The West (or, rather, Southwest) coast of Vancouver Island is almost inaccessible by car. Dozens of deep fjords cut across one-third to two-thirds of the island. One part that is accessible is called the Pacific Rim. The (one) road goes from Nanaimo to Port Alberni, and then cuts over to the oceanside at Ucluelet, and continues Northwest to Tofino, our destination today. It's about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Nanaimo. "Our" boat, the Leviathan II
It's a pretty road all the way, along forested riverbanks nestled between the steep, snow-covered interior mountains. Right in the town of Port Alberni were two deer, a doe and a fawn, standing next to the street. We passed very slowly, in case they should decide to bolt, but they seemed accustomed to cars. There was a big sign warning us of last gas for 85 km, which meant that there were very few evidences of human life between Port Alberni and the Pacific.
Almost at the ocean's edge, Highway 4 went through the Pacific Rim National Park, at Long Beach, but we didn't stop until we got through the park and entered Tofino.
There are only nine whale-watching boat operations in Tofino, but every gift shop, restaurant, hotel, in fact every place of business except the post office and the bank, seems to be acting as agent for one or more of the whale-watching boats. The only advice we could get was to pick the size of boat first, then find a skipper with that equipment. Pod of orcas near the rocks
We continued to refuse the Zodiac rides (those orange suits!) and opted for the upper deck of a 65-foot whale-watching boat which we shared with fourteen other people. There was plenty of room.
We seem to have very good luck with our boat trips. The last time was at Gatheralls in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland, where we found wonderful weather and great wildlife. The same was true today. It was sunny and mild, no wind, calm seas. We had just enough time to buy our ticket and get on board. The captain was anxious to depart because he knew where there were orcas, and they were moving along and he wanted to catch them before they got out of the area. (Yesterday there had been a pod right in the harbor, something that happens only once or twice a year.)
Sure enough, after about half an hour's motoring, we caught up with a pod of about 15 orcas, or killer whales, cruising along the coast. What magnificent Seven sea lions on the rocks creatures, with their bold black and white markings and the huge dorsal fin which sticks way out of the water. They seemed to travel in a line abreast, with at least one big male and numerous females and young whales. They stayed near the surface, moving along about five or six knots, surfacing about every ten to fifteen seconds to show their dorsal fins and blow spouts of spray in the air.
The captain followed the orcas for about an hour, as we watched them with binoculars and took so many pictures we got at least one good one!
After we left the orcas, we found three "resident" gray whales feeding in Clayoquot Sound. Clayoquot means People with Back to the Land Facing the Sea in the local language. The gray whales like the soft sandy bottom of Clayoquot Sound, where they scoop up mud from the bottom and strain it through their balein bones to obtain the tiny shrimp and shellfish which are the bulk of their diet. So these whales would disappear for a few minutes while they were scooping up undersea mud, and then appear at the surface for three or four breaths, spouting water, rolling their backs, and then raising their tail out of the water as they dove back down to the bottom for their next bite to eat. Gray whale
The grey whales have recovered to a population of about 25,000. They winter off Baja California, where their babies are born, about 10 feet long. Then they migrate north to their summer feeding grounds, which may be anywhere along the coast from about Oregon northward, with most of them summering near Alaska. The three in Clayoquot Sound will probably stay all summer, for the food is plentiful.
The captain said the orcas have been known to kill the gray whales; they like their tongues. The orcas' principal diet are smaller sea mammals, including sea lions, sea otters, and dolphin. Despite the orcas' presence, we did see a sea otter and one harbor dolphin on our trip, too.
On the way back to harbor we viewed six or eight sea lions -- most of them Steller's, but one California -- lying on a rocky island, a number of bald eagles, one osprey in the air, a few tufted puffins, a marbled murrelet, and, right at the entrance to the harbor on a tiny island with eight or ten trees, a pair of nesting eagles; we could see one eagle incubating the eggs while the other stood watch.
In the harbor were lots of floats for crab pots, and it was 1:30 -- time for lunch. So we had Dungeness Crab, fresh and sweet. A great treat.
The euphoria generated by our whale-watching trip carried us all through the day. It's Friday afternoon, and we saw lots of British Columbians on the road to Tofino, planning to enjoy the beautiful weather this weekend.