I was on board a B.C. ferry once, on my way to Victoria for something not particularly memorable, when a group of orcas decided to escort our ship as it navigated the narrow strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

The sun was nearing the horizon and the ocean was flickering with the orange glow of the end of a sunny day when the tuxedoed whales began to breach the surface on the port side.

They put on a spectacular show, jumping and slapping the waves for so long it was hard not to believe they'd been trained by some clever tourism official and paid their weight in fish for the performance.

It wasn't the first time ferry riders have been treated to an impromptu whale watching tour, and I'm sure it won't be the last. After all, it is British Columbia.

From the temperate rainforests along the coast to the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains, from tundra in the north to arid desert in the south, the province encompasses a vast array of landscape and wildlife. Canada's western edge is home to half of its grizzly population, a quarter of the brown bear population, and almost all of the world's remaining mountain caribou, an endangered species that has disappeared from most of its original habitat in North America.

At almost 945,000 square kilometres in area, the province is larger than Washington, Oregon and California combined. France and the United Kingdom together would fit within the borders of British Columbia, which is larger than either Turkey or Tanzania.

The province has 488 species of birds, 480 species of fish, 136 species of mammals, 20 species of amphibians and 16 species of reptiles. Three-quarters of Canada's mammal species are found in British Columbia, and 24 of those species are exclusive to the province.

Indeed, the most difficult thing about a wildlife safari in British Columbia is finding enough time to do it all.

British Columbia's Big 10:

1. Grizzly Bears

The Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary, 40 kilometres north of Prince Rupert on the north coast, is Canada's only such sanctuary for these magnificent bruins. The 45,000-hectare refuge, managed jointly by the province and the Tsimshian First Nation, is also home to moose, wolves and migrating owls. Offshore, find orca and humpback whales dining in the fjords and harbour seals keeping a keen eye on visitors. But the main event in Khutzeymateen is the estimated 50 grizzly bears that make it their home.

Park access is restricted, as the purpose is the protection of grizzly habitat, but there is some limited public access as well as guided viewing available from river estuaries.


2. Kermode or Spirit Bear

There is a legend of the Kitasoo Xaixais people that Raven turned these black bears white to remind people that the land was once covered by glaciers, so they should be thankful for the bounty of today.

The best time for viewing these rare bears in the Great Bear Rainforest is September and October, when they gather along rivers to feed on spawning salmon. Spirit Bear Adventures and Kynoch Adventure Tours offer guided trips.



3. Black/Brown Bears

The Cariboo Mountains in the Interior of the province come alive with black bears and grizzlies from May to October. Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park and the larger Wells Gray Provincial Park offer camping and trails, and several outfitters offer guided tours, including Eco-Tours BC, which recently played host to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly for a segment of his show "Billy Connolly's Journey to the Edge of the World."


4. Whales

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, Tofino and Ucluelet bid adieu to winter and welcome whale watching season with the annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival, taking place this year from March 17 to 25 in honour of the arrival of 20,000 grey whales on their annual migration from the Baja Peninsula of Mexico to the Bering Sea

Humpback whales, knobby behemoths that can grow up to 16 metres long, can be seen up and down the coast on their summer migration north, but one of the most spectacular backdrops for seeing them has to be Haida Gwaii, often referred to as Canada's Galapagos. Home to Gwaii Hanaas National Park and Skung Gwaii, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this collection of islands is ideal viewing territory from late spring to early summer. Sea lions, horned puffins and Dall's porpoises also call Haida Gwaii home.

Orca or killer whales can be seen anywhere along the B.C. coast. Resident pods are commonly seen from April to November, often in Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands, while the northern residents are often seen in the Johnstone Strait area. Transient pods wander from Alaska to California in search of prey.



5. Caribou

Their name apparently comes from a Mi'kmaq word meaning one who paws at the ground. They are shy, migratory and considered a threatened species, so seeing caribou cannot be done from a car window. Tweedsmuir, Wells Grey, Spatsizi and Mount Revelstoke are among the parks these migratory animals are known to traverse, but they are definitely the most elusive animal on B.C.'s Big 10.

6. Moose

Take a trip to Moose Valley Provincial Park, 30 kilometres west of 100 Mile House in the B.C. Interior. The aptly named 2,300-hectare park draws these gangly ungulates to a chain of 12 small lakes that make for a relatively easy overnight canoe trip. Guided canoe trips are available in summer and dog sled trips in winter.


7. Eagles - Brackendale

From mid-November until mid-February this area north of Vancouver along the Sea-to-Sky Highway is home to thousands of bald eagles that come from all over North America to feed on chum salmon. The population peaks in late December to January.


8. Salmon

The Adams River in the Shuswap is one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world, with millions of spawning salmon turning the river red from bank to bank in a stunning display of nature's beauty. Viewing platforms and walking paths have been built in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, drawing thousands of visitors when the salmon run starts in October. Every fourth year the run peaks, expected next in 2014.


9. Mountain Goats

The Spatsizi Plateau, located 320 kilometres north of Smithers, is part of an area dubbed the "Serengeti of the North." It is home to a rich diversity of wildlife that includes herds of mountain goats that navigate the rocky cliffs.

Stone sheep, a relative of the Rocky Mountain bighorn, winter here and grizzly make their dens in the high alpine, while the meadows below are wintering grounds for the province's largest herd of caribou. Moose wander the wetlands, and from the shadows of the forest an abundant pack of wolves stalk their prey.


10. Bighorn Sheep

Junction Sheep Range Provincial, at the confluence of the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers in central B.C., is home to an internationally significant herd of endangered California bighorn sheep.



If You Go...

The best guide to B.C. wildlife viewing, including tips and contact information for tour guides, is available at the provincial government's tourism website: www.hellobc.com