A 6-hour tour in two parts, firstly a ‘flight’ up the inland waterways, looking for mainly land based wildlife, a break for lunch and then at sea searching mainly for whales and whatever else pops up. Our transport for both trips is to be a 24ft Zodiac rigid inflatable boat, similar to those RNLI in-shore rescue boats, but fitted with seats aligned side by side for 10-12 people with the skipper’s station in the centre which cruise at 25-30 knots (approx. 28-35 mph). Claimed by the operators to be safe and comfortable for all but those with the most severe conditions. We shall see.
One of the requirements for this exciting ride is that you have to wear an emersion suit with a built in life jacket for protection in case of a problem that would cause us to enter the water, in our case a sexy red number that came in about 3 or 4 basic sizes so if you were of diminutive stature, like my wife, you ended up resembling a red ‘Michelin Man’. All suited up we board our boat, with less difficulty that feared and set off to head deep into the inlets and channels of the island, first heading round the south end of Meares Island and then head into the inlets and islands. The sensation of speed is enhanced by our closeness to the water and with the wind rushing past us, making this a really exhilarating and smooth ride as we rush past breath-taking scenery.
After about 10 minutes or so, you don’t look at your watch as there are much better things to do, we power down and glide towards a cove with some rocks leading down to the water, apparently a good place to spot some bears feeding. We pass 2 or 3 such coves before we spot our first one, a young adult Black bear looking for crab, shellfish, or anything else that looks tasty. At this time of year bears feed constantly to put on weight for the winter hibernation and will cheerfully eat anything until the salmon arrive. There are clearly slim pickings here, because our bear soon clambers up the rocks into the trees to look for some berries on the overhanging branches and disappears from view. On we go travelling deeper into the inlet we pass a Harbour seal sunning itself on a rocky outcrop, this time remaining quiet, and is content just to let us pass on by.
We enter a small inlet with a stony beach at the end and a stream entering at the farthest point. Here we spot a larger Black bear walking the shoreline foraging and by cutting the engine we are able to drift in and get really close (approx. 50 -70 yards) so that we do not to disturb it. As we watch our friend turns over rocks in the search for a snack and we can hear the cracking of the shells as it devours a juicy morsel. Finishing this snack, it plods up the shoreline stopping to turn over stones looking for more to satisfy its hunger, occasionally finding another and we again hear the cracking as it makes short work of a crab’s protective shell. Can’t help thinking how much damage those jaws could do if our furry friend decided that we looked appetising. Our skipper tells us that we are quite lucky to see the two bears in such a short time as it was getting late in the season (September) the salmon were starting to run up the rivers to their spawning grounds and the bears were also starting to move up-stream to meet them and fatten up for winter. Luckily for us the salmon don’t seem to have reached here yet. But as soon as he spoke those words the bear decided that this area was fished out and he slowly plodded across the beach and up the small river inlet in the corner of the cove heading for the prospect of more substantial meals up stream.
Taking the hint, the captain fired up the motor and we headed out of the cove passing a fried egg like jellyfish floating past us in the middle of the channel, just to prove that all the fauna in this neck of the woods was not land based. Travelling slowly keeping a sharp lookout for any sort of movement along the shoreline and in the undergrowth for more hairy searchers. Soon a sharp-eyed passenger spots a dark shape on a small rocky outcrop under an umbrella of bushes and tree branches. As we get closer to the shore, we could make out another black bear looking rather lost and not having much luck on the fish front. So, it soon gives up and starts to climb up into the foliage to hunt for berries and soon disappears from view.
On our way our attention is drawn to a White-headed Bald Eagle in sitting imperiously in tree above us making sure that we leave its domain in an orderly manner while taking a breather from fishing. It’s head twitching from side to side obviously keeping a beady eye open for lunch opportunities while it kept us under surveillance. Was this the one we had spotted earlier in the sky, who knows I would imagine there are more than one in the area.
Time passes so quickly when you are really engaged with your surroundings and it is soon time to return to base. On landing back at the dock after approx. 2 ½ hours, we hope to grab some lunch ready for the afternoon whale safari, but this hope is short lived as the second part of the tour is ready to go. So, a quick rush to the toilet and a grab of some trail bars, bananas and drink from the little shop next door and we re-board the Zodiac. This time we turn left out of the dock and round the headland past Stubbs and Felice islands and then Wickaninnish island and head out on our search for whales in the open ocean.
Now a Zodiac in calm inshore waters is one thing, a smooth exhilarating experience offering a speedy way to access those discrete places where the larger boats cannot go, but out in the open ocean well that is a different matter. Even with a slight 2-3 foot swell the experience is something quite different, ramping up the exhilaration level quite a few notches, cresting the waves and then crashing down onto the next really brings out the open ocean experience. Strangely though, for the bumping and crashing the nature of the boat absorbed the worst of the shocks so those with dodgy backs, e.g. my wife, did not seem to be unduly affected and we did not experience the slightest hint of sea sickness. Obviously being this close to the action banishes that unwelcome visitor on any voyage way to the back of the queue.
Move out past an obligatory group of seals basking on the rocks by the north Tofino shore, unusually quiet they must be used to these strange beings rushing past as they ignored us completely. Content as they are to just lie there giving the impression that they have fed not long ago and are sleeping it off.
A crackle on the radio brings news of a sighting of a humpback off Flores Island, so we head north past Varges Island to a hopeful intercept. 10 minutes of bumping and crashing and spray-in-our-faces later brings us to the location and our prey is spotted gently arching its back and diving down searching for food, with the occasional tail fluke action and it must be our day, a small breach. Not an out-of-the-water crashing belly flop, but what could be called a half-body crash, perhaps it was just too hungry to play today. We stay a respectable distance from the leviathan for about 15 minutes and then are forced to seek pastures new as our friend dives for longer and longer periods of time and then just ambles off. With no further radio tips, we about turn retracing our wake back down the coast with slightly less haste to a spot where there had been some reports of activity yesterday.
No further Cetaceans were spotted on our slightly less energetic return voyage so we turned to plan B and about an hour after our last sighting we came across a rocky outcrop not far from the shore which was covered in white guano with a small colony of cormorants perched on top. Acting as a vanguard, were a number of seals lounging in the water on their backs with their flippers in the air as if applauding an unseen performance. One or two other seals were standing guard on some rocks at the shoreline behind them, or were these the performers, it was hard to tell.
A little further away round the other side of the outcrop we found amongst a small bed of kelp some of the cutest and most charming of all marine animals, Sea Otters. About 20-30 adults and young wrapping themselves up in the kelp and just floating on their backs cleaning their all-important fur and generally enjoying life. We stop for a while getting quite close to the raft and they seem to just ignore us, carrying on with their lives. Much oohing, ahhhing and taking of photos ensued, followed by comments such as “couldn’t you just pick them up and cuddle them” were common. Our skipper soon brought that down a notch by telling us that Otters have a bite force of approx. 80lb which they use to bite through Sea Urchin exoskeletons and shellfish shells, which tends to make you wary of trying to cuddle these marine ‘teddy bears’ if you are attached to your fingers.
You can only watch these cute things for so long, so it was time to head for home. A little regretful that we had only seen a solitary whale and not caught a glimpse of an Orca, a species these waters are synonymous with. Yet another reminder that nature is not a zoo, or a wildlife T.V. program, and sometimes it just does not play ball as you would like it. As for the Zodiac, well it was nowhere are bad as our fears had had us believe, in fact comfortable as well as being really exhilarating and relatively easy to get in and out of, easier in fact than those emersion suits. All in all a Zodiac ride is something not to be dismissed out of hand for any future expeditions.