Perched on the western edge of Vancouver Island, the village of Tofino may be small but it is an easily accessible gateway to raw beauty, unique heritage, outdoor adventure and fascinating wildlife. Whale watching in the waters around Tofino is a particularly popular way to explore this beautiful coastal landscape. 

If you’re looking for a unique activity for your Vancouver Island holiday or have already decided to go whale watching in Tofino, read on for all of the essential information you need. I’ll start with my experience and a few more reasons why you definitely need to go whale watching in Tofino, British Columbia. 

Beautiful views of Clayoquot Sound, Tofino, BC - misty forested hillsides with calm ocean and a boat
Clayoquot Sound, Tofino, British Columbia
Gray whale rising out of water with barnacles on body
Gray whale near Tofino, BC – Photo courtesy Tofino Tourism, Photographer Kyler Vos

Tofino whale watching

We have been whale watching in Tofino and each tour has been exciting and enchanting in a different way. There’s always something new to see and hence why we keep going back! 

Our most recent Tofino whale watching experience was with the Adventure Centre at Tofino Resort and Marina. Our ‘Cook Your Catch’ adventure included a private boat tour, crabbing and a fresh crab supper (incredible) at the 1909 Kitchen in the evening. It was Tofino whale watching, elevated! Besides the food (of course) I was stoked to see my first ever Gray whale on this trip (and so, so many cuddly sea otters!)

Gemma and JR in front of small boat at Tofino Resort and Marina
Ultimate Adventure Tofino whale watching tour boat with Tofino Resort + Marina
JR throwing blue crab trap into water from boat
JR throwing out one of the crab traps before our whale watching tour commenced
JR holding red crab looking at camera
One of the crabs we caught!
Crab with two side dishes at 1909 Kitchen, Tofino
Our incredible crab supper at 1909 Kitchen, Tofino

Why go whale watching in Tofino, Vancouver Island

Besides the chance for a close encounter with majestic cetaceans, whale watching in Tofino also offers the chance to explore the surrounding Clayoquot Sound (“clah-quat”), the traditional territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth people. 

At more than 100km wide, this beautiful Pacific Ocean inlet is more varied than you may expect, with old growth temperate rainforest, misty mountains, long swathes of sandy beach, fjords, rocky headlands and pounding surf. Beyond it all is the unrelenting force of the Pacific Ocean. 

Most Tofino whale watching tours travel through sheltered areas of Clayoquot Sound before heading to the open ocean. No matter the weather, the beauty of this pristine landscape is always impressive. Getting out on the water amidst it all is what I consider to be an unmissable experience when in the Tofino area. 

Tofino township with mountains, hills and ocean beyond
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Koreski via Tofino Resort + Marina

A marina in Tofino, British Columbia with misty mountain behind on blue sky day

What to see on a whale watching tour in Tofino

The three most commonly seen large whale species seen in the Tofino area are the Pacific Gray whale, Orca and Humpback. The Pacific Gray whales are a particularly special sight. 

Alongside these, there is also the chance to see some of Clayoquot Sound’s other residents, including porpoises, sea otters, Steller sea lions, Harbour seals, bald eagles and osprey.

The sea lions, in particular, are always a highlight for me. They leap into the crashing waves and play fight on the rocks, with the occasional growl (just like a grizzly bear!) The sea otters are also a favourite; they look so comfortable floating on the water! 

Pacific Gray whale

An incredible 25,000 Pacific Gray Whales migrate pass Clayoquot Sound every spring, travelling north from their wintering grounds around Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the Bering Strait near Alaska. Around 200 ‘resident’ Gray Whales stay on for the summer, skipping the long trek to feed in the rich waters around Tofino. 

These gentle giants have no dorsal fin, making them particularly unusual among other whales. As they rise out of the water for air, Gray Whales are most distinguishable by their two blowholes and encrusted barnacles. Gray Whales are a fairly common sight around Clayoquot Sound from April to October. 

View of Gray whale from above
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Koreski via Tofino Resort + Marina

Orca whale

Undoubtedly the most iconic whale of the Pacific Northwest, orca whales are on the ‘must see’ whale list of many visitors to Tofino. Their impressive dorsal fins and playful nature make them an especially fun whale to watch. 

The variety of orcas that visit the waters of Clayoquot Sound are called “transients” or “Bigg’s killer whales.” As avid mammal hunters, these orcas have a large range and come and go as they please, all year round. 

So while seeing an orca isn’t a guarantee, they are a regular visitor to the area and would be a wonderful bonus on any whale watching trip in Tofino. 

Small orca pod swimming in Clayoquot Sound with boat behind - photo by Jeremy Koreski
Orca whale pod swimming in Clayoquot Sound. Photo courtesy of Tourism Tofino, Photographer Jeremy Koreski

Humpback whale

The magnificent humpback whale is most often seen in the Tofino area from May to September. Known for their dramatic tail slaps and full body breaching, these whales can be hugely entertaining. 

