If their mystery, beauty and inherent playfulness don't grab your attention then their size certainly will! Whales are a part of our culture, our legends and our art. They've captured our imaginations through works like the totem carvings of the First Nations in British Columbia and the soap stone sculptures of the Inuit -- and even the "little white whale on the go" in Raffi's "Baby Beluga".

They've also been the subject of much controversy over the past few decades when whaling practices dangerously depleted populations around the world and nearly drove some species to extinction.

Thankfully, human/whale relations greatly improved when controversy bred curiosity about these massive sea-dwelling mammals. Whale watching has exploded in popularity around the world, and it's more than an item on a tourist's bucket list. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) encourages controlled whale watching activities because they promote environmental awareness and conservation -- not just for whales but other marine life too.

While there are many popular whale watching destinations around the globe, but some of the top choices are closer to home. Whether you want to get out on the water or do some spying from shore, here's where to spot whales in Canada.

British Columbia

Some whales live nearby, and others are just passing through. Species like the gray whale make their annual journey from the south (the Sea of Cortes near Baja California, Mexico, to be exact) to their summer feeding grounds in Arctic waters. The trek is slow one -- about five kilometres an hour -- and a one way trip can be between 8000 and 10000 km. The BC coastline offers some prime viewing of whales on the move starting in early spring.

Others call the waters near Vancouver Island home -- like the iconic orcas or "killer whales". There are even feeding grounds near two of the province's major cities, Vancouver and Victoria. Some top spots include the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve on Vancouver Island, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (which hosts an annual festival to welcome the whales) and the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Northern BC also offers some prime watching spots, like Prince Rupert.

Whale watching tours can take you to the secluded spots you might not see otherwise -- like the many inlets along the BC coast. The whale species found in this area include minke, humpback, orca and gray whales -- but you'll also have the opportunity to see sea lions, seals, porpoises and marine birds.

(For more information and listings, see HelloBC.com).

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Quebec

The St. Lawrence River off the coast of Quebec is well known for its cetacean population. In other words, you'll see more than a dozen species of whales and dolphins -- including beluga, pilot, minke, fin and blue whales (reputedly the largest of them all), as well as harbour porpoises and Atlantic white-sided dolphins. The geographical features of the area make it rich in food sources, so the areas serves as more of a seasonal feeding ground than stop-over.

Some of the best watching areas include the Saguenay--St. Lawrence Marine Park, Forillon National Park and the Mingan Island National Park Reserve. However, there are numerous places along the Northern Shore of the St. Lawrence to see some action. The 900 km highway traversing the Manicouagan and Duplessis regions even has an appropriate name: Routes des balienes or the "Whale Route". A drive along the route or a boat tour also shows off the scenic landscape, like beaches, forests and rock formations of the Mingan Archipelago.

If you prefer to stay on land, there are parts of the river that are deep enough near land that whales will venture as close 100 m to shore, like at Cap Gaspé in Forillon National Park and Ponte-des-Monts . Another option is to hop on board one of the ferries

For more information, see BonjourQuebec.com.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Go east! The Atlantic Provinces are internationally known for their whale watching venues and views. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are more than 20 species of sea-faring mammals, including sperm whales and blue whales. Most of them have come for the season to fill their large bellies and play in the coastal waters.

While the whales will likely steal the show, there are more unique features that will capture your attention. Many whale watching tours also take in other spectacular sights such as icebergs. The area is also famous for marine birds. The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, for example, is home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America, boasting upwards of 260,000 pairs coming to nest during the summer months.

In addition to the sea-going tours, there are also opportunities to enjoy the area on foot for serious hikers. For example, the East Coast Trail covers 540 km of hiking and connects 32 communities. Touring part of this trail offers a wide variety of experiences, like historic sites, lighthouses and ecological reserves to name a few.

For more information, see NewfoundlandandLabrador.com and the East Coast Trail website.

Bay of Fundy

Neighbouring provinces Nova Scotia and New Brunswick share this natural marvel, and it's considered to be one of the Marine Wonders of the World. Those changing tides provide not only some scenic landscapes, they also help make the area a rich feeding ground for marine life of all sorts.

Some cruises specialize in whale watching, and boats even come equipped with hydrophone technology so you can listen in on "whale talk" or cameras for an under-water look. Other tours focus on wildlife watching in general, and there are deep-sea fishing, lobster trapping and diving options too.

A couple of companies in the area even offer a unique way to see the whales -- by tall ship. These "whales and sails" tours offer amenities such as onboard washrooms, complimentary meals and even a licensed bar and lounge. The yachts are thought to be easier on sensitive stomachs than Zodiacs or other watercraft, and might be a good option for those concerned about motion sickness.

There are also a variety of tours leaving from Cape Breton along the Cabot Trail. Hop aboard a tour from Cheticamp on Cape Breton, or start your adventure in Freeport, Lunenberg or Tiverton.

On the New Brunswick side, inquiring minds can head to the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station and the Gaskin Museum of Marine Life for a first-hand look at research and conservation efforts.

For more information and a listing of tour operators, visit NovaScotia.com, BayofFundyTourism.com and TourismNewBrunswick.ca.

Of course, Prince Edward Island is not to be left out. This island province is internationally famous for many attractions and experiences, but while whale watching is offered it isn't generally a focus.

Before you go...

Size it up. Whale watching excursions come in a variety of shapes and sizes from kayaks to Zodiacs to small cruise boats. Tours vary by length, and can be three or more hours in length, or you can take half or whole-day excursions. Be sure to ask what amenities are available - like on board washrooms.

Check the guarantee. Many tour operators promise you'll see a whale or your next excursion is free. (If you don't live nearby, you may want to leave some room in your itinerary just in case).

Time it right. The typical watching season runs from May to September or October, but may start earlier and run later in different parts of the country. Check local news to find out what's going on.

Ask who's local. Some species are more common than others. For instance, minke and pilot whales are very common in Nova Scotia, but orcas don't often put in an appearance. You can look online to see what species are most commonly sighted, or ask your tour operator.

Prepare for sea sickness. Take along whatever remedy works for you, whether it's over the counter medications, acupressure bands or some ginger.

Show some respect. Parks and companies have regulations in place that govern how to act around whales -- such slowing down, maintaining a safe distance and not disturbing animals who are feeding. If you're heading out in a kayak or catamaran, make sure you know how to respond if a curious whale approaches.

Stay safe. Find out what the rules and regulations are and follow them -- especially when it comes to safety. Be sure to wear your gear -- and wear it properly -- and know the location of life boats on larger ships. If you're heading out on your own, check the weather and conditions for the day before setting out.

Know what to watch. Your tour guide should be able to point out some of the differences in how whales travel, feed and breathe. It's worth a little research beforehand to find out what to look for. Different species of whales behave differently, after all. For example, belugas don't often show their flukes when they dive, but other species will indulge in some "tail slapping" and other playful behaviours like breaching (leaping out of the water).

Overall, the best thing you can do is keep your eyes open. Get the full value out of your trip by watching for dolphins, sea lions, puffins, and other marine life too, and enjoy the scenery and experience. Put down your camera too! Whale watching is about the experience, after all!

Additional sources: World Wildlife Fund, Whales Online

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Frank Leung

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers