Similar to New York City, where taxi travel can be its own form of entertainment, Victoria’s harbour ferries provide a window into the theatre that is Victoria’s harbour.
Offering about 16 designated pick-up spots and stops for shopping, eating, touring and sleeping, Victoria Harbour Ferry offers tours, charters and a hop-on, hop-off taxi service from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the summer. The delight for many passengers is the discovery that the journey might be the best part of the trip.
Former naval chief Arnie Yates, 68, has been piloting harbour ferries for 17 years. His “best friend” and wife, Jean, greets passengers on the dock. Mariners and characters of all backgrounds ferry the boats, including former Oak Bay mayor Chris Causton.
These wind-tanned sailing enthusiasts are among about 40 Transport Canada-certified skippers who act as taxi drivers and tour guides, sharing the hidden gems and stories of Victoria’s people, places, sea life and seabirds.
With each boat holding 12 passengers, captains will shuttle up to 200 people on any given summer shift for a combined total of about 3,500 people on a warm summer day.
On a tour of the Inner Harbour and so-called middle harbour — taking in Songhees, the West Bay Marine Village and Fisherman’s Wharf — on this day, there is a full boat.
There are people from New Zealand who want a lift back to the Fairmont Empress hotel dock, a family from Scotland on a tour, and Marie Heath from White Rock, with her four-year-old granddaughter Loa, from Victoria, on a day of tourist adventures.
While Loa sticks her head out the open door of the pickle boat to breathe in the cool breeze or touch the sea spray, Mhairi Tait, 12, of Glasgow exhibits more subtle pre-teen enjoyment, noting the tour is “cool.”
The tour of Fisherman’s Wharf float homes and eateries piques the interest of her parents, Robin and Ailsa, who plan to return on foot.
“You can travel all over the world and find people who have seen the Victoria harbour ferry ballet, or have seen our little green and yellow boats,” Yates said.
The 15-minute ballet Yates refers to is a performance staged by the skippers and their boats every Sunday at 10:45 a.m., and not the daily dance the boats do to weave around constant boat and float plane traffic.
There are 14 Victoria Harbour ferries — built between the late 1980s and 2010 — serving all points of interest around the harbour with a maximum wait of 15 minutes at any given stop, Yates said.
Although all part of the same company, four of the taxis are yellow and black and are called H2O taxis while the rest are an iconic yellow and green and are called Victoria Harbour ferries. The yellow-and-green boats are supposed to be reserved more for charters and tours, but in reality offer hop-off-and-on services as well.
Hop-on and hop-off locations cost as little as $5 per person for most destinations from the Fairmont Empress dock within the Inner Harbour, $10 further out and $15 for locations including Bamfield Park and Tillicum Landing at Tillicum Road. Tours are more pricey.
There are also “pickle pub crawls” and charters for special events, school and senior tours, or family events including spreading a loved one’s ashes on the ocean. But you’re out of luck if you want to board with your bike or camping gear. Backpacks are allowed on at the captain’s discretion.
Adult and children’s life jackets are not traditionally worn, but are easily accessible under the bench seats that rim the boat.