Our History

1985 to 2021: Timeline of Five Star Whale Watching, Victoria, B.C.

Introduction:  Five Star Charters/Whale Watching is Victoria, B.C. that started in 1985 which still operates under the same name. Here is a summary of how they began at a time when most people were not proclaiming, “We Like Our Whales Wild!”.

Five Star’s original owners, Kathy and Eric Johnson, endured and succeeded because of their hard work and sheer determination; their adherence to the “Golden Rule” in treating their clients and staff as they would like to be treated; their ability to recognize talent in young, idealistic and enthusiastic women and men;  a willingness to empower staff to be early adopters of technology; their support for Marine Wildlife and Environmental research and education;  and, yes, some “luck” in that their vision of a company that could entertain and educate at the same time has been well received and become the standard for responsible wildlife viewing.

From modest beginnings and through turbulent times, Kathy and Ericstayed the course. In fact, it was a time only 10 years removed from one of the darkest times for the Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pods of “fish-eating” Orcas), that being live-captures of at least 36 of the estimated 100 to 110 Resident Killer Whales living in these waters.

But a generation of women and men raised on John C. Lilly’s “Man and Dolphin” (1961), Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”(1962), the recordings of Humpback Whale songs in National Geographic by Roger Payne in 1970, the Environmental Movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s and Eric Hoyt’s “The Whale Watcher’s Handbook” (1984) and “Orca: The Whale Called “Killer””(1985) was about to change all that:


TV: Golden Girls; MacGyver; 1st season of Oprah Winfrey Show

Music: First Inductees in Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Michael Jackson

Film: Top Gun; Back to The Future

Politics: French sink Greenpeace “Rainbow Warrior”; President Ronald Reagan; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Daily Life: Chernobyl Nuclear Meltdown; Average House $89,000

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: As Pacific Marine Park Charters operating zodiac and cabin cruiser sightseeing and wildlife viewing tours of Sidney Spit, the Southern Gulf Islands, Saanich Inlet, and boat tours to Butchart Gardens. 

Kathy and Eric ran Fishing Charters out of Sooke, trips to Saanich Inlet and Goldstream Park. Clients included Bob Hope and William Shatner. They started whale watching tours and were teased for doing what many people thought was impossible: Finding Killer Whales in the Wild. Orcinus Orca were at that time in captivity at Sealand of the Pacific at the Oak Bay Marina. Owners Eric and Kathy Johnson operated out of a tiny doorway office at the Empress Hotel. To make ends meet they operated a limousine and a coat check service. 

In 1987 the Marine Mammal Research Group (MMRG) was founded by Robin Baird, Tamarra Guenther and Ron Bates. Eric and Kathy made their boat available to MMRG for students taking part in their Marine Naturalist Training Course. Thus began a friendship that exists even today, 30 years later: MMRG helped train Five Star’s captains and crew, and Five Star helped MMRG do sightings and on-the-water research. 

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Three (3) founding companies of whale watching in Victoria: Five Star Charters; Pride of Victoria Cruises (Oak Bay Beach Hotel); SeaCoast Expeditions.

Changes in Wildlife: J, K & L pods attempting to recover from the live captures of 1/3rd of their population in the 1970’s for marine parks and aquaria. The average person on the street is either uninterested or still clings to the sentiments behind the Latin name Orcinus Orca (“Killer from the Realm of The Dead”).  Persistent Chlorinated Pollutants, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Heavy Metal bioaccumulation in Orcas and other Marine Mammals in the Salish Sea (Puget Sound and Georgia Strait) are so high that it is a near miracle that these animals survive. Their future is in serious doubt. 


TV: The Simpsons; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Music: Milli Vanilli; Red Hot Chili Peppers; Whitney Houston; Vanilla Ice

Film: Home Alone; Pretty Woman

Politics: Nelson Mandela is released; Berlin Wall is torn down; President George Herbert W. Bush; PM Margaret Thatcher resigns

Daily Life: Tim Berners-Lee publishes formal proposal for creation of World-wide Web. The Chunnel between France and UK is completed; Nelson Mandela is released; Average house price $123,000

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star sells fishing in the morning and whale watching in the afternoon on a sports-fishing boat.

 Operating out of Empress Hotel, Kathy and Eric build 12-passenger, center-console, deep-vee boats, specifically designed for whale watching: “Blackfin” and “Taku” provide space to move around, washrooms and a smooth ride, features not offered in zodiacs of the day. Executives and Chefs of the Empress Hotel and retail shop owners become regular customers for fishing charters. 

Eric and Kathy spend long days sending out “Spotter Boat” and using “Big Eyes” military binoculars to spot whales from the top of Mt. Douglas, Mt. Tolmie and Ten Mile Point. Some passengers even choose to head out with Spotter Boat for the day.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Six (6)

Changes in Wildlife?: Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Population fluctuates dramatically because these pods are made up mostly of grandparents and grandkids (Most reproductive age animals had been live-captured or killed in capture attempts in late 1960’s and early 1970’s).


