Friday, July 25, 2008
TOFINO — We are hung with horseshoes. This morning we got our day started as usual and set off for Tofino for a look around and to see about going out whale watching. We stopped in at Jamie’s Whaling Station at about 10 minutes to 10 and the lady at the counter said we could head right on board if we liked, because the boat was just about to sail and they would hold it for us! So we grabbed our camera and binoculars, threw on a few layers and hurried down to the dock as the crew got ready to untie the ropes.
We were aboard the Leviathan II, a boat that could hold about 50 passengers, with an upper deck exposed to the elements and a lower one with windows. Everyone was up top, so we went up as well and found the very front bench still available. That was when I realized I was one layer short — in our haste I had forgotten my windbreaker, and the wind was cool and strong, blowing through my sweatshirt. Brrr!
Fortunately, our tickets included free hot chocolate (or coffee or tea), and one of the crew members very kindly dug up a rain jacket for me to borrow. I was very grateful. Our captain provided a very informative spiel about aquatic life in the area and how to spot a whale by its misty spout when it comes up to breathe.
The first thing we spotted as we sailed away from the Tofino harbour was a bald eagle, perched on a high branch on one of the smaller islands. When we had passed a few more islands further along, the captain spotted a large, tan coloured sea lion basking on the rocks. It was quite cool and overcast, so he probably wasn’t soaking in much warmth at that point. Shortly afterward, on another rocky island, we saw a second sea lion and, swimming in the water just offshore, a female and baby that clumsily waddled on to the rock a few minutes later, all sleek and shiny from the water. They made a nice family portrait together!
The captain told us that reports from other boats on the water indicated there were whales, so he headed in that direction. On the way we saw one lone sea otter, floating on his back with his flippers up in the air. They look so relaxed in that position!
We had to travel some distance before we finally caught sight of some boats clustered in one spot near Meares Island, and soon after that we saw the first spout! Before long it was clear there were several of these huge beasts, rising to the surface for air and curving their backs as they plunged to the bottom to feed. These were gray whales that prefer the small creatures that live on the ocean floor. They dive and eat, then rise to breathe — and every third or fourth breath, they take a nearly vertical plunge that brings their fluked tails above the surface for a moment before slipping beneath the waves. What a fantastic sight that is! Even though we could only see these parts — a humped back and the occasional tail — it wasn’t hard to imagine the enormous size of the whole animal that we knew was just under the surface. We were spellbound!
Our search for this amazing sight had taken us further than they normally have to travel to provide the guaranteed sightings, so it was a longer trip back to shore, so by this point most of the passengers had opted to watch for further signs of wildlife from the relative warmth of the sheltered lower deck. There were informative maps, diagrams and articles laid out so we could learn more about what we had seen. The world’s whale population was in peril in the 1960s, but thanks to a ban on whaling and other conservation efforts, it has rebounded to some 25,000 creatures today. It was fantastic seeing a few of them first hand.
We stepped into our camper for a bite of lunch in the parking lot when we finally reached shore, just after 1:30, and then headed in to see the rest of Torino. It’s a very small town that seems to have a major parking challenge on its hands. We drove around its four or five streets several times before finding a spot where we could leave the truck. One irritable resident had posted signs at the end of his driveway threatening slashed tires for anyone who tried to park there — and he lived right across the street from the RCMP detachment!
The commercial establishments cater to hikers and adventurers, offering high-tech clothing and equipment such as diving suits and surf boards. There are some interesting restaurants and food stores that feature the word "organic" in front of every product name. And, of course, there was a busy marina or two on the water.
With all the evidence of surfing, we wanted to have a look at where that happens, so we drove away from town and toward the Pacific Rim National Park where the famed beaches are found. We picked Comber’s Beach from the map, and headed on the trail through the woods with the sound of the surf in our ears. The vegetation was thick and stunted by endless wind, storms and salt. Val said it looked like an enchanted forest! After passing through a tunnel of tangled branches and roots, we descended the wooden stairs to a sandy beach that spread out for miles in both directions, with pounding white breakers crashing in and streaming up the packed sand at our feet. There were only a few people around, and about three that were actually brave enough to go into the chilly water — none of whom were surfers! We looked out to the vast, shining sea and wondered how long we’d have to paddle to get to Japan.