Comox Marina: A New Hub for Marine Tourism

The annual herring spawn occurs between March and April, when millions of herring spawn at the same time. The milt dyes the water a milky torquise, seen here in Baynes Sound. Photos by Jeff Bartlett.

New marina facility attracts private investment and business growth in Comox

It’s a big vessel with a heated covered cabin, but all 12 passengers have spent as much time as possible outside on the rear deck. The water is teeming with marine life because it’s the beginning of the annual herring spawn, that draws thousands of eagles, sea lions, and the Biggs Orcas to the Comox Valley, between Kitty Coleman Provincial Park and Deep Bay.  

During this 4-hour Herring Spawn Tour, with Big Animal Encounters, the action is just off Kye Bay. During the cruise from the Comox Marina, we learned that the herring are typically off the west and north coast of Vancouver Island; however, they migrate and gather along the eastern coastline. When conditions align, millions spawn at the same time. This mass release of milt paints the intertidal area into an amazing milky turquoise colour. 

Today, it’s concentrated just off the Comox shoreline, between Kye Bay and Airforce Beach. It feels like every sea mammal is here. The captain cut the motors for twenty minutes because the Biggs Orcas appeared out of nowhere and they’re too close to the boat to safely navigate away.  

When the tours disembark at the Comox Marina, passengers are within a short walk of Comox Avenue and its restaurants, coffee shops, and shopping. While there has never been a dedicated whale-watching operation in Comox, it suddenly feels like a natural fit.  

Returning to Comox 

Orca are commonly viewed across the Comox Valley, especially during the herring run and early summer. Photo courtesy of Big Animal Encounters.

For Bill Coltart, owner of Big Animal Encounters, the new Comox Marina buildings represented an opportunity to come full circle. He initially launched his business in Comox in the 1990s, when he focused on scuba diving with trips around Hornby Island. Whale watching was still underdeveloped on Vancouver Island. Tour Companies had only recently established operations in Telegraph Cove, near Port McNeill on the North Island, and in Victoria. But as the humpback whale populations returned to the Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Strait, the City of Campbell River became a hub for the growing industry. 

“At that time, Campbell River was motivated to develop marine tourism,” says Coltart. “Throughout Covid, Comox has really stepped up. The town council and staff have actively supported small businesses and tourism operators. They engaged the community, built the infrastructure, and welcomed new operators into the marina.” 

Coltart has more than 30 years experience exploring the region and he knows there is an abundance of opportunity. After the herring spawn, which occurs sometime between early March and late April, the area still has plenty to offer. In the summer months, deep water off the northern tip of Texada Island draws humpbacks into the area, too, with a sea lion colony further north.  

“We view this move as an opportunity to grow our operations,” says Coltart. “and I wouldn’t discourage competition at all. With multiple operators, you get a buzz happening. People talking about marine tourism in Comox is a win for everyone.” 

Reimagining the Comox Marina 

Through an ongoing economic development planning initiative, the Town of Comox continues to look for ways to enhance its marina.

Past infrastructure projects and initiatives led by the Town of Comox have slowly drawn people closer and closer to the waterfront. A major catalyst was developing the kids’ splash park and welcoming food trucks into Marina Park. As the park became more popular, it demonstrated the need for increased retail space and commercial services. 

Throughout 2023, the Town of Comox redeveloped the area, adding three year-round commercial or retail storefronts, a community visitors centre, and public washrooms. 

“For the first time in Comox’s history, we are making an economic development plan,” said Jordan Wall, CAO, Town of Comox. “Unsurprisingly, we are hearing calls for further development of our marine services sector. We will focus on driving customers to businesses, and we want to continue to redesign the marina to support our marine tourism businesses.”

The economic development plan project, initiated early in 2024, will ultimately guide future development plans. By providing both short, 2-3 year, strategies, and longer-term opportunities, the town expects to attract investment and commercial growth across the community. The plan focuses on key sectors, including air and marine transportation, food and beverage, technology and innovation, and tourism. The town will also look for opportunities to increase land development surrounding the Comox Valley Airport, where a hotelier is already conducting a feasibility study. 

Success Through Sustainable Growth 

With a new storefront in the Comox Marina, Compass Adventures owners Andrew and Stuart Robinson have grown their business substantially.

“The next step is completing the economic development plan,” says Wall, “but the marina buildings are already an immediate success. We already have a major tourism operator and our previous tenant, Compass Adventure, has expanded. We are now looking to open more moorage for transient visitors and for commercial enterprises.” 

Compass Adventure has been a family-owned, Comox-based business for more than 30 years, but the new location has facilitated unprecedented growth in their operations. 

“Last year, we employed 20 staff members,” said Andrew Robinson, co-owner and coach, Compass Adventure. “Before that, our largest summer was 12 employees. We have 4 full-time , year-round staff now, too, and we hope to hire another next year. We’ve never had more than two.” 

When the new Comox Marina Buildings opened, Robinson and his brother Stuart Robinson, brought their two businesses under a single roof. They relocated their retail store, which used to be on Comox Avenue, into one half of the building. The other half transformed into a classroom. Both proved to accelerate substantial expansions. Because they suddenly had a retail space that was open 7-days a week throughout the summer, they grew their rental fleet by 40%. They also introduced year-round after-school education programs to bolster their always popular after-school sailing academy and seasonal camps. 

“We did some shoulder seasons work for some school programs before,” says Robinson, “but now we can accommodate two separate programs throughout the entire school year. It’s just the beginning, as we’re still learning what more we can offer.” 

Increased Tourism Across the Comox Valley 

Although Compass Adventure has always enjoyed a strong foothold in the local community, tourism is still a big part of their future. 

“I was so excited when Bill Coltart opened Big Animal Encounters,” said Robinson. “When you have a high activity location on the water, on Vancouver island, there is always whale watching. For our company, their presence will allow us to offer way more tourism products.” 

For Coltart and his staff at Big Animal Encounters, expanding to Comox doesn’t come without risk. They’ve spent 30 years working to establish Campbell River as a leading whale-watching destination for tourists from around the world. But the location offers opportunities to expand their operations and build new partnerships. 

They’ve recently established roundtrip, water taxi to Hornby Island. By partnering with Hornby Island Bus, a by-donation community shuttle, the service provides both tourists an opportunity to visit Hornby Island and residents to travel to Comox for essential medical appointments or shopping. 

Coltart is still motivated by the growth he sees across his home community. He’s already lobbying for more change in the Marina, as he’d like to see it become a public space that’s just as busy as Marina Park itself. He envisions kids fishing off the dock, people cleaning their daily catch, and his passengers walking by in their orange survival suits. 

“As long as people are talking about marine tourism in Comox,” says Coltart, “it’s a win for everyone. It’ll keep visitors and residents – in the valley longer.” 


Island Coastal Economic Trust invested $300,000 with the Town of Comox through the Capital and Innovation Program, towards the Marina Services Building project that had a total project budget of $2,000,000. Previously, the Trust also invested $30,000 into the Comox Economic Development Plan project through theInvestment Readiness Program, towards the total investment of $160,000, and  $320,045 into the Comox Marina Park Revitalization project through the Captial and Innovation Program, contributing to an overall investment of $1,280,180.