Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tofino - Day 4

Our fourth day in Tofino was one of the days that we scheduled to do something touristy. It was also my 34th birthday. For weeks before our trip I was following many of the local businesses on Twitter so I knew that several of the whale watching excursions were seeing all sorts of wildlife, including humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, gray whales, wolves, and bears.

We'd previously gone whale watching two other times - once in Maine several years ago, and then the previous year from Vancouver to see Orcas. While we've always seen whales, we never seem to have the same experiences that others have - whales don't come right up to our boats, and we don't see giant breaches. Basically, we've never had a truly remarkable whale watching experience. But I was hopeful. I had seen the twitpic that showed a humpback completely breaching less than 20 feet from the boat. Unfortunately, that's not the experience we got.

When we arrived at Jamie's Whaling Station we had to suit up in what I began referring to as our space suits. I had a hard time with the suit because it was clearly meant for someone that was about five inches taller. I also couldn't fasten my ankles or wrists because I couldn't actually reach them. I felt like the little brother from A Christmas Story when the mom has wrapped him up in about twenty layers to walk to school in the snow. When we got down to the boat, our captain told us it was "pretty gnarly" out there and that it wasn't a great day to be on the water due to six foot swells. I guess he was trying to set our expectations for what we would encounter once we got out of the protection of the harbour, but I wonder what would have happened if someone said they wanted to postpone their trip or cancel altogether. No one did, so we hopped on board the zodiak and away we went

I look like the shrunken head people from Beetlejuice.
At first I wanted the front of the vessel; after all, it was my birthday. But we were with a big group of tourists from Germany and they had other plans about who got the best seats, so in the end Alan and I got the two in the back. This actually turned out to be a good thing because yes, those swells were terrible and we had several times where the boat catapulted off the top of a crest into a trough and the impact with the water was quite jarring. The people at the front of the boat were complaining much louder than we were each time the zodiak hit the water. 

On our way out to the outer reaches of the sound we encountered a puffin which was quite remarkable because usually these birds don't come this close to shore; they're usually found several miles out in the ocean. I hope our little guy wasn't sick or anything but usually when you find an animal far from his normal home that's never a good sign. Our captain seemed quite excited by this sighting and kept remarking how amazing it was that we got an opportunity to see one of these guys in the wild. The Germans seemed less than impressed.

The ride was pretty smooth sailing for awhile and I kept wondering where these rough seas were. And then we hit them. You can't really tell in this picture but there were times when we couldn't see the other boat (about 50 feet away) because one of us would be in the trough of the swell. Unfortunately this also meant that the German girl sitting in front of me tossed her cookies over the side of the boat. That was pleasant to watch. 

Thankfully I don't get sea sick so the churning waters didn't really bother me. What did bother me - slightly - was that we were pretty limited in what we were going to see. Our captain, after I asked, told us that the humpbacks are usually much further out to sea and that we wouldn't be seeing them on this tour. We also didn't see any of the other wild life that tours had seen just days before. When we asked a couple of questions about gray whales our captain also didn't seem that knowledgeable, which was kind of disappointing because last year we had really great luck with Jamie's staff on our bear watching tour, and the folks in the main office were so helpful and knowledgeable about the area, its local habitats, and ecosystems. 

The other thing that somewhat bothered me was our companions on the journey. I was the shortest person in the boat by a large margin, but everyone in front of me would stand up the second the captain would point out a tail or a water spout so I spent a lot of time looking at people's backs. The captain was pretty cognizant of what was happening so several times he would re-position the boat so that I could see the whales, which I really appreciated. He even let me stand on the back of the seat so that I could see over the heads of the six-foot-plus men that were standing up the whole time. 

As we were getting ready to leave the captain just happened to turn the boat into a position that gave me prime viewing for a whale to come up for air less than 50 feet from the boat. This was the closest the whales had gotten all day and I had a front row seat. Take that German with the two foot lens! (Incidentally, I did not bring the Nikon on this trip. For one, it doesn't have video. Secondly, I didn't want to chance dropping the whole damn thing in the murky depths of the Pacific. That probably wouldn't have happened, but given the suits and how difficult it was to maneuver in them, this was a good decision - for me.)

It was windy out there. It's a miracle my hair doesn't look worse.

After our zodiak adventure we had a few hours to kill before our flight over Clayoquot Sound with Tofino Air. After putzing around for the remainder of the afternoon, we showed up about 15 minutes early for our flight. 

The nice woman working in the office told us that they were running a bit behind schedule and she'd come get us when the pilot got in. About 20 minutes later she came out to tell us that they were running even further behind schedule and to make it up to us they'd extend our flight by 20 minutes. Score! Instead of a quick circle over the area, we ended up flying out to the hot springs, landing, picking up a family, and flying back to the harbour. All told our flight ended up being about 45 minutes which normally costs close to $500. Because we had paid for a whale watching / flight combo package we essentially ended up getting the flight for free.

Getting in the plane was kind of a trip. It's tiny. I mean, really tiny. Because I was the birthday girl I got to sit in the front seat. Even if it hadn't been my birthday I probably would have lobbied hard for pole position. Now, a note about this flight - I'm terrified of flying. Taking off and landing are two of my least favorite things. These planes are not what you'd call advanced technology. As we were accelerating and gearing up for take off our pilot was manually fidgeting with knobs and levers. At one point he was pumping a handle between the two of us. I don't know what that handle does, but the thought crossed my mind that his pumping is what allowed us to leave the water into the air and that scared the living bejeezus out of me. My fear was soon replaced by wonder however, because we were quickly seeing sites that we wouldn't normally have been able to. We flew over several remote, deserted beaches that could only be accessed by boat. It was so remarkable to be in the air, but close enough to actually be able to see the land below us. In that way it was similar to the helicopter tours we've taken in Hawaii, but there was something less terrifying about being in a plane that can land on water if something were to go wrong. In that capacity I actually felt very safe. 


On our way back from the hot springs we circled over the whale watching site and managed to see two gray whales from the air. The views we got from the airplane were significantly better than the views we had from the boat earlier in the day.


We finished the night with a walk on the beach at sunset. This was probably the most spectacular sunset we saw for the entirely of our trip, which was perfect given that it was my birthday. We tried to get cookies in the Lodge's lobby at 8 p.m. but they seemed to be running behind schedule so instead we went back to the room where Alan cooked my birthday dinner of braised chicken and asparagus while I nearly fell asleep at the table. I was out cold by 10 p.m. 

It was truly a memorable birthday.