TV: CNN broadcasts O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase and trial

Music: Smashing Pumpkins; Alanis Morissette; Madonna; Garth Brooks

Film: Toy Story; Braveheart

Politics: President Bill Clinton; Bosnia-Herzegovina (Serbia & Crotia; Kosovo)

Daily Life: Window 95; DVD’s are introduced; 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C.; Average House Price $113,000

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star works toward a whale watch industry standard in vessel safety, marine naturalist training, sightings and cooperation with tourism industry partners. 

Working out of our new office at the Victoria Conference Centre on Douglas Street and also the Empress hotel, Kathy and Eric forge strong partnerships with Pacific Coach Lines (PCL), The Empress Hotel, Gray Line of Victoria, Victoria Clipper and many tour companies from Europe, the UK and USA. 

The 1993 release of the movie “Free Willy” sparks interest: Many of the live action scenes were filmed off Victoria along the San Juan Islands. J, K & L pod whales are Movie Stars!! Five Star supports MMRG in the creation of a “Certified Marine Naturalist Training Course” to raise the level of knowledge throughout the responsible marine wildlife viewing community.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Twelve (12)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: 1992 Whale Watch Operators Association, NW (WWOANW) creates Viewing Guidelines. 

Whale Watchers work with Transport Canada to set safety standards for whale watching vessels. 

MMRG sights Northern Elephant Seals at Race Rocks. Humpback Whales start returning to the area as the population of Pilchard (oily sea sardines) recovers. Southern Resident Killer Whales start a population boom, but calf mortality is high as El Nino Winters have drastically reduced Chinook (“King”) Salmon returns. We learn from the Center for Whale Research that over 80% of the SRKW’s diet is Chinook.


TV: Survivor; American Idol

Music: N Sync; REM; Coldplay; Oasis; Napster music-sharing

Film: Gladiator; The Perfect Storm; Erin Brockovich

Politics: President George W. Bush wins disputed election over Al Gore

Daily Life: Mad Cow Disease; Amazon; Tiger Woods, youngest winner of the 4 Major titles; Hybrid Prius introduced; Apple starts selling the iPod. Average house price: $134,000

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: WWOANW becomes Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA); Five Star plays active role in the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans’ codification of the PWWA Viewing Guidelines into regulations and legislation. 

Five Star, in 1999, introduces “Supercat”, a high-speed aluminum catamaran designed to minimize its sound signature (to better allow Orcas to hunt and communicate) and to increase viewing and photography opportunities for passengers while respectfully observing whales. 

Five Star adds tour groups from Australia, Korea, Japan and China

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Seventeen (17)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: Five Star and WWOANW work with Lester B. Pearson International College of the Pacific, industry partners (dive companies, sports fishers, kayakers, commercial fishers, shipping companies, etc.), First Nations, and Provincial and Federal Governments to propose a Marine Protected Area (MPA) at Race Rocks. 

Sightings of Humpback Whales and Transient (Marine-mammal-eating) Killer Whales start to increase, as food for these animals increases in our local waters. 

Gray Whales start feeding in the shallow, sanding flats near Cordova Bay. Up to three whales feed in and around this area for almost a year… and then leave the area with as little warning as they gave when they first showed up.


TV: American idol, How I met your Mother, The Office

Music: Green Day; Britney Spears; Avril Lavigne

Film: Meet The Fockers; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Politics: President George W. Bush’s second term

Daily Life: Google release Gmail.  European Union expands dramatically. Facebook, Youtube, Xbox, Blu Ray and, in 2007, the iPhone. Average house price skyrockets to $274,500.

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star is recognized “Victoria’s Catamaran Whale Watching Company”. Five Star moves its office to Humboldt Street in the Empress Hotel. 

Rigorous internal staff and crew training programs result in exceptional Marine Naturalist Presentations; Industry-leading Passenger Safety; and Environmental Awareness and Outreach; Five Star creates free blogs, Facebook and Flickr pages and adopts the videographer model (a Marine Naturalist dedicated to documenting sightings) as a way to create video and photo banks to share the excitement, experience and knowledge we have gained. 

Five Star builds upon its relationships with high schools, colleges and universities to open this experience to new generations and to stimulate interest in environmental issues, Nature and wildlife. We share sightings information through the WWOANW and MMRG with DFO, NMFS, NOAA and other agencies all with the aim of helping SRKW’s recover.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Twelve (12)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: Dramatic changes in our awareness and knowledge of the challenges facing Marine Mammals in our waters, and Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pods) in particular. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans recognizes them as “Endangered”, and studies by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lead them to the same conclusion. We start almost daily communication with these agencies and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). We work with other environmental NGO’s and both the Canadian and US Governments to refine the legislation and regulations. We develop ways to guide recreational and commercial vessels on how to operate around Orcas in a way that allows Orcas to reproduce, rear calves and feed in as ideal conditions as possible.


