It was a bright, cloudless day in early April and we were seated on the sun-drenched deck of the Prince of Whales Whale Watching’s stunning, 95 passenger Salish Sea Dream catamaran. Elspeth McGillivray, the daughter of this Victoria staple-company’s owner, Alan, was here to speak with us about growing up under her entrepreneurial father, and to offer her own insight into the ever-evolving operations behind this family-owned, eco-tourism business.
I ask Elspeth to take us back to the early years. It was the onset of the 1990’s and Alan had just moved his family, including three young daughters, to Victoria after finishing up a career in the energy sector. Alan and his wife had both grown up sailing and they loved being on the ocean.
“Alan and his wife had both grown up sailing and they loved being on the ocean.”
This was something for him to consider as they commenced their Island adventure that would last for the next 25 years. “Starting that news route was his first business venture and a new career on the island,” Elspeth explains of her father’s idea to courier newspapers to the surrounding islands in his first aluminum launch. “We lived in Sidney, BC and he was great with boats; it seemed like a good option while he had a couple of young kids, but it grew and took off from there.”
Describing the family’s first launch, Elspeth helps conjure up a picture in our minds. “It was a small, 12 passenger water taxi that was built by Daigle Marine in Campbell River. It was heavy duty aluminum with twin Volvo Penta engines,” she recalls.
The new company, Inter Island Launch morphed into The Prince of Whales Whale Watching when the Royals visited for the Commonwealth Games: the whimsical industrialist thought it would be a comical way to attract locals to the launch to join in for some whale watching.
“Growing up, my early memories of my dad [were when] he used to have all the calls forwarded to his cell phone.” Elspeth describes of the early stages of managing the Prince of Whales’ popularity. “So he would be taking reservations at home, or pulling over to take them if we were driving in the car,” she laughs. “He would write [names and credit card numbers] on napkins, then go home and book them in. He wrote them on anything, so we had pieces of paper all over the house!,” she remembers fondly of the eager spirit it takes to really grow something from the ground up.
Soon after the success of their launch, Elspeth remembers when the Prince of Whales purchased their first RHIB boats. “[Alan] bought the zodiacs realizing those would add more of a fun, adventurous appeal to the tourist crowd.” Her and her sisters thought they were pretty cool. These boats travel at rip-roaring speeds and so require cruiser suits. In this case, big, red, puffy ones that’ll keep a guest warm in any weather.
“I remember coming down to Dad’s office and running through the suit room; we thought it was the coolest place in the world,” Elspeth reflects. From the zodiacs, the company went on to build the twin ‘Ocean Magic’ vessels, and later, the Salish Sea Dream: a catamaran that Elspeth recalls had a lot of thought go into the design of.
“This boat itself was definitely a turning point. It’s beyond the scope of the boats we built (the Ocean Magics) 10 years ago in terms of cost and efficiency,” she extolls. Which didn’t come easily. “It’s amazing to think back to the years before we broke ground on constructing [the] Salish Sea Dream. It must have been about 3 years prior when [Alan] had blueprints at home.”
He’d gotten the naval architects to draft different styles of catamarans and single-hull boats so he could thoroughly evaluate all the options that would go into building a world class vessel,” she explains. “So he did a fair amount of research to come up with an option that would meet all his needs,” for a top-performing, purpose-built ship, she says.
Now nearly 25 herself, the youngest daughter of the McGillivrays helps run the family biz. Elspeth works close with her father: after seven summers throughout high school and university, she joined full-time and enjoys the bonding. “My dad and I are extremely close, while not intentional, I would say most of our conversations end up circling back to the business,” she laughs.
“My dad studied engineering in college then went on to get an MBA, so he has a wealth of knowledge: from accounting to boat mechanics, to long-term business development. I like to joke that I’m enrolled in the best Business 101 class there is.”
“I like to joke that I’m enrolled in the best Business 101 class there is.”
The Prince of Whales Whale Watching truly is a family business I point out. Then Elspeth laughs thinking back to family get-togethers. “Growing up, there was a lot of crossover between our family and the company: we always joke about it when we have big family reunions because every cousin of ours has worked at the Prince of Whales at some point. Every. Single. Cousin,” the good-humored daughter emphasizes. “Working for ‘Uncle Al’ was a part of growing up!”
All said and done, we’re thrilled that she stayed and even more excited to watch her role grow further!