Wild Vancouver Island: Whales and Bears and Eagles

Twice last week we took tours to see some of Vancouver Island’s most emblematic creatures in the wild. Both tours were on small zodiac boats, which gave us a welcome chance to get out on the water we’d been seeing while driving around the island. The first tour was a sunset whale-watching trip with Ocean Ecoventures in French Creek. The second was a bear-watching trip with Adventure Tofino Wildlife Tours in Tofino.

No matter how experienced the guide, there’s no guarantee that wild animals will appear at any given time or place. But both times we got very lucky. On the whale-watching trip, we soon spotted a big female humpback whale skim-feeding near the surface of the water in the Georgia Strait. Soon after that, we saw two other humpbacks feeding close together. We were the only boat in the area, and our presence didn’t seem to bother them. They just kept feeding nearby, coming to the surface every few minutes to breath and then diving back down, giving us a glimpse of their great tails. Sometimes a whale surfaced within 50 yards of our boat, and then its broad back seemed impossibly huge. (We were required to try to stay 100 yards away, but a whale could come closer to us.) Three times a whale exhaled close enough to us that we felt the spray from its blowhole!

As the sun set, giving the sky and water a golden glow, it felt even more amazing to be out in that beautiful stillness with such big and wonderous animals. The last whale we watched seemed a bit playful, turning as it dove to show us a fin or the side of its tail. Once it surprised us by jumping partway out of the water, giving us our only view of a whale’s head that evening. It happened too suddenly to get a picture, but the image is burned in my mind. (Photographing whales is hard: You only know where they just went underwater. You don’t know where they will reappear until you hear their huffing exhalation or see their spray. Still, Melissa captured some good pictures of their backs and dorsal fins and tails.)

Two days later, on the opposite side of Vancouver Island, we went out on a hot, sunny afternoon to look for black bears on the islands around Tofino. At this time of year, bears often come to the shore at low tide to go crabbing, turning over rocks and looking for crustaceans hiding underneath. They’re not concerned about boats, so they paid no attention to us as we sat silently 50 feet offshore watching them.

Twice we saw solitary adults foraging at the shore line. They are lankier, with longer-looking fur, than the bears I’ve seen in the Appalachian Mountains at home. Seeing how easily they flipped big rocks with a single paw made us realize how strong they are. The third bear we saw—the one we watched longest—was a big female with two cubs about six months old. One of the cubs was more timid than the other. As the mother bear moved farther down the beach, that cub stood in the grass and called plaintively, until it gave up and clambered off to join the other two. Hearing that vocalization was very rare, our guide said.

On our way back to Tofino, we passed a flat rock covered with harbor seals basking in the hot sun. They’re hard to photograph (and can be hard to spot) because from a distance they look like rocks themselves or like the big driftwood logs common in those waters. We passengers were all broiling in the heavy, long-legged and long-sleeved flotation suits we had to wear instead of life vests to help us survive if we ended up in the cold ocean water. But the seals, although even more padded than us, seemed to enjoy the broiling sun.

As we stared at the nearby beaches looking for more bears, Melissa spotted an adult bald eagle high in a tree at the water’s edge. It sat there, looking beautiful and fierce and aloof, for more than 10 minutes as we snapped pictures of it and the guide maneuvered the zodiac to give everyone a good view. If it hadn’t turned its head a few times, we might have thought it was a decoy put there by the tour company, so perfect did it look.

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