TV: Lost; Grey’s Anatomy; Glee; NCIS; The Walking Dead; Breaking Bad

Music: Justin Beiber; Eminem; Lady Gaga

Film: Avatar; Twilight

Politics: President Barack Obama

Daily Life: 2008 Financial Crisis; Winter Olympics in Vancouver; “Obamacare” (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; BP Horizon Gulf Oil Spill; Uber; iPhone 4;  Average House Price: $230,000

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star recognized for many years of empowering a diverse staff and Marine Naturalists who have gone on to careers as Marine Mammal Observers, Doctors, Veterinarians, Coast Guard, B.C. Ferries, Captains and Crew of Commercial Ferries and Charter Boats in S.E. Asia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific, Department of Fisheries, Commercial Fisheries.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Ten (10)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: Humpback Whales become a major part of our daily life! This adds great excitement to the last few months of each season as we often see more than one species of Cetacean in August, September and October. 

The populations of Seals, Sea Lions and Elephant Seals continue to increase, thus attracting more Transient (“Marine-mammal-eating”) Killer Whales to the area. We now see the emergence of large “hunting parties’ of many Transient Killer Whales joining forces for collective kills.


TV: Narcos; Empire; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Netflix now has more power than traditional TV networks

Music: Adele; The Weeknd

Film: The Martian; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Minions

Politics: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton lead Presidential Candidates; Justin Trudeau Elected as Prime Minister

Daily Life: Twitter faces challenges; Driverless cars become a reality

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star updates the “Supercat” to provide even better viewing and comfort for passengers.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Six (6)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: Stocks of Chinook Salmon show some recovery. Nine new calves are born, the most in any year on record. The Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pod) are still at risk due to damaged Chinook (King) Salmon stocks, but the removal of dams (Such as those on the Elwha River) and efforts to restore fish habitat is having a positive impact.


TV: Big Bang Theory, 13 Reasons Why, Ozark, The Handmaid’s Tale

Music: Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift

Film: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman

Politics: Donald Trump becomes President; Women’s March, Jagmeet Singh became leader of the NDP, Me Too Movement

Daily Life: Canada ranked #1 Country in the world for quality of life, Total Solar Eclipse

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star changes ownership! After Eric & Kathy decide to retire, their long time Manager & Marine Naturalist, Andrew Lees, becomes the new owner of Five Star Whale Watching. Andrew vows to keep on the legacy of Five Star being a Pioneer and industry leader in Responsible & Respectful Marine WIldlife Viewing. The plan is to expand the fleet within the next few years starting with a 12 passenger vessel in 2018. Ron Bates retires from being on the Ocean due to health reasons but remains involved in research efforts.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Six (6)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: The Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pod) are still at risk due to damaged Chinook (King) Salmon stocks, but continued efforts to restore fish habitat will hopefully have a positive impact. Bigg’s Killer Whales (Transient Orcas) and Humpback Whales continue to thrive in the Salish Sea with increased sightings.


TV: Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian, Stranger Things

Music: Billie Eilish, Halsey, Post Malone

Film: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4

Politics: President Donald Trump Impeached; The Mueller report, Brexit, Canadian federal election with the Liberal Party forming a minority government.

Daily Life:  Fire consumes 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral,Scientists release first-ever image of black hole, Longtime hockey analyst Don Cherry is fired from Hockey Night in Canada

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star becomes Victoria’s (and 1st Canadian member of the PWWA) first World Cetacean Alliance Certified Responsible Whale Watching Operator, a proud moment for the company. After adding a 12 passenger vessel (Salish Shadow, the first of its kind) in 2018, Five Star further boosts its fleet with the return of Kuluta (originally Fastcat) when Stubbs Island Whale Watching ceases operations.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Six (6)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: More challenges for the Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pod) with efforts to restore fish habitat not yet having a positive impact. In stark contrast the Bigg’s Killer Whales (Transient Orcas) and Humpback Whales continue to thrive in the Salish Sea due to an abundance of their favourite prey.


TV: Hacks, Maid, Yellowstone

Music: Adele, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X

Film: Spider Man – No Way Home, West Side Story, Black Widow

Politics: Joe Biden becomes President of the US, Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Canadian federal election with the Liberal Party forming a minority government (again)

Daily Life: COVID-19 Vaccine rollout, Major weather events around the world – climate change, Residential Schools and unmarked graves

Development of Five Star Whale Watching: Five Star becomes Victoria’s first Whale Watching operator to sign a commitment to become Carbon Negative! Five Star continues to face the challenges of COVID. Receives TripAdvisors Travelers Choice Award for the 2nd year in a row. Completes an interior refurbishment of Supercat. Sadly in December 2021 we said goodbye to our dear friend Ron Bates, R.I.P. Ron.

Number of Whale Watching Companies in Victoria, B.C.: Six (6)

Changes in Marine Wildlife?: A record low number of sightings in the Salish Sea of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (J, K & L pod). 2021 proved to be a record year for sightings in the Salish Sea of Bigg’s Killer Whales (Transient Orcas) and Humpback Whales. In particular a new record of 21 Mom & Calf Humpback Whale pairings were spotted in the Salish Sea in 2021, up dramatically from the 11 seen in 2020.

Often imitated but never duplicated or equalled