Whale watching is one of the top things to do in Tofino, B.C. Nearly year-round, visitors can take to the seas for their chance to spot the largest mammal on earth in its natural habitat. So, where do you start? Read on to find the best time to go, what to expect, the kinds of whales on the west coast of Vancouver Island and plenty of other tips to picking a whale watching company.
Humpback whales are the most common to see during the summer out of Tofino. At 12-16 meters long, these guys are the largest whales around Vancouver Island, and they can weigh up to 36,000kgs (79,000lbs)! For something so big, humpback whales feed on some of the tiniest creatures in the sea. With baleen, rather than teeth, they filter the ocean’s water for plankton, krill and small fish, consuming up to two tonnes per day! That’s a lot of water to filter!
They’re recognizable thanks to their namesake hump, and dark gray colour and the patterns on their tales. In fact, the tail patterns are unique to every whale, and it is how researchers can identify a particular whale season after season. Besides their spectacular shows of breaching and diving, humpback whales are known for their singing, which is most common in Hawaii during mating season.
Luckily for Tofino, the west coast of Vancouver Island is part of the great gray whale migration route between the Baja and Alaska. Every February until April, nearly 20,000 gray whales pass by on their way north in what is one of the largest mammal migrations on Earth. It’s such a sight, that Ucluelet and Tofino have a festival every year to celebrate: The Pacific Rim Whale Festival.
Gray whales do most of their feeding on the bottom of the ocean by rolling on their side and sifting the sediment into their open mouths. They consume creatures like crabs, amphipods, plankton and tube worms, filtering the mud back out through their baleen. Because of this unique feeding habit, many whales go blind in the eye that’s on the side they roll onto! These whales are identified by scars that are left on their skin from warm-water parasites. They also have a series of knuckles between their dorsal humps and tales, which sets them apart from humpbacks.
Although orcas (killer whales) are not nearly as common on the coast as humpbacks and gray whales, they’re still around from time to time. Rather than whales, orcas actually belong to the dolphin family. They’re typically around 6-9 meters long and weigh up to 6 tonnes. Orcas are beautiful, and also incredibly intelligent and social. If you do see them, they’ll likely be in pods. They’re identified by their dorsal fins and the pattern on their saddle patch, which is a small, grey patch just behind its dorsal fin, unique to each whale.
An interesting fact about orcas is that here on Vancouver Island, they have been researched extensively. The most famous of these researchers is Dr. Michael Bigg, after whom a species of orcas, previously known as transients, is named after. His work on identification led him to discover that orcas, rather than all being the same, have unique populations with distinct cultures, and therefore limited numbers within those groups!
Best Time to Go
The best time to go whale watching in Tofino depends on the type of whales you want to see! However, almost any season with the exception of winter will find whales putting on a show. In the summer, from about May to September, humpback whales are the name of the game. Big tails reach for the sky, and the curious whales spy hop to check out the world above. Once the tumultuous fall and heart of winter have passed, the gray whales come out to play during their migration from February to April. Their v-shaped spouts, created by their dual blowholes, take to the air and their pock-marked tails wave goodbye as they take a dive. Transient orcas and other residents can be seen nearly any season if you’re lucky, and of course, the waters of the Pacific have a healthy population of plenty of other creatures. Besides whales, porpoises, sea lions, seals and otters are common sightings, not to mention the eagles and sea birds that soar above.
What to Wear
Photo by: Ian LathamIt’s important to be prepared for a day out on the water, so that you can fully enjoy the experience! First, you should ask if your charter provides you with rain suits. If they do, your basic clothes below will keep you warm out there on the water. If not, you’re going to want to dress in layers fit with rain gear – especially if the boat is a zodiac, rather than a closed cabin cruiser. Don’t forget to have close-toed shoes as well – the ocean breeze will be nippy on exposed toes!
What to Bring
Being prepared for the day’s weather is a great idea. Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses with a strap so you don’t lose them overboard are ideal for a sunny day. Rain gear, warm layers and gloves will be a must for rainier days. On top of that, cameras with straps, water, snacks and motion sickness medication will help you capture the magnificent moments, and keep you happy out on the ocean.
What to Expect
Depending on the company you book with and the time of year, expectations may vary. That being said, there are a few common features of whale watching tours from Tofino. Don’t forget to ask any questions you may have!
- Tours are typically about 3 hours long
- Vessels are inspected regularly for safety and are certified
- Captains and guides are knowledgeable, skilled and excellent at finding whales
- The boat will slow down to less than 7 knots when within 400m of a whale – this reduces the impact of whale watching on these beautiful creatures
- Be Whale Wise Guidelines are in place to help reduce impact
- Boat type will change your experience on the water
- Sea sickness is a rare occurrence, but it never hurts to be prepared, just in case
- Whale watching tours will be shared with other groups
- Plan to see plenty of other sea creatures during the tour
Good things to Know
There are plenty of things you may want to know before you’re off on your adventure. Some information you may be able to find on the charter’s website, but never hesitate to ask if you’re unsure. Here are some things you might want to know before you go:
- What type of boat – zodiac, or cabin cruiser?
- Is there a washroom?
- When is departure, when is the return
- How much in advance should you arrive?
- Are there floater suits/rain suits on board?
- Is there a sighting guarantee – if so, what is it and how does it work?
- Is there a hydrophone on board?
- How many people are in the group?
Spending a day out on the water whale watching is an exciting adventure and is something for the books! Now that you know a bit about the whales and what to expect, you’ll be all set to book a charter and have the experience of a lifetime during your trip to Tofino!
For more on Whale Watching, visit our info page here.
You can also check out www.DiscoverVancouverIsland.com’s whale page for more in depth knowledge!
To find a place to stay in Tofino, check out our Accommodation page here.