Skip to Content

Whale Watching in Tofino, Vancouver Island

Tofino may be tiny and remote, but it is world-famous for three reasons: surfing, storm watching, and whale watching. This charming little town sits at the end of the Trans Canada Highway on Vancouver Island where the mountainous coastal rain forest meets the pounding waves of the Pacific.

Bears, bald eagles, and cougars mingle side by side with grey whales, sea lions, killer whales, and sea otters, making Tofino one of Canada’s top wildlife-watching destinations. Most of the people visit to go whale watching in Tofino, bear watching, surfing, and to visit the hot springs in Tofino. But you can find plenty of other activities in our things to do in Tofino post. You won’t get bored in this incredible place!

Killer whale breaching off the coast of British Columbia
Killer whale breaching off the coast of British Columbia

*This article may contain affiliate links. We receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.*

Each March, the town holds its Pacific Rim Whale Festival. For 26 years, the locals have celebrated the arrival of the Grey Whales who migrate from Mexico in great numbers. They are on their way to the summer feeding grounds along the coast of Alaska. 

Dozens of activities from photo contests to documentary presentations bring the whole community together to see the whales gliding along the coast.  The festival fundraiser is one of the main events. The Wickaninnish Inn’s Gala Dinner and Silent Auction is a sold-out yearly event where they present the finest local cuisine and west coast treasures made by local artists to support whale education and research.

Fishing boats in Tofino harbor
The harbor (launching point for whale watching in Tofino trips and bear watching trips) sits beside incredible green rain forests

What Type of Whales Will You See In Tofino

When you go on a whale watching tour in Tofino you have a chance of seeing humpback whales, grey whales, and orca whales. You are most likely to see grey whales, while killer whales are a bit trickier to spot (orca whales are technically not whales but the largest of the dolphins!). 

Humpback whales are in the Tofino area from June to September. If you do see a whale during your tour, will you be able to tell them apart? Check out our post How to Identify a Grey Whale and make the most of your outing. Hint: Grey whales don’t have a dorsal fin.

What Other Wildlife Will You See?

The Tofino area (Clayoquot Sound included) is one of the top wildlife destinations in Canada. And you’ll see why when you take your whale watching trip. On your whale tour, you can also see steller sea lions, sea otters, and harbor porpoises among other sea mammals, as well as a wide variety of sea birds and bald eagles.

whale safari boat
Whale safari boat
Bald eagle on top of a tree
You might get lucky and see a bald eagle hunt

Some times of the year are better than others if you want to see other wildlife in this pristine wilderness. 

For example, if you want to see bears in their natural environment, April to October is the best time. And during low tide is better, as you’ll find black bears foraging on the beaches. We saw the black bear in the photo below flipping large rocks in search of lunch. 

If you want to see Tufted puffins, time your tour from June to the end of August. We didn’t get to see Tufted puffins as our trip was in September and we had just missed them. 

Black bear on a rocky beach
Black bear foraging on a beach

So, if I was visiting again and I could choose the best time of the year, I’d probably go during the summer months, specifically in late July, to make sure I got the most wildlife sightings out of our trip.  

Whale watching in Tofino
A gray whale dives down to feed off the coast of Vancouver Island

Our Tour

We took our tour with The Whale Center, and while it wasn’t a private tour, ours was one of the small groups that went out that day. There were maybe 8 people on it. 

Their 2.5-hour whale watching trip takes you to the unsheltered bays surrounding Tofino where the open Pacific Ocean can be a bit rough. It’s a small price to pay to watch Pacific gray whales feeding and lobtailing. Our boat was definitely heaving a bit, but we got to see some resident Stellar sea lions. 

Steller Sea Lions haul out on a wave-battered island near Tofino. Sighted on whale tour with The Whale Centre.
Steller Sea Lions haul out on a wave-battered island near Tofino. Sighted on whale tour with The Whale Centre.

Then we had a few magical whale sightings with a couple of Gray whales and Humpback whales. That’s all you need to forget seasickness. 

Gray whale watching in Tofino
Watching Gray Whales near Tofino
A humpback whale heading for the sky

I shouldn’t forget about the cutest sea otter we saw floating in the ocean!

Sea otter on its back
Sea otter floating on the ocean

After some time in the open ocean, the tour retreated to the more sheltered inland bays. This is where you normally go on a bear-watching tour. The water is calmer than in the open sea, so photography and video work are much easier. Black bears emerge on the rocky beaches at low tide to search for crabs under the barnacle-encrusted stones. (Grizzly bears are only very rarely spotted on Vancouver Island, in the rare occurrence that a grizzly swims over from nearby islands.) Watch how easily they flip huge rocks over and how effortless it seems! The bears don’t seem to be bothered by boats near the shore, but they will leave if another bear approaches their feeding area.

