I’d heard the West Coast of Vancouver Island called the Galapagos of the Northwest, and never is that more apparent than while on the water, whether families are exploring tide pools, kayaking, or in this case, on the open ocean on a Remote Passages whale watch in Tofino BC.
Our Tofino whale watch with Remote Passages just may have been the crown jewel on the treasure that was our Vancouver Island trip. Over 2 1/2 hours long, they call it a Whale Watch Plus, and once you’ve experienced it, it’s obvious why: not only did we enjoy a gray and humpback whale watch, but also observed seals, sea lions, sea otters, puffins, sea stars, bald eagles, and jellyfish (and I’m probably forgetting something). We were there in time to ‘meet’ Tofino’s resident whales, but in migratory seasons, they’re even more abundant (and can include orcas). Note: all photos in this post are actual documentation of wildlife viewed, taken by me.
In addition to the abundance of wildlife viewed, what set our Remote Passages whale watch apart from any we’d experienced before is their Zodiac boat transportation and their guide expertise. Zodiacs seat only 12-14 passengers, and are open-air (a closed cabin one is available as well), allowing for unobstructed 360 degree views of the bay, harbor, and open sea. Unlike larger whale watch vessels, in which one side of the boat sees a spout and the other misses out (or runs scrambling to see), on a Zodiac, you’re literally right on the water, able to see everything. (This makes it ideal for young kids.)
Our experience started at 8:30 am for our 9 am whale watch, during which we were shown an orientation video that described the wildlife and ecosystem of the Tofino area and the Clayoquot Sound. We then donned full expedition jump suits for our journey. These are a full jacket and pant combo, so guests don’t really need to worry about what to wear on their whale watch. Just make sure you’re in sturdy shoes and have a light sweatshirt or long-sleeved shirt on under. The adult version has a built-in life jacket, and the kids’ version is a two-part ensemble: pants and jacket, with a regular life jacket on over. Remote Passages also offers fleece gloves and knit hats if desired.
Our captain and guide, Tyson, guided us onto the Zodiac, where we all had a perfect view of the ocean and surrounding (breathtaking) landscape. We cruised first in-between the small islands dotted around the sound, where Tyson stopped to show us the huge kelp beds whales like to feed on. Almost immediately, we saw the spout of a gray whale. Since whales typically spout and rise above the water 3-4 times before diving deep, we stayed close to view it for about 15 minutes, cutting off the engine and floating peacefully as we watched the whale rise and fall beautifully. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for Toby, age 7, to be able to see the whale so easily; he’s usually scrambling for a better view for things like this, since he’s the shortest person in most groups. There was no stress to see, no rush to get anywhere, and we all just oohed and awed as Tyson told us more about these amazing animals. (Fun fact: many of the same whales return to Tofino year after year, and up to 200 stay here all season while their counterparts migrate farther north. Remote Passages guides can identify individual whales by the pattern of their barnacles on their backs. The kids had fun learning their names…yes, they name them!)
After a time, we left our friendly gray whale to explore more of the outer islands, where we could float right up near the rocky shore to spot jellies, sea stars, and an whole colony of seals. We watched their heads pop out of the water mere feet from us, and observed a dispute between two males on the rocks. Farther on, we sat still to photograph a set of four puffins floating on the sea, and caught a rare glimpse of a sea otter.
We headed out to open ocean in search of humpback whales, and were rewarded with four, two of which were a mother and calf. Tyson explained that ‘humpies’ were more likely to ‘fluke’ (show their tales as they dive deep), which we saw several times. We hung out with them for a time before needing to head back to the dock.
We had fine weather, but should you not, the small size of the Zodiac still allows for good viewing, though the water may be choppier. The suits keep you very warm, even in the wind while the boat is moving fast (though you’ll definitely want the gloves in cold weather). Once you return to the dock, hot peppermint tea awaits you.
Tips: You’ll want everyone in your party to be wearing sunscreen on their faces, and sunglasses are helpful. No matter the weather, the glare from the water is significant. Hats may fly off; I suggest using their knit caps that stay on better. The water was smooth they day of our visit, but if it’s choppy, captains carry seasickness remedies. We told ours that Calvin was prone, and he checked on him several times to make sure he wasn’t uncomfortable. (He was fine.)
Distance from the interstate:
Remote Passages is right off Highway 4 in Tofino.
Date last visited:
Rates and reservations:
A whale watch is not cheap, so may need to be budgeted for. If you can only experience one Tofino-area excursion, my kids were split between a kayak tour of the intertidal zone or a whale watch. Both are offered by Remote Passages. For the most wildlife viewed, however, a whale watch can’t be beat. Rates are $69 for kids, and $89 for adults at the time of our visit.
Other excursions offered:
If a whale watch is not in your budget, or if you have very young kids who may not be up for 2 1/2 hours on the water, a great option is Remote Passages Meares Island drop-off. Only $20 per person, families enjoy at short (5 minute) Zodiac ride to take the self-guided Meares Island boardwalk rain forest trail. Alternatively, Remote Passages’ Coastal Bear Watch (also 2 1/2 hours) hugs the coastline of nearby islands to spot bears, and also other intertidal zone wildlife and eagles, seals, and shore birds. Their Hot Springs Explorer takes visitors all the way to to a natural hot springs in the ancient rain forest, but as this tour is 7 hours long, it’s best saved for older children and adults.
Remote Passages is located at the bottom of Wharf Street, off Main. It’s easy to find!