Interestingly enough, the reason for humpbacks leaping out of the water is still unknown. Some theorise it is to show dominance or warn of danger, others believe it may be to dislodge parasites. Either way, you’ll never forget your first close encounter with a humpback. 

The best time of year to go whale watching in Tofino

Guided whale watching in Tofino is possible from February to November. The most popular season is June to September. This is when the weather is warmest and whale sightings are highest. 

May, June, September and October are great months to go whale watching in Tofino. The weather is pleasant, there are less boats on the water and more space on the whale watching tours.

Colourful waterfront houses and shops as seen from Tofino whale watching tour
The village of Tofino from the water on our whale watching adventure
The mountains and forest of Clayoquot Sound from Tofino whale watching boat
Another view of stunning Clayoquot Sound, Tofino

Winter whale watching?

Yes, you can actually go whale watching in Tofino during the winter! Some operators start their whale watching tours in February to coincide with warming temperatures and the Gray whale migration.

The Pacific Rim Whale Festival takes place in mid March in Tofino and neighbouring Ucluelet and lasts two weeks. Alongside whale conservation education, the festival features fun events like interpretive walks, a parade, chowder chowdown and a ‘tug-o-whale.’ First Nation traditions are also included in the festival line-up. 

If planning an early season whale watching excursion, be sure to bring plenty of warm layers as well as gloves, a toque and a scarf/neck warmer. 

How to choose a Tofino whale watching tour

The small town of Tofino has a surprisingly large choice of whale watching tour operators. Wondering how to choose between them for your own whale watching tour in Tofino? Here are some pointers to get you started. 

Zodiac or cruiser?

One of the biggest differences between whale watching tours and operators is the type of boat used.

  • Boats can range in size, from small private charters (2 people) to large cruisers with multiple decks and viewing areas.
  • Zodiacs are rigid hulled inflatable boats. They too can vary in size but those touring around the Tofino area typically hold around 6-18 people. 

Of the two, Zodiacs are usually faster and are able to cover more distance. They sit low to the water, a vantage point that is fantastic for close-up whale viewing.

Zodiac whale watching tours are not ideal for everyone, however. There is a minimum height requirement and passengers should not be pregnant or have neck/back issues. The boats themselves are not covered and usually do not have a washroom. 

The larger whale watching boats offer a few perks of their own. They are more likely to have a larger crew, potentially with a naturalist on board. Complimentary drinks may be offered. Moving around the boat can be easier with both indoor (heated!) and outdoor seating. Keep in mind that you will share these perks with more people. 

Sealions resting on rock as seen on Tofino whale watching tour
Just a small proportion of the sealions that reside near Tofino!
Misty mountain coast with whale rising from water
Gray whales have no dorsal fins so they look a little different from other whales seen on wildlife tours
A sea otter floating on its back with toes pointing high
Sea otters spend a lot of time floating on their backs – it looks so relaxing! It also makes them fairly easy to spot

Guaranteed sightings?

Some Tofino whale watching tour operators offer ‘guaranteed sightings’ or ‘rainchecks.’ Of course, no wildlife tour operator can predict nature so in practice, a guarantee like this usually allows visitors to join a future tour free of charge if no whales are spotted. The terms and conditions of the guarantee or raincheck depends on the operator. 

Length of tour

Most whale watching tours in Tofino last around 2-3 hours. Smaller boats and Zodiacs are faster than larger boats and can cover more water in that time. Keep in mind that no matter the length of tour, boat captains will try their hardest to find the whales. They want to see a good show too! 

Some whale watching tour operators offer longer excursions, covering a larger distance or simply offering more time and chance to see the whales. Our private tour with the Adventure Centre at Tofino Resort and Marina lasted just over four hours. 

Special discounts 

If price is a deciding factor for your whale watching tour, check with your accommodation provider whether there is a discount for taking a tour with a specific whale watching operator. There may be a 10% discount or other special deal for guests staying in a partner hotel or resort.

If not, the hotel staff may recommend a particular operator from personal experience. 

Mountainous views behind the boat on our Tofino whale watching tour
Boating back towards Tofino

