I think I have mentioned (maybe more than once!) in previous posts about my great bear phobia. Well, in total contrast to this phobia, I engaged in a bear watching tour last autumn. My sister was over visiting me for a couple of weeks, and we headed across to Tofino on Vancouver Island. One of the many touristy things you can choose to do there is bear watching. M had been over there with his parents a few weeks prior, and they had done a bear watching tour, which even he had to admit (great hater of all things touristy that he is) was a pretty awesome experience. So my sister and I decided that was definitely on our list of things we wanted to do.
We headed to the Whale Centre (see their website here) for our tour. Why did I choose these guys? A couple of good reasons (and no they are not paying me to write this, in fact they have no clue I am writing this!). First up, you may remember I wrote a post about “A day (or two) in my life“, where I was out off the coast from Tofino sampling seabirds – well we chartered the guys from the Whale Centre to take us out. They were really nice people and even when the conditions started to cut up, I felt safe with them. Secondly, they use open boats (a 24 foot Boston Whaler to be precise!) which many of the other companies doing bear tours don’t, so you are still stuck behind glass staring out. Third, because of the small size of their boat, they don’t take more than 12 people (I think?) – a far cry from the bigger tour companies who have large enclosed boats and can take up to about 50 people at a time, which also means they can get in closer to shore and in places where the bigger boats can’t fit. And lastly, their prices seemed really reasonable to me – Tofino is a tourism-based village, so prices get jacked up on nearly everything, but for the fact these guys aren’t taking loads of people each trip, their prices were still pretty good. Just beware, one of the skippers (owner?) John likes to tell a pretty awesome story about rescuing a bear cub inadvertently trapped under a rock turned over by momma bear – I heard it when we chartered these guys for work and he managed to naturally get the conversation around to it on our tour too (but I must admit, if I had a cool story like that to share I’d milk it too!).
Anyway, I digress.
We suited up (bright orange mustang survival suits, I’ve posted a pic of myself in one before, same deal again here) and hopped on board. Now, for once in her life, my sister’s relative lack of height worked to her (our) advantage! She was the shortest on the trip so she got to sit in the very front seat of the boat at the bow – me being her buddy on the trip, I got to sit there too. So we had the best seats in the house.
Off we went, zipping over the water. These tours can only be done at low tide, as the bears we observe are on the low intertidal zone flipping rocks over and eating the big crabs they find underneath. Hence, the tours run in accordance with when low tide is, which for us meant a 7am start, never easy when you are on holiday! It wasn’t a brilliant sunny day, but rather we started out in damp foggy weather, which soon lifted to give us a low overcast grey sheen. Probably better for taking photos however!
First up, we didn’t see just bears – and as a nature lover I was totally into that. Sea lions, various birds, herons, juvenile bald eagles (and later an adult bald eagle posed beautifully for us) plus a pod of 3 harbour porpoises were all on the menu. And all of this only served to raise anticipation about getting to see bears.
The bears we saw were black bears – smaller than their grizzly cousins. They were totally unphased by us coming in to view them. I can’t actually convey how close we got to them – typically, John could nudge the bow of the boat in to shore and be only 2 metres out (the benefits of a smaller boat), while the bears were maybe 1 or 2 metres away (and yet somehow I felt totally safe – maybe because we could back out of there quickly, maybe because the bears seriously did not even glance in our direction). You could hear them crunching on the crabs, the sounds as the rocks were flipped over, the water lapping against the boat and the shore (clearly everyone was really quiet as we were all just entranced by the spectacle in front of us). They could flip these big rocks over as though it was just a small pebble in their way – their strength was incredible. These guys may not look so big, but when they stand on their hind legs they are 6 feet plus from nose to toe – and I wouldn’t want to run into one. Anyway, a few photos to give you a taster of what we were so lucky to see.