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Aerial view of Clayoquot Sound

Tofino is well known for its huge beaches and impressive Pacific surf, whether it’s the summer swells that attract surfers from across the country or the wild winter breakers that crash on shore, drawing storm-chasers from far and wide. But it wasn’t the wild surf that attracted us when Henk and I scouted things to do in Tofino – it was the wildlife, bears in particular. We were surprised to learn that we could book an excursion to go bear-watching in Tofino, and we were even more surprised to learn that we would be doing it by boat.

Bear Watching in Tofino From a Boat?

Clayoquot Sound landscape

Clayoquot Sound is a stunning UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

You don’t normally think about seeing bears when you are staying by the ocean, yet the beaches of Clayoquot Sound are some of the best places to spot black bears in the wild. Outfitters like Clayoquot Wild routinely take visitors bear watching from Tofino out onto the water to look for bears, and once we heard the reason why, it made total sense: when the tide is low, black bears make their way to the shoreline to forage for food left behind by the receding water. Using their strong claws to turn over logs and rocks, they uncover crabs and other marine life left stranded on shore after the tide goes out. Which explained why a boat would give us the best vantage point.

Bear and closeup Tofino British Columbia

After hearing Carla, one of the owners of Clayoquot Wild, describe the experience on their tour, Henk and I were keen and we immediately booked a bear watching excursion for the following day.

About Clayoquot Wild

Clayoquot Wild is a family affair run by the husband and wife team of Moses Martin and Carla Moss who have been operating fishing, wildlife and custom tours out of Tofino for over 24 years. As the first First Nations family-owned business to do so, they not only know the area and its wildlife, they know the history of the people who have called this area home for generations. In fact, Moses is the seventh–generation descendant of War Chief Nookmiis who is famous for being involved in the sinking of the merchant vessel, the Tonquin in 1811 – in retaliation for the earlier destruction of 200 houses in the ancient village of Opitsaht.

Clearly, the Martins’ local connection to the Clayoquot Sound area runs deep, so we knew we were in good hands.

“Skiis”, Our Eagle-Eyed Guide

Govt Dock Tofino with float plane

The main dock at Tofino was our starting point

Our tour began at the main dock at Tofino where we met our guide and boat captain Eugene, a cousin of the Martins who insisted we call him ‘Skiis’ (a nickname given to him because of his huge feet that always crossed the foul line when he played basketball in high school.) “Skiis” had brought along his great-nephew Jarret, who had come to help spot bears and learn the ropes of navigating our route from his ‘Papa’.

Eugene from Clayoquot Wild Tofino

Captain Eugene ‘Skiis’ showing great nephew Jarett the ropes

We headed out into the network of islands and bays that makes up Clayoquot Sound, and it wasn’t long before Skiis’ keen eye spotted a Bald Eagle perched on the top of a tree (which patiently indulged Henk by staying put for photos).

Bald Eagle in tree Tofino

Eagle-eyed ‘Skiis’ spotted this bald eagle

Bald Eagle Closeup Tofino

Bears on the Beaches

shoreline of Clayoquot Sound

Scouring the shorelines of beautiful Clayoquot Sound

Continuing on and watching the shore for ‘anything black that moves”, we scoured the coastline, but the next two beaches we cruised by yielded nothing. Then Henk spotted our first bear on the third beach and we went a little snap-happy with our cameras!

Skiis cut the motor, and with our boat silenced, we were able to drift very close to the shore without disturbing the bear who was more interested in finding food than in worrying about a boat with a handful of humans. We watched as the bear easily rolled heavy logs and stones out of the way with his powerful claws, while we furiously snapped away with every camera we had.

Brown Bear rolling log over

Logs and boulders were no match for the bear’s powerful claws

Neither Henk nor I had ever been this close to a bear before, and certainly never watched one just ‘doing his own thing’ in the wild. We were fascinated, and nicknamed our first bear ‘Bent Nose’ as he seemed to have a crooked snout.

Bent Nose Bear Tofino

“Bent Nose” was our nickname for this guy

Two more beaches followed, with two more bears (“Brown Bum” at one end of the beach, and ‘Big Bear’ at the other), and we watched as each cautiously kept a territorial eye on the other.

2 bears on the same beach

‘Bear Beach’ had two foraging bears at opposite ends

Brown bear on beach

We nicknamed this guy “Brown Bum” for obvious reasons!

Caught in the middle of both bears we spotted a fisher, who was waiting for his chance to run to safety, and then bolted behind one of the bears to get to the safety of the trees.

Mink on the beach near Tofino

This fisher bolted once he saw the coast was clear

closeup of mink on beach

Hitting the Bear Watching Jackpot

It was on our return home that we hit the bear watching jackpot: a mother bear and two cubs high up on a rocky beach! Taking extra care to be quiet and not get too close, we watched as the ever-watchful mother bear called her cubs out from the forest and began nursing them on the beach. Henk and I felt like we were filming our own wildlife documentary as we silently watched this intimate family moment.

Mother bear nursing 2 cubs near Tofino

Mama Bear nursing her two cubs in an intimate moment on the beaches of Clayoquot Sound

Mama had lessons to teach, however, and after feeding the cubs for a little while, she then led them down to the rocks along the shore to show them how to find food.

Mother bear and cub on beach

Mama Bear showing Junior how to find food

Like typical toddlers, the cubs were more interested in playing and fighting with each other than searching for food, and we couldn’t help smiling as we watched them run around on the beach and cuff each other. Mama bear was keeping an ever-watchful eye on them too, while keeping her other eye on us.

Mother Bear calling with cubs

At this point we noticed another large boat was approaching, so we decided to leave that group to enjoy the bear family and we turned back for town. With hundreds of photos and videos in our cameras, our first bear-watching safari had exceeded our expectations, and we were leaving on a wildlife high.

Cute bear cub on rocks

How adorable is this little guy?

TIP: Bear watching in Tofino is timed to coincide with low tide, which changes daily, so you’ll want to plan ahead. For more information on these tours and others offered by Clayoquot Wild, check their website.

Special thanks to Tourism Tofino who provided Henk and I with a Media Passport, offering discounts on adventures and activities. And to Clayoquot Wild and Carla who made our amazing bear watching excursion happen on very short notice!






Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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