Top tips for whale watching in Tofino

  • The most important advice I can give you about whale watching in Tofino is to bring warm clothing, even in summer. Temperatures are always cooler on the ocean and this is especially true on the Pacific coast. Wear a waterproof jacket, trousers, a toque (wool hat), closed shoes (no flip flops) and warm layers. 
  • Depending on the type of tour chosen, your tour operator may give you a flotation suit to wear. These are not always the most flattering but are toasty warm. If offered, take one! 
  • Bring sunglasses and sunscreen, even if it is cloudy in Tofino. The weather can be quite different out on the ocean – on our last whalewatching tour, we were bathed in spots of sunshine while Tofino sat firmly under cloud the whole day! 
  • If you have a pair of binoculars, it’s definitely worth taking them along. Don’t forget your camera too, and a waterproof case, just in case. 
  • Prone to sea sickness? I’d recommend using motion sickness medicine before leaving for your tour. Some tour operators offer ‘Sea Bands’ or ginger tea to help. 
  • Be sure to arrive on time for your whale watching tour. It is a good idea to be at the departure centre or wharf at least fifteen minutes before the tour departure time. 
  • Use the onshore washrooms before getting on the boat! Even if the whale watching tour boat does have a toilet, you’ll probably prefer to use the one on land. 
  • On arrival to your whale watching tour boat, listen carefully to the crew’s instructions, especially concerning safety information and lifejacket locations. 

Other ways to go whale watching in Tofino

Besides just getting lucky at any waterfront location in the area, here are some other ways to go whale watching in the Tofino area. 

Bear watching tours

Whales aren’t the only large mammals seen around the Clayoquot Sound area. Vancouver Island is home to around 7,000 black bears, one of the densest populations in North America. The surrounding islands also host a share of these inquisitive and smart creatures, which actually range in colour from light brown to black. 

In Clayoquot Sound, black bears are most commonly seen feeding on the shoreline at low tide. For this reason, boat tours are able to offer close observation with relatively little disturbance. Most bear watching tours last around 2-3 hours.

Bear watching in Tofino usually takes place in the sheltered inlets close to Meares Island. The likelihood of seeing larger whales on a Tofino bear watching trip is lower because of this but definitely not impossible! You never know what may be swimming in the waters nearby. 

Sightings of seals, eagles, porpoises, osprey, wolves and sea lions are common, so there’s always a lot to see on a bear watching tour in Tofino. Keep in mind, however, that there are no grizzly bears on Vancouver Island.

bear hunting for food on beach in Clayoquot Sound, Tofino
A black bear in Clayoquot Sound, photo courtesy of Jeremy Koreski via Tofino Resort + Marina

Hot Springs Cove tour

48km north of Tofino is a magical little place called Hot Springs Cove. Accessible only by boat or floatplane and a short rainforest hike, these thermal hot springs bubble pour into a succession of natural rock pools, cooled down regularly by ocean waves. 

Most of the major whale watching tour operators also offer year round boat trips to Hot Springs Cove. The journey offers another chance to potentially see whales in the Tofino area. The round trip takes around 6 hours total, with about half that time spent on the water.

Gemma on boardwalk bridge in forest leading to Hot Springs Cove, Tofino
Walking the boardwalk to Hot Springs Cove, north of Tofino
Two people lounging in the natural hot pools of Hot Springs Cove near Tofino. Photographer Jeremy Koreski
Hot Springs Cove – photo courtesy of Tourism Tofino, Photographer Jeremy Koreski

Kayaking

As well as being a wonderful habitat for so many impressive creatures, Clayoquot Sound is also an ideal place to go kayaking. Backdropped by misty mountains, the inlets are especially beautiful when viewed from so close to the water. And, of course, you never know what wildlife you may see or paddle close to! 

Guided day kayaking tours are available from a multitude of tour operators. Many of these also offer whale and bear watching tours. Multi-day adventures are also possible, with a common destination being the sandy shores of Vargas Island, north of Tofino. 

Colourful kayaks tied together in Clayoquot Sound, Tofino
Kayaking is a popular activity in Clayoquot Sound, Tofino

Time to go whale watching in Tofino!

Whale watching is undoubtedly a must do activity in Tofino, especially as it is possible in almost every weather and season. Being somehow both relaxing and exhilarating at the same time, you’re also guaranteed a different experience every time. And in Tofino, you get the added bonus of spectacular views of Clayoquot Sound and a sense of the incredible power of the Pacific Ocean. 

Thank you to Tourism Tofino for assisting with our visit to Tofino. Views expressed in this post are all our own – we love the Tofino area and will undoubtedly return soon for our 5th visit

Perched on the western edge of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, the village of Tofino may be small but it is an easily accessible gateway to raw beauty, unique heritage, outdoor adventure and fascinating wildlife. Whale watching in the waters around Tofino is a particularly popular way to explore this beautiful coastal landscape. Click here to discover everything you need to know! offtracktravel.ca

If you're looking for a unique activity for your Vancouver Island holiday or have already decided to go whale watching in Tofino, click here for all of the essential information you need! offtracktravel.ca

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in British Columbia, Canada. Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    What a timely find! We are in Victoria and head to Tofino next. We will definitely check out your whaling suggestions. Catch and cook sounds fun. We may not have time for the hot springs but will try. Thanks! Linda

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      That is great timing indeed! Definitely don’t miss out on whale watching in Tofino! There will be other Tofino posts out soon but probably not in time for your trip sadly. I hope you have a great time!

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