Bear watching in Tofino
Bear watching from the water is non-intrusive
Wildife watching in Tofino, bear watching in Tofino
Black Bears lift up rocks along the shore in search of a meal

Whale Watching Tours in Tofino

There are a number of tour operators in the Tofino area. We used The Whale Center and we recommend them, but here’s a list with others in case The Whale Center is booked up. Some of these outfitters will arrange a private charter too.

Weather conditions will affect whether your tour is a go or not. Normally, tours are not canceled if it’s raining. They’ll only cancel if the ocean conditions are too rough and unsafe. Most of the outfitters will give you a ‘rain check’, meaning you can come back another day and use your ticket. Check with your tour operator. 

A zodiac with passengers wearing red vests.
Private whale watching tour group.

Kayak Whale Watching

It is possible to see whales from a kayak. For that, of course, you’ll need to book a sea kayaking tour. Majestic Ocean Kayaking offers day trip and multi-day kayaking tours. While whale watching is not the main focus of this tour company, there is a chance you’ll have an unforgettable close encounter while kayaking. Note that these tours operate from Ucluelet. 

Kayakers around Broken Islands
Kayaking in Vancouver Island

Where to Stay in Tofino

There are many types of accommodation in Tofino, from camping to motels to upscale establishments, and of course you can find beautiful cabins in Tofino.

Now that you’ve seen whales and bears, you need to check out the beautiful North Pacific tidal pools. Colorful sea anemones, shy hermit crabs, and the many-legged sunflower stars, all live in these pools and the best place to see them is at the Wickaninnish Inn. The beaches in Tofino and mudflats around the inn are also vital for shorebirds like the Western Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitcher, and the Semi-palmated Plover who stop in the area to feed and rest during their annual migration. We stayed here for a night and it was a great place to put your feet up after a hike, you can check out our Wickaninnish Inn review here.

The Wickaninnish Inn, classy accomodation in Tofino
A group of starfish at low tide by the Wickaninnish Inn

It does get wet around the pools as the tide comes back in, but don’t worry about getting your feet soaked. The Wick (as the inn is locally known) has rain boots for you to borrow, as well as raincoats, and umbrellas. If you do climb on the rocks, make sure you don’t step on top of the barnacles and mussels. They are much more fragile than you’d expect.

After your busy day of wildlife watching and hiking, settle down in your cozy room, where you can storm watch by the warmth of your own fireplace, or enjoy a world-class dinner at The Pointe Restaurant with panoramic oceanfront views.

Oystercatchers silhouettes during a stormy evening
Oystercatchers in front of the Wickaninnish on a stormy evening

Other incredible places to stay in Tofino include the Pacific Sands Tofino and the Ocean Village Beach Resort with cute cabins right on the beach. Or how about staying in the equally cute Ucluelet village? Check out these Ucluelet cabins, just a few miles down the road from Tofino.

If your budget is tight we recommend the Green Point campground at Long Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (open May 1 to mid-October). If you ever wanted to camp with gnomes, this forest fairyland is probably your best chance!

Camping at the Green Point campground
Camping in Green Point campground

Have you been to Vancouver Island? Share your wildlife adventures in the comments below! And don’t forget to PIN IT!

orca whale breaching

Cristina Garcia

Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.

Read her posts at Travel For Wildlife and see more of her work at Truly Wild, & Our Wild Yard.

Sand In My Suitcase

Friday 1st of November 2013

You've written about one of our favorite destinations - thank you! We've encountered black bears hiking on the trails in Pacific Rim National Park, but we haven't been to Thornton Creek Fish Hatchery (will have to do that next time we visit :-). In winter, storm watching is the thing to do in Tofino and at the Wick. Here's our post on that:


Thursday 31st of October 2013

We were in Tofino in May and splashed out to do a Whale watching tour as well and lovedddd it, seeing orca and feeding humpbacks! We went to Hot Springs Cove and it was bliss in the pouring rain ;)

Cristina Garcia

Wednesday 6th of November 2013

You went to Hot Springs Cove? I wish we had done that!

Mary @ Green Global Travel

Thursday 31st of October 2013

Tofino looks absolutely beautiful and appears to be an extraordinary locale for those interested in wildlife and the natural world! Thank you for these amazing recommendations.

Cristina Garcia

Wednesday 6th of November 2013

It is a dream of a place. I hope I can come back one day!