If you insist on going out whale watching (or whale harassing as the locals call it) don't tell any locals that you have done this.
People who go whale watching are considered ignorant "ugly tourists" who don't care about the environment.
I decided to write a rebuttal since most of the tips on here are against whale watching. As I work in the hotel industry in Victoria, I know there are plenty of people including locals who enjoy the opportunity to experience Whale Watching. I say to all guests that whale watching on a zodiac is the thrill of a lifetime, even if you don't see whales, riding in the boat is enough fun.
Indeed, it is expensive (whale watching companies are also victim to high fuel prices), but it is an experience and realistically, there are lots of other items in this world that people pay an arm and a leg to see including Disneyland. It is an experience that makes you one with nature. Remember the tv show, "The Magic School" bus? This is an educational experience that brings you into the life of a whale. Certainly, one could open the debate that it is harmful to the whales but truthfully, I would beg to differ. Over 90% if not all of the whale watching companies employ university educated marine biologists or naturalists. These people as well as the companies know that it is in everyone's best interest to protect and preserve the whales. In my experience, I believe that the whale watching industry has actually helped greatly to preserve the whale species by educating the general public on the history, life, and importance of preservation of this beautiful creature. Afterall, without whales, they would have no business or industry! There are strict guidelines enforced by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as the Whale Watching Operators Association of the Pacific Northwest which works to minimize the impact the industry has on the whales.
I personally enjoy observing whales in their natural habitat and believe it or not, they do surprise you! You never know when a whale is going to surface underneath the boat or to breach (jump out of the water). I would much rather see a whale jumping out of the water on its own will rather than be forced or enticed by a trainer at Seaworld. Typically when whales jump out of the water in the natural environment, it is because they are checking us out or because they are playing. If there is anything that we should boycott, it should be whales kept in tiny marine aquariums being treated like goldfish. Whale watching is more than just about the whales. You also get to learn about other marine wildlife including California Sealions, harbour seals, birds, and porpoises.
Tours typically range from 2hrs and 30min to 3hrs and 30min. It does get chilly so be sure to dress warmly and possibly wet :) No whales sightings are not guaranteed. However, in the summer months of June-August when all 3 resident pods of killer whales are in the area, the rate of success is over 90%. If you don't see whales, most companies typically offer you the opportunity to go again for free on a stand-by basis until you see whales. This offer is typically valid for one year.
Alright, so, if I've said enough to sell you on the idea of whale watching, here's what to look for.....
Decide if you want to go on a zodiac, covered boat, or a scarab. Here's the difference. A zodiac is like a roller coaster ride on the water. If you enjoy a high speed thrill ride, the wind blowing in your face, water splashing and don't mind riding the waves with a few bumps, a zodiac is for you. I would not recommend it for people with back problems or pregnant women. On the opposite end, the covered boats offer a smooth, relaxing and warm experience. Many companies offer heated cabins, fully equipped with washrooms as well as indoor and outdoor seating. Finally, if you're looking for the best of both worlds - the scarab offers the speed of the zodiac but the comfort and stability of a covered boat. They are the most expensive of all three options but you can be guaranteed a first class experience!
Depending what type of boat you choose will help you narrow the search on available companies. Let's choose the most common type of boat, the zodiac. The zodiac is actually unique to the West Coast in that it was originally designed here for search and rescue operations. 99% of the companies in Victoria offer zodiac boats. What you want to look for when searching a company is time of departure, price, and if it is of importance, are there washrooms on board? Some zodiacs feature washrooms, other don't.
You can compare the selection of whale watching companies to the selection of airlines. The cheapest companies are the no-frills companies. They will provide you with whale watching and just that. The more expensive companies have a little more to offer including complimentary hot drinks, binoculars, use of toques, ear muffs, gloves, sun screen. Some even give you a complimentary marine wildlife guide or photo CD to take home. Be sure prior to booking to ensure that the company does offer a whale guarantee meaning that if you don't see whales, they will let you go again for free on a stand-by basis. Not all companies offer that. If you book the trip through your hotel, they will typically pick you up and drop you off at the hotel free of charge. Don't worry, you won't pay more by booking through a hotel. Most hotel employees have been whale watching and they can recommend their favourite companies to you.
Unique Suggestions: One other thing to consider when choosing companies is the trip time - some companies go for 2.5 to 3 hours, others go from 3.5 to 4 hours. It may seem like a miniscule difference but bear in mind that if you travel from half way around the world to see whales and you have limited time, you want to make sure you see whales! There are some days that the whales are out of the 2.5 to 3 hour range which means that the extra 30min to 1 hour on the water will make the difference. There are only a couple of companies in Victoria that offer the longer tours and quite often they are the only companies that see whales on a given day. Those 2 companies are what I refer to as the premiere companies. They are the most expensive but offer the most bells and whistles. You are also given the greatest possible chance to see whales. I mean, what's another $10-15 if it means potentially going home and not seeing anything! The expensive companies typically own faster boats as well so they are able to travel farther distances than other zodiacs with slower engines. Also, the expensive companies do not jam their schedules full of departures which means that if the whales are out of the alloted time range, often the expensive company will take you as far as you need to go (within reason) in order to see whales because they don't need to worry about being back at home base for another scheduled departure. I've heard of some trips being as long as 6 hours.
Fun Alternatives: There is NO alternative! It is an experience unique to the Pacific Northwest and it is the time of a lifetime! Yes, there are some bad days but doesn't that happen everywhere?! If you don't want to spend the money on whale watching, ride the ferry between Victoria and Bellingham or the Anacortes-Sidney ferry or the Swartz Bay-Tsawassen ferry and maybe you'll get lucky!
Alternatively, go to French Beach in Sooke and you might be able to spot some whales from land. They like to hang around Sooke basin in the summer. You can often spot them from land on San Juan Island.
Why does everyone dress in those bright orange space station suits to go whale watching, i have spent hours sitting downtown near the boats take off points and you never hear anyone say OMG did you see that whale i want to go again... 'nuff said
Unique Suggestions: use the onboard bathroom :P
or fall overboard hehe
Fun Alternatives: take the ferry to some of the other islands such as pender or saltspring for the day you have a good chance of seeing whales on your way too and it would actually almost work out to cheaper!
Whale Watching tours...They charge you an arm and a leg and theres no guarantee you will see any whales. Besides, only the tourists do it (its sort of a faux pas with native northwesterners) and its very detrimental to the whales.