West Coast Safari

If you truly want to experience the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, you need to get out on a boat and make your way to that thin line between the shore and the vast Pacific Ocean stretching westward towards Japan. It gives you a whole new perspective on the power of the ocean and the wildness of the coast. Unless you know a local with a fishing boat, or are prepared to don a wetsuit and get slammed around in the surf, this usually means searching out a tour company in either Ucluelet or Tofino.

On Sunday, I joined a group taking a West Coast Aquatic Safaris whale watching tour out of Tofino. Our prime objective was searching out migrating gray whales making their way northward along the coast from Baja to Alaska. Other wildlife sightings were expected as well: a visit to a sea lion haul out, nesting bald eagles, sea birds, and possibly sea otters.

The 12 person Wasco (Sea Wolf) was our vessel for this whale watching tour.

Our boat, Wasco was sturdy¬† and surprisingly comfortable – nothing like the 16′ Zodiacs that I operated when guiding up in Haida Gwaii. You’ve got the option of taking one of the six seats on the upper deck of the boat or relaxing in the comfortable heated cabin on the tour. No need for full floater suits on this boat, although warm jackets are provided if you need them and life jackets and other safety gear are easily accessible. The Wasco even has a fully outfitted head, or toilet, if you really need to go.

Shortly after leaving the dock in Tofino, we made our first stop at a bald eagle’s nest located on a small island in the harbour. In the Comox Valley eagles are a dime a dozen, but it was nice to be able to see a nest relatively closely and hear about the 20 year history of this breeding pair. Jeff, the guide and boat operator, also told us a little about the village of Opitsat where he grew up on Meares Island. Nice to know that we were in the hands of a local guide.

The village of Opitsat is on Meares Island, directly across from Tofino.

From here we headed out towards the open ocean and the gray whale “highway.” Once we hit the more exposed water we encountered some large swell that the boat handled very well. It did not take long to find a solo gray whale and we watched it for a while. There was a fair amount of time between surfacing but everyone on the boat got good looks at the whale. Jeff did a great job explaining the natural history of these incredible creatures, as well as giving it the space that it needed.

The constant swell did make it difficult to use binoculars and focusing on the whale or seabirds with a telephoto lens was next to impossible. Once I realized this, I was able to sit back and relax and take in the scenery and not worry so much about capturing it all on SD card. In some ways this was a good thing, and I started to take in the incredible perspective that one gets out on the ocean. To the west, nothing but water stretching out to the horizon and the massive clouds building there. To the east, the rugged coast of Vancouver Island. Impossible to capture the true feeling of all of that open water. I took a couple of photographs of the horizon line and clouds, but reviewing them later, I feel that they really did not do justice to the immensity of the ocean.

Sea Lion Haul Out
A sea lion haul out on a group of exposed rocky islands on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Sea lions are pretty much guaranteed on any whale watching cruise. We headed past Cleland Island and the bird sanctuary there toward a small collection of rocky islands where sea lions regularly haul out. Cleland is a breeding colony for a number of species of birds including tufted puffins. Later in the season is better for these species and with the swell it was very challenging to identify anything other than birds that were close to the boat and which had obvious field marks. Fortunately sea lions are huge in both size and voice. We could definitely hear and smell them when we moved downwind of the haul out and we were able to get good looks and photos of them on the rocks despite the movement of the boat.

Catface Mountain
Catface Mountain, just north of Tofino, is the site of a controversial copper mine proposal.

Once we had our fill of the sea lions, we began the homeward circle back around Vargas Island and into more sheltered water. I think that there were a few people on the boat who didn’t do too well with the swell so there was a bit of relief at this point of the tour. Our route took us past Catface Mountain and behind Vargas Island. Sea ducks were plentiful during this part of the tour and large flocks of surf scoters were easy to identify from the moving boat. We even got quick looks at a trio of sea otters in the open water between Vargas and the haul out.

About 30 minutes later we were back at the dock in Tofino. I was a little chilled but completely recharged from close to 3 hours out on the water and the awesome land and seascape of the west coast. We were fortunate to have a sunny day for the tour and the sky and clouds were phenomenal but even on a gray day it would have been well worth the cost. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time on the water later in the season when the puffins return to Cleland and the humpback whales join the resident grays!

West Coast Aquatic Safaris provides an excellent tour of the waters around Tofino. If you are looking to experience the awesome power of the west coast, see some whales and spectacular scenery, I would highly recommend booking a tour with them!

Need to Know:

  • A number of whale watching tour companies operate out of Tofino and Ucluelet. These companies work together to make sure that visitors get a good look at wildlife in the area. Jeff radioed another company with his location when we spotted our first gray whale and they joined us shortly afterward. Check with Tourism Tofino and Tourism Ucluelet for information on what is available and what fits with what you want to do.
  • Gray whales are incredible marine mammals, but aren’t quite as acrobatic as humpback whales which show up later in the season. While you may see breaching and tail flukes, you’re more likely to just see the top back of the whale and the blow as it surfaces. Tour operators don’t approach closer than 100 meters but will often idle or cut their engines and drift when whales are sighted. This is still more than close enough to see, hear, and sometimes smell the whales.
  • Wear layers! Tour companies provide warm jackets but your best strategy is to wear several layers of warm clothing and make sure to bring a togue and gloves. It can be very cold out on the water, even on a sunny day.
  • Be prepared for challenging photography, especially if light conditions are poor and there is large swell on the open ocean. Landscapes are possible and you should be able to include people in your group to give your images some context. A higher ISO setting and faster shutter speed may be necessary to counter boat movement. A mid range telephoto might be more useful in this environment than one with longer reach. I found it impossible to do anything with the longer lens and focused my efforts on using my 18-70mm zoom. Know this in advance so you won’t get frustrated!
  • Not for serious birders – you’ll get looks at different sea birds but the main focus is on the big mammals. Birds are a bonus. If you’ve got a life list and some target species look for a birding only company like Just Birding. You’ll probably see whales with them as well!