Spotting Guide: Photographing Seaplanes at Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base

When it comes to seaplanes, Alaska, the Maldives, or the Seychelles might be some of the places that you think about first.

And, while it’s true that Lake Hood in Alaska is the world’s busiest seaplane base and that seaplanes are important for the tourism industry in the two archipelagos in the Indian Ocean, when it comes to scheduled seaplane flights, there is no place like the Vancouver area.

Being covered by mountains yet having plenty of bays, rivers, and lakes makes seaplanes the perfect way to get around.

Spotting Guide: Photographing Seaplanes at Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base
Seair Seaplanes Cessna 208 Caravan taxiing in Nanaimo.

This article looks at what seaplane operators and aircraft you can see in and around Vancouver, as well as what photographing at Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base is like.

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Seaplane Operators in the Vancouver Area

Currently, there are two major seaplane airlines that you can see at Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base and other seaplane bases in the area: Harbour Air and Seair Seaplanes. Separately, it is also possible to see US-based Kenmore Air operating flights into the area.

Harbour Air

Harbour Air was founded in 1982 as a seaplane company servicing the forest industry and expanded from there to become one of the largest, if not the largest, seaplane-only airline in the world.

Harbour Air Seaplanes at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base
Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base’s traffic is dominated by Harbour Air.

The airline is based at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base, although it operates some flights out of Vancouver International Airport’s seaplane base as well. Some of Harbour Air’s main destinations include Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, as well as Whistler and Sechelt. Besides the scheduled flights, Harbour Air also operates charter and sightseeing flights.

The predominant type in Harbour Air’s fleet is the de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter of which it operates more than 20. Other aircraft types include the DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-2-T Turbo Beaver, DHC-6 Twin Otter, and Cessna 208 Caravan.

Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter.
Whistler Air de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Twin Otter
Whistler Air de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Twin Otter.

Besides the standard Harbour Air livery, some of its aircraft can be seen with titles of the two airlines Harbour Air acquired in the 2010s – Whistler Air and Saltspring Air. And, the airline also has a number of aircraft painted in special liveries such as the one promoting Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the local professional soccer team.

Harbour Air deHavilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter
Harbour Air deHavilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter in Vancouver Whitecaps FC livery waiting for its next flight out of Victoria Harbour seaplane base.

Seaair Seaplanes

The second seaplane airline that you can see in the Vancouver area is Seair Seaplanes. The airline traces its history back to 1980 when its founder started operating charter flights with a single Cessna 185.

Seair Seaplanes Cessna 185
Seaair Seaplanes Cessna 185 about to taxi out of the water at Richmond seaplane base.

While the company hasn’t grown to the same size as Harbour Air, it still has a significant presence at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base, as well as at its main base – Richmond Seaplane Base – adjacent to Vancouver International Airport.

Seair Seaplanes operates about a dozen aircraft, most of which are Cessna 208 Caravans. Other than that, the airline also operates the following types: DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-2-T Turbo Beaver, and Cessna 185.

Seaair Seaplanes Cessna 208 Caravan
Cessna 208 Caravan forms the backbone of Seaair Seaplanes’ fleet.

Kenmore Air

The last airline I am going to mention here is Kenmore Air. Unlike the previous two on this list, it is an airline based at Kenmore Air Harbor Seaplane Base near Seattle’s central business district.

Kenmore Air operates a fleet consisting of a variety of de Havilland Canada aircraft with floats, as well as Cessna 208s with wheels. However, for its flights between Seattle and destinations in British Columbia including Vancouver, it uses its DHC-3-T Turbo Otters.

Kenmore Air de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter
Kenmore Air de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter waiting for its flight back to the United States at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base.

Spotting at Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base

As far as photographing seaplanes of the above three companies is concerned, Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base is likely your best bet. I also took some photos (which you can see above) in both Nanaimo and Victoria, but I only spent prolonged period of time at the Vancouver seaplane base.

There is a promenade along the bay where you can easily take photos of the seaplanes coming in and out of the piers. While in winter months you will have the sun behind your back the whole day, in summer, the light should be in the right position from about 10AM or so.

Depending on where you stand (you might have to run around a bit) you can get both side-on shots of the aircraft as well as head-on views when they taxi to their parking spot.

Seaair Seaplanes Cessna 208 Caravan at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base
Seaair Seaplanes Cessna 208 Caravan taxiing after arrival.
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Twin Otter
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Twin Otter.
Harbour Air Cessna 208 Caravan
Harbour Air Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.

However, rather than just focusing on shots of individual aircraft, I also recommend taking photos of aircraft lined up at the piers. Sometimes that might even result in getting interesting photos with cruise ships departing from the nearby Canada Place ferry terminal in the background.

Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otters
A row of Harbour Air DHC-3-T Turbo Otters with a cruise ship leaving the harbor providing for a nice background.

Take-offs and landings happen a bit too far off the coast, and so you will likely have a hard time getting “full frame” photos of those aircraft even with a 400 mm lens or similar. That said, you certainly should not ignore those aircraft as “zooming out” and including the surrounding scenery in those photos resulted in some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter arriving at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base from Victoria.
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otters
Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-3-T Turbo Otter shortly after take off.
Seaplanes Take Off
Seeing two seaplanes take off one after another is quite the sight!

Finally, while there are aircraft movements every couple of minutes during the day, that changes once the sun starts setting since the seaplanes can only operate in daylight. I recommend hanging around until the sunset, though, as that can result in pictures of the fully occupied piers in great light (if you are lucky with the weather).

Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base During Sunset
The seaplane base becomes very quiet once the sun starts to set since the aircraft can only fly during daylight.

Summary

While I didn’t get to do any plane spotting at Vancouver International airport, I was certainly glad to have been able to spend a couple of hours photographing aircraft at Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Base during my May 2018 trip to Canada.

If you are planning to go to Vancouver and happen to have a couple of hours to spare, I can only recommend going to the promenade and some time watching and photographing the seaplanes.

Or, maybe even taking a flight!

During my stay, I had a chance to fly from Richmond to Nanaimo on a Seaair Seaplanes Cessna 208 Caravan and back from Victoria to Vancouver Harbour on a Harbour Air de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, but more about those experiences in the following instalments.

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No, I am not going to tell you how to fly in first class and sip Dom Perignon for free…

But, I am going to introduce you to a couple of ways you can experiment with to try a business class flight without having to spend thousands of dollars.

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