Best time to see wildlife in Canada

First things first: what do you want to see? May is for bumbling bear cubs; August is for polar bears in Manitoba; September is the last hoorah of the salmon run.
The best time to go on a wildlife holiday to Canada is between May and October. That’s when the big-hitting beasts are out and about: grizzly bears, 10-plus species of whales, polar bears and migratory birds. You’ve got the chance to witness a variety of behaviours throughout the season, too, so it’s worth thinking about what you’d like to see. Take bears – they’ll be with cubs in spring, slapping salmon out of the river in summer and foraging for berries in autumn. Meanwhile, whales generally turn up with their young in late spring and disappear south come autumn.

What wildlife can be seen when

Bear watching season begins in May and June. Mothers peek out of their winter dens with tumbling cubs in tow and grizzlies guzzle berries. Humpbacks start to chase herring north; plus, it’s ideal kayaking weather. Long, light days – especially around the Arctic Circle – mean plenty of hours for animal watching. Most Arctic expeditions run in July and August, when the Manitoba tundra blossoms, bringing in caribou, foxes and – in their wake – polar bears. Whales have also made it into the far north by now, plus the ice recedes enough for expedition ships to reach beluga country. Summertime in the Rockies is straight-out idyllic – 23°C and plenty of sunshine – but the world and their wife also seems to know that. September is one of the best times to see bears in British Columbia, as they follow the last of the spawning salmon upstream. They’re more active, too, piling on the kilos before hibernation. Bear watching season comes to a close in October and many whales – including humpbacks – depart for warmer waters. November is your last chance to see polar bears in Manitoba before the weather turns wild and temperatures plummet. The long, dark nights also up your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Wildlife holidays press pause in winter – December, January, March and April. Bears are busy snoozing, whales surf south to Mexico, ice makes the far north inaccessible, and stormy weather can scupper orca watching trips.

British Colombia Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Canada wildlife or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Wildlife watching in Canada advice

Vanessa Sumpmann, from our northern holiday specialists Magnetic North Travel, says she never gets tired of the sense of wonder:

Classic Canada

“Trekking for bears has earned its reputation as a classic Canadian adventure for a good reason. Observing the bears in the wilderness is a life-affirming experience. Guides aren't just wildlife experts, they have stories to tell and sometimes even got names for the bears they have grown to know.”

Slow travel

“Surrounded by nothing but forest and water, travellers need to adopt a slower pace of life [in remote areas]. The schedule is dictated by nature and while wildlife encounters are likely, there is still a little bit of luck involved adding to the excitement of the trip. Overall, the remote places offer a healthier outlook on life and see travellers return revived.”
Responsible Travel writer Catherine Roberts recommends watching your litter: “There’s a saying in North America that goes, ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’. Take heed and pack away your food and rubbish as securely as Fort Knox. A bear won’t think twice about breaking into a car – or tent – if it sees even the corner of a chocolate wrapper. When bears equate people with an easy food source, they lose their fear and risk becoming aggressive. And if they approach people too often or too aggressively, they’ll be euthanised.”
Tom Brown, from our wildlife specialists Natural World Safaris, shares his experiences seeing polar bears in Canada:

Polar rovers

“Churchill, or Arctic Canada, are land based tours. These are either in polar rover vehicles, or you can do walking safaris with the polar bears as well. These are run by Inuit guides, so although you might think this might be terrifying, they know exactly what to do when bears approach. They are very well trained in the arts of the polar bear.”

Mutual respect

“The most important thing to be aware of is that the polar bear is a very dangerous animal. Especially a hungry polar bear. They can smell humans from up to 30km away. It is key to listen to your guide and never wander off on your own, which is a very silly thing to do, when you have a polar bear that will eat you very quickly.”

Layer up

“In Churchill, you go later in the year, so layering is the way to go. We can organise for you to rent winter gear, such as super warm parkas, or all-in-one suits, as it can get to -20°C or -30°C with wind chill. Sea sickness can become an issue for some people, as you are on small boats.”

Say ch-ch-cheese

“If you want good photographs, then you need an SLR camera because you will often be taking photographs from a distance. You’ll need lenses that are at least 300mm for the best photographs. Churchill is great for photography during the October to November season, because you have light but you also have the Northern Lights in the evening.”

Tips from our travellers

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travellers are often…other travellers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do – and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful Canada wildlife holiday tips that our guests have provided over the years to help you make the very best of your holiday – and the space inside your suitcase.
Our black bear watching in Tofino and whale watching excursion in Victoria were great fun too…we saw two humpbacks!
– Payal Mehta, on a grizzly bear watching holiday in British Columbia
“We saw a polar bear being released from the holding facility and flown off back to the wild, mothers and cubs, young bears play-boxing, a large male bear falling through the thin ice and the Northern Lights. All the staff were fantastic, particularly our wonderful free-spirited guide. It could not have been better!!”
– Liz Green, on a Churchill polar bear tour

“The most memorable part of my holiday was the optional extras that we did, especially watching the bears and whales in their natural environment. The stunning scenery around each corner of the roads. Having an amazing guide who delivered so many interesting facts, and always had a smile and a sense of humour. The transportation is a little cramped with backpacks, etc, at your feet (especially if there is a full contingent of people – 14 in the group). Be prepared for some very long days of travelling.”
– Barbara Jackson, on a Canadian wildlife and Vancouver Island holiday

“We enjoyed sea kayaking in Ucluelet, sitting watching the views with our picnic on Pyramid island in Jasper. Our black bear watching in Tofino and whale watching excursion in Victoria were great fun too…we saw two humpbacks! The VIA Rail train was 15 hours late! We learnt there that it was not unusual.”
– Payal Mehta, on a grizzly bear watching holiday in British Columbia
Photo credits: [Page banner: chris salt] [Salmon run: Mike] [Vanessa quote: Kalen Emsley] [Polar bear: Emma] [Whale tail: shankar s.]