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?
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.
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
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’.
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).
Bears on the Beaches
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!SaveSave
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.
Thanks for the fab post about wildlife watching in Tofini. It is indeed an Incredible destination for naturalists.
Thanks, Doreen. We didn’t even know we could do that until we arrived there – a great surprise.
What an amazing experience to see these beautiful creatures in the wild like this! I also would have thought trying to find bears via boat would not be such a success, but you hit the jackpot. Baby photos are always cute, and your baby bear pictures are indeed adorable!
Thank you! Henk was shooting like mad with his DSLR but of course the boat was not completely stationary, so he was afraid the images wouldn’t be in sharp focus. Needless to say, we were thrilled to get some of the shots that we did.
Good to know. Great photos of bears in a nontraditional setting…among rocks and the water! Will try it when we go to Victoria next year!
I would highly recommend it, Carol. As yet another excuse to visit Tofino!
I love these photos, especially of mama bear nursing baby bear. Looks like a great tour! Thanks for sharing this
Thanks, Wendy. It was something Henk and I didn’t even know we wanted to do until we had the opportunity and it exceeded our expectations! (especially the mama bear!)
Thank you for sharing your story about your time with Clayoquot Wild! Awesome!
My pleasure, Carla. It was a great adventure!