Whales in the water and grizzlies on the bank; it's a joyous journey up the east coast of Vancouver Island.
The tour is only 10 minutes old when we spot the sleeping whales.
The motor's cut and we drift in silence. The black shapes off our starboard side are as still as the mountains of British Columbia behind them.
Then, water blasts up from a blowhole — Woosh! — and shimmering mist hangs in the air. Another tour boat approaches to get a look and our radio crackles. "Yep, we've got two sleepers here, puffing away."
• Premium - Winter in Canada: To travel by snowmobile, snowshoe or husky
• Premium - Travel's best of 2019: USA and Canada memories from our experts
• Canada: The best things to see and do on a holiday in Vancouver
We've set off from Campbell River, a town about halfway up the eastern side of Vancouver Island, which is almost the size of Taiwan and sits between the mainland and Pacific Ocean.
The strait of water to the south becomes a warren of sounds and islands from the town northwards, and it's these channels and inlets that are richest with wildlife, and where we are headed.
Captain James Cook landed on the other coast of Vancouver Island, and with the Europeans came whaling stations that hunted humpbacks to the edge of local extinction.
Tours usually spotted only orca, but about eight years ago the whales started reappearing (86 were counted last season). That's brought occasional danger: last year a fishing boat smashed into one, breaking the skipper's back and leaving him paralysed.
We're in good hands; our guide, Cheyenne, knows the area more than most and is a member of the Homalco First Nation, who have lived here for thousands of years.
The tour is part wildlife, part cultural, and takes us into the heart of the Homalco's traditional territory, which also happens to be the best place to spot grizzly bears.
From August to October, it's almost guaranteed to see the bears. We are a couple of months ahead of that period, but there's still a good chance of spotting one that comes to the water's edge to feed on sedge grasses.
Not long after the humpback encounter another excited cry goes up — a black bear and her juvenile cub have been spotted. They pick their way along rocks, on the hunt for mussels, before heading back under tree cover. Atop a cedar, further along, sits a majestic bald eagle.
We eventually near a clearing around a dilapidated-looking building. This is "Church House", where Cheyenne's parents and grandparents were born in a settlement that lasted from the 1900s to the early 1980s. Nobody lives here now; a lack of work and running water driving out the last residents.
As we float offshore Cheyenne sings the beautiful, haunting "Women's Warrior Song", composed for missing and murdered indigenous women and often performed at demonstrations. The song is a powerful moment, even when sung before a boatload of tourists filming on iPhones.
Cheyenne was 2 years old when her people were finally given some land in Campbell River for a reservation. The tours provide tourist dollars and create jobs, but also an opportunity to strengthen the Homalco story.
Putting on a show
As we move up the inlets that resemble Queen Charlotte Sound the scenery becomes more dramatic; snow-capped mountains appear in the distance, and the water changes colour to a brilliant green (the effect of glacial waters flowing into the inlet).
There are no other boats around, and only the occasional property visible through cedar and fir trees. It's an exclusive if isolated neighbourhood; one estate is pointed out as previously belonging to Michelle Pfeiffer, who flicked it on for a cool $18 million.
More humpbacks are seen, and these four are very much awake and putting on a show — blowing out jets of water, tails up in the air. Not long after that, a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins take the chance to play in our wake. A couple have babies that stick right by their side like little motorcycle cars; mimicking mum exactly.
It's a joyous escort as we journey up Bute Inlet, which cuts deep into the mainland. We stop at an estuary filled with bright green grasses — the sort grizzlies like to munch on. These are ancestral Homalco lands, and an area accessible only to their tours. A bear-spotting platform sits further upstream, and a large sign warns: "Caution! Bear in Area."
Our group crowds on to a smaller zodiac craft that can be manoeuvred upstream, where grizzlies have been sighted in recent days. The grasses have been eaten down, and there are tracks in the mud ... but we don't spot any today.
The zodiac circles further around, where rock face pokes through the trees. It takes me a while to spot, but then I see them: rock paintings, made with tree bark and fish eggs by people at least 1000 years ago. One represents a two-headed sea serpent, another a medicine man.
Before we get back on the big boat we're driven up a gravel road and — careful to stay in one group and harassed by the biggest mosquitoes I've ever seen — walk down to the viewing platform.
Cheyenne points out markings on a towering douglas fir tree, formed by a grizzly rubbing its scent. Further down the path, she stops to examine a pile of bear scat (poo). An older gentleman on the tour, replete in dark green hunting gear, steps forward to give his verdict: about five days old. It's not clear how he's expert in open-air faeces decomposition, and nobody asks for more information.
Beside the viewing platform, which sits on the edge of the river mouth, is a 600-year-old spruce tree, moss covering each branch. Purple foxgloves spread through the undergrowth.
The wildlife riches continue
On our way back, more dolphins, whales and seals ("Really?" our captain says, as he's asked to get closer to the latter so photos can be taken).
In a few cedar trees there are — count them — eight bald eagles. Up to 300 gather here each flood tide when the rush of water is so great that Hake fish can't equalise and their bladders burst — providing a buffet for the birds.
Our group is dropped off at a jetty leading to Taku Resort and Marina, on the eastern side of Quadra Island, which sits between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Set amid towering trees, the resort has cabins and immaculate A-frames that run down to the water's edge, and look out to a spit of land that can be reached by kayak or paddleboard.
Quadra has world-renowned diving and fishing, and a bit of a bohemian reputation — a pub within walking distance is known for its character-filled customer base. Taku has a family-friendly, peaceful feel, not unlike New Zealand's holiday parks. There are camping spots further up the hill, but the accommodation nearer to the water is extremely comfortable.
That night we're hosted by owner Elizabeth Wong, whose parents were among four families who bought the property in 1983. Now in full ownership, the centrepiece of the property is a breathtaking family home, built in minimalist and West Coast mid-century modern design, and which bends and wraps around surrounding trees. It's a dream home, the kind featured in magazines, and has our group gazing about and muttering to nobody in particular, "I could live here."
After a dinner of fresh salmon and plenty of red wine, we wander to the end of the jetty, where the few boats moored for the night have their cabin lights on, the murmur of television news coming from one.
The area isn't always so serene. Elizabeth tells us that orcas recently herded a pod of dolphins into the neighbouring cove, where they kept them trapped. The slow slaughter could be heard from Taku.
Tonight, the bookend to a day of wildlife is less brutal — a couple of seals lying near the jetty, their only concern an occasional body shuffle to get into a more comfortable position.
Air Canada flies a seasonal direct service from Auckland to Vancouver, between December and March. aircanada.com