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.
Tofino whale watching
We have been whale watching in Tofino three times now 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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada