddleboarding with beluga whales
Churchill in Manitoba is a wildlife supercentre, with most of the activity ramping up in the summer months. Pods of white beluga whales, famous for their cute faces and friendly nature, swim through the Churchill River in July and August, and you can kayak or paddleboard out to them with Sea North Tours (you can go out by boat if a Zodiac is more in your comfort zone or you’ve got young beluga-spotters with you). On a Churchill Wild summer safari, you’ll stay in remote rustic-luxe lodges where you can sometimes see buttery white bears ambling past the windows. But you’ll also go out on walking and ATV adventures to spot them in the wild. If photography and ecology is your thing, Frontiers North runs day trips aboard a Tundra Buggy to explore the diverse terrain and flora of the tundra and kids will love the ride.
Local tip: The Tundra Inn is a favourite cosy stay for adventurers and families, and locals look forward to its pub opening every summer. There’s plenty on the menu for meat-eaters, but Nikki Clace from Frontiers North says the Borealis Burger – made with wild rice, beans, vegies and berries – is the first thing many visitors order after a long day chasing bears.
When to go: Any time of the year
You’ll love… Sleeping amongst the wolves
A 90-minute drive west of Montreal in Quebec’s Outaouais region, the village of Montebello is home to approximately 983 people and thousands of wild grey wolves. At the Parc Omega safari and educational centre, families can get safely close to the local canines inside the Grey Wolf Observatory. You can even sleep amongst the pack in a Wolf Cabin that fronts onto the park. Animal-obsessed kids both big and small will delight in the rustic shingle-walled chalet that blurs the line between glamping and a zoo experience, with floor-to-ceiling glass forming the only barrier between the animals and your living room.
Local tip: Some of the best examples of Québécois cuisine are found right inside the safari park. “Our restaurant overlooks the Bird Lake and is the perfect place to taste boreal flavours,” says Parc Omega’s Claudiane Jolicoeur. Try seasonal dishes such as trout tartare or smoked filet mignon with local herbs such as myrica gale.
Image credits: Churchill Wild (Churchill Wild Summer Safari Polar Bears); Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild (Great Bear Rainforest); Parc Omega (Wolf Lodge); Destination British Columbia (Great Bear Rainforest).