I have been whale watching before. I have been to Tofino before. I have been on a boat in very choppy waters before. But everything old can be made new.
We changed our overnight stay from Ucluelet to Tofino specifically because the whale watching season ends in Ucluelet October 1, but continues in Tofino until the end of the month. This is the hazard of traveling in shoulder season; services are shut down. We passed a lot of CLOSED until May 2020 signs. On the other hand, no crowds, and it’s easy to imagine this cute little town crammed with cars circling for the handful of available parking spots.
Thar She Blows
Of course, when you book whale-watching, you never know if you will see whales. The migration season to Mexico starts in September or so, and whale sightings are most plentiful in the summer, when they travel up to Canada to spend the summer feeding. That might mean no whales. Tours like these always post multiple warnings that whales are NOT GUARANTEED. Jamie’s Whaling Station, the tour we picked, was unique in specifying that they would give you a ticket for another boat another day if you didn’t see a whale. But we weren’t going to be here another day.
Then, I thought, maybe climate change was making the water warmer and causing the whales to stay up north a bit more. Could Exxon and our doomed love of carbon-spewing SUVs have created the perfect opportunity for me to see whales? Sorry, future generations, but I want to see whales.
After the previous day’s nonstop drizzle and clouds, we woke to a clear sky and what promised to be sun and more sun, although the chill in the air was Octobery. Couldn’t be a better day to see something. But there was a problem. Super windy! The conditions, which Captain Scott claimed was the “windiest day of the year,” made the swells so strong that we’d have to stay in among the channels and islands. It was too choppy to go offshore into actual ocean where the whales were more likely. If no whales, we might be issued a ticket for another day, but… oh dear.
We did see otters, almost immediately. Guide Sarah told us that they can hang in frigid water all day in part because they have the thickest skin of any mammal. As the Marine Mammal Center notes, otters actually have two layers, one of guard hair that traps a layer of air next to the skin layer to prevent freezing. We saw tons of frolicking critters, sticking their head above the water just like prairie dogs do on their dirt mounds. None of those pictures are impressive enough to post, but trust me, we saw them.
Did we see whales? You read my title! Oh, what a giveaway!
Captain Scott made my day: “Thar she blows!”
I recognize that this is not the most impressive picture of a whale you have ever seen. You can go to plenty of sites where you are next to the whale, it breaches near the boat, and the tail fluke flaps down right in front of you and practically submerges the boat. Lower your expectations for this. Suffice it to say, after being slapped up and down in the swells for an hour–and I am prone to seasickness, so suffering was part of the process–after that, that much thar she blows was pretty darned exciting. If you are unhappy, as John Cleese says in Fawlty Towers, that Krakatoa is not erupting at the moment, then I apologize. For me? Lookee–whale!
Big Mama and Saddle
The two whales we saw were feeding so that they hung around for a while as we snapped photos and held onto the railing in the continuous swells. They didn’t breach because of the shallowness of the water. The guide explained that they scoop up from the bottom and let the sand filter out of their baleen while they keep the plankton, tiny crustaceans, and fish. Sarah said that in the “right” conditions, you can even smell their breath, which stinks.
Grey whales have distinctive white splotches, caused by bacteria, whale lice, and barnacles. Because they return to the same feeding spots, the locals (definitely in Tofino) have gotten to know them. The first one, Big Mama, was seen in the mid 1980s and known to be an adult. Since she has later returned with calves, they gave her the name Big White or Big Mama, and on my trip, she showed offer her markings proudly. The second whale, Saddle, was first seen in the early 1970s, so he is almost as old as I am. It makes me happy to think of such majestic creatures living so long.
Two French Toast Rewards
We hadn’t eaten for a while–nothing on the boat obviously–so I was both queasy and famished when we wobbled down the pier. Local restaurant Wolf in the Fog had an appropriate mascot hanging by the door, and the food lived up to the Yelp reviews. I had an amazing seaweed and daikon salad–I really did, even though that isn’t what I photographed. Yeah, I took a picture of the French Toast with sultanas and creme fraiche.
My companion also had French Toast with her Tuna Melt (albacore tuna, a beefsteak tomato, and bacon. I tried to talk her into splitting one, but she wouldn’t be budged, but really, can you blame her?
Now, we had to work off the French Toast. She walked around town, while I headed for a local cycle rental. Tofino has bike paths marked throughout the village and a long, nicely-paved separate lane that runs parallel to the highway, all the way to Ucluelet. I didn’t get that far, but it was a good ride. As it turns out, when I rolled into town, I saw KK wandering around, and her picture of me, bike, and totem was an improvement over my selfie.
On the way back, I toodled around a nearby Botanical and Sculpture Garden. Small, but the driftwood sculptures were imaginative and free form. I have to say that the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet both seemed like a perfect cross between Mendocino and Santa Monica, a culture of artists, foodies, surfers, and fisherman. The crosswalks were painted with fish hooks and schools of salmon, while there were as many galleries as ice cream stores. Enough to imagine that the summer crowds might be offset by warmer weather and a fun week in a Canadian August. Maybe we’ll have to come back sometime.
By the time I turned in the bike, I was so jelly-legged from the ride and the boat adventure that I was moving pretty slowly. Not to mention wind-burned and maybe a tad sun-burned as well. When we got back to the room, I conked out. At least until it was time for a sunset walk.