big business

🕔Aug 04, 2005

With newly increased cruise ship traffic through the port of Prince Rupert, local wildlife tour enterprises are busy to the point of having to turn people away, and expansion is on the horizon for at least one of them.

Last year saw the first cruise ships since the ’70s off-load passengers and their wallets into the open arms of Prince Rupert’s fishing charter operators and wildlife tour outfits. During this year’s May-September cruise ship season, the Prince Rupert Port Authority expects about 95,000 travellers to visit the city, up from 65,000 the year before.

This is good news for the two main wildlife tour operators in this coastal city of 15,000 residents. Metlakatla Development has owned Seashore Charters for the past three seasons, and reservation co-ordinator Raelene Dudoward says the growing cruise ship presence has been a positive factor for the business. “On cruise ship day, we are always booked solid,” she says. “It’s a guaranteed thing.”

Doug Davis, owner and president of West Coast Launch and Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, agrees. His company has been doing whale tours for nine years and, like Seashore Charters, is fully booked on cruise ship Thursdays. All reservations for wildlife tours are made on board the cruise ships, with the port taking a five per cent commission. Although Davis prefers to deal directly with his customers, the cruise ships business is ultimately beneficial, he says.

For her part, Dudoward calls the relationship between Seashore Charters and the cruise ship lines “a good marriage.” The challenge is attempting to accommodate everybody who wishes to go out on the water. Tourists who travel by RV or camper and try to make their own reservations often have to be turned away on those busy days. “I feel bad turning people away,” she says.

Davis presently has a tender out on a new 100-passenger vessel for the simple reason that on each cruise ship day, his two whale watching boats go out to sea fully packed with eager tourists. “On cruise ship days, we can’t handle the capacity. We always leave people sitting on the dock,” he says.
The new vessel could potentially be ready for the 2006 season, and would more than double the 70 passengers he currently has room for.

Whale watching excursions are popular tourist attractions in many of British Columbia’s coastal communities, and Prince Rupert is no exception. Humpback whales, orcas, and porpoises congregate in North Coast waters each summer. For travellers from America and Europe, witnessing these enormous marine mammals in their natural environment is the ultimate Canadian experience.

Killer whales are free-roaming transients, coming and going as they please, while humpbacks begin to migrate through the North Coast area in July. Humpbacks are fairly predictable, and nine years of experience allows Davis to find whales more often than not.

“Everybody wants to see an orca,” says Davis, “but humpbacks are the most magnificent in my eyes.”

Tour boats aren’t supposed to come any closer than 300 feet to whales, so Davis says they turn off their engines if the whales approach. Some humpbacks, or “friendlies,” as he calls them, will come right alongside the vessel, giving passengers the experience of a lifetime.

“It’s a kind of spiritual occasion when a 50-foot whale rolls on to his side and looks at you with his eye that’s five inches across.”

Davis says it’s also possible to recognize individual humpbacks from year to year. On the bottom side of their tails are unique patterns, like fingerprints. When the whales dive, they lift their tails, and the patterns are visible. Davis tries to get good photos of these tail patterns, which allows him to identify whales from year to year.

While the photos look good on the website, Davis says he also shares his pictures with Fisheries and Oceans. DFO uses them to create estimates of whale population numbers and track patterns of migration.

According to Dudoward, travellers from all over the world take whale watching tours, as well as British Columbians looking to explore their own province’s charms.

“We have [Rupertites] come down with people who are visiting,” says Davis. “It’s a good way to show what Rupert has to offer.”

Mainly, however, it’s cruise ship traffic that is creating prospects for expansion in wildlife tourism, and local businesses have no intention of allowing outsiders to seize the opportunities. “If I don’t do it,” says Davis, “somebody else will.”