Whales add to Vancouver Island's timeless charm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am

There can be few greater contrasts than Vancouver and neighbouring Vancouver Island. The former is a fresh Pacific capital city, bursting with confidence, while the latter - an hour's ferry ride away - is a gentle, rugged mass where the pace of life rolls with the breakers that pile in from the Pacific Ocean.

It's a part of British Columbia that many visitors often skate by en route to the province's more prominent attractions, but for Vancouverites - and particularly its sizeable Chinese population - the island ranks as their own backyard.

And it's no small coincidence that aircraft flying in from Hong Kong bound for Vancouver International coast right above the island's tiny western port of Tofino, their first Canadian landfall since setting off from Asia.

From spring until late October, grey whales are a constant feature off the coast. Their appearance begins with a migration parade, as some 20,000 head north to feeding grounds off Siberia on an 8,000-kilometre trip that started in Baja, Mexico. While most of the whales swim on past Tofino, up to a dozen take up residence, spending the summer moving from bay to bay, before moving into one of their favourite feeding grounds in Clayoquot Sound.

When the main body migrates south again to breed and give birth, the Tofino resident whales join up and swim off with them. Many of Tofino's former shrimp fishermen have converted their boats and now run whale-watching tours, offering a guaranteed sighting or a voucher - valid for 100 years - for a second, free trip.

Some 14 metres long and weighing up to 40 tonnes, these leviathans on their annual odyssey provide watchers with an experience that can only be described as awesome.

The grey whales are just the most obvious of the area's wildlife. Kayakers can spot river otters, harbour seals and bald eagles. Auklets, murrelets, ospreys, blue herons, loons and cormorants are among more than 400 species of birds that make the area their home, while the comical-looking tufted puffin is a popular crowd-pleaser.

A short boat or plane trip from Tofino leads to Hot Springs Cove, where heated water bubbles up in a series of pools from underground springs in a 100 per cent natural alfresco jacuzzi. Similarly spectacular are the rainforests where centuries-old Sitka spruce trees, some more than three metres in diameter, tower 90 metres high, forming a thick, almost eerie canopy.

If nature is Tofino's greatest attraction, the place is at its most elemental on Chesterman Beach. Even on busy days, its broad expanse appears deserted. It has a different appeal for all its many visitors. For the surfers, encased in wetsuits and with eyes fixed firmly out to sea, it's the superb wave crests. For the beachcombers, it's the treasure that might be washed up, from a container load of designer shoes that once fell from a cargo ship to fishermen's glass floats that have miraculously been swept undamaged by the currents all the way from Asia. For the hikers with their dogs, it's the uninterrupted vistas, the firm sand beneath their feet, and air that is fresh and pure enough to taste.

A major part of the charm of Tofino is its distinct small-town ambience. The airport - built to counter possible enemy invasion in the second world war - is about as low-key as it's possible to get. The adjacent golf course runs to just nine holes and is described as 'challenging'. On and around Main Street, there's a liquor outlet, a church, a few stores and souvenir shops, and a clutch of restaurants.

Everybody knows everybody else, from the surfers, whose life is the beach with a little work thrown in to keep the dollars coming, to the artists - painters, sculptors, belly dance teachers - and residents who run the major businesses, all happily leading their lives at the edge of the ocean with nothing but water all the way to Hong Kong.