As far as the top things to do in Ucluelet go, whale watching is close to number one. Like its neighbor, Tofino, B.C., visitors to Ucluelet can go whale watching nearly year-round. Seeing these creatures close up is an amazing sight! Because it’s such a great thing to do though, you have plenty of decisions to make to choose a charter and the type of experience you want. Wondering where to start? Check out these helpful tips to find out what to expect, when to go and to learn more about the kinds of whales you can spot on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
What to Expect
Whale watching tours are usually around three hours long and will run rain or shine. However, keep in mind that every company may vary, and that the time of year will also change the experience. You can definitely expect to go on your trip even if the weather is a bit dreary, though. Unless there are extreme winds and large swell, most companies will head out on their ocean adventure! Seasickness is a pretty rare occurrence, but if you know you’re prone to it, you may want to be prepared. Your boat will be safe and certified, but the size, type and amenities will depend on who you book with and what type of boat you choose. Be sure to find one that suits your needs – booking a zodiac when you want a bathroom onboard is not a great choice! You’ll always have a knowledgeable and skilled captain that follows certain restrictions when whale watching: your boat will slow down to less than 7 knots when about 400m of a whale. This keeps the whales safe and reduces the impact of whale watching trips on these beautiful creatures. You can also expect to see a number of other, magnificent west coast creatures during your charter!
What to Wear and Bring
Be prepared for the weather! It can often be quite a bit colder on the water as well, so dressing in layers is a good idea. Some companies provide rain suits, which will help with the cold and keep you safe from splashes. Be sure to ask ahead of time so that you can prepare a bit better. You’ll also want to be sure to have close-toed shoes and if you’re in a boat like a zodiac, have something that keeps your hat on your head, and your sunglasses on your face.
If the day is sunny, sunglasses, sunscreen and hats are a great idea – thanks to the reflection of the sun on the water and the cool breeze when racing around the ocean, getting burnt is easy to do. If it’s less than ideal outside, pack some rain gear, warm layers and maybe even gloves! Next, you’ll want a camera to capture all the amazing moments on the water, but be sure to have something waterproof to carry it in, and wear the strap while taking photos. Snacks and motion sickness medication will also keep you happy out there on the ocean.
Things to Know Before You Go
Be sure to read the charter’s website thoroughly before you go, so that you can be prepared for your west coast experience. If you can’t find something, don’t be afraid to ask, either! Not sure what you should know? Here are some suggestions:
When is departure and return?
How early do you need to arrive before your charter?
Are there rain/floater suits on board?
What type of boat is it?
Is there a washroom on board?
How many people go on each trip?
Is there a hydrophone on board?
Is there a sighting guarantee? If so, how does it work and what’s the guarantee?
Types of Whales in Ucluelet
Orcas (killer whales) are usually a top priority to spot while on a whale watching trip, but unfortunately, these guys aren’t very common out on the west coast. Some years are better than others though, and this year saw them popping up more than expected! Technically, orcas are actually part of the dolphin family, which is reflected in their intelligence and social needs. They weigh up to 6-tonnes and grow to be about 7 meters long! Their socialness means that if you see one, you’ll likely see the whole pod. The solution to finding a single killer whale when they’re always in pods is by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. Each have a unique grey patch just behind its dorsal fin, and the shape, length and other dorsal fin features help identify them.
In Ucluelet and Tofino there is a giant celebration every winter. Why? The Pacific Rim Whale Festival celebrates the 20,000 Gray whales that migrate past the west coast on their way between the Baja and Alaska! From February to April, spotting Gray whales on a whale watching trip is pretty much guaranteed – it’s one of the largest mammal migrations on earth. Besides migrating, gray whales feed on things like crabs, plankton and tube worms. They roll on their side and scrape up sediment into their mouths and then filter it out through their baleen. To spot a particular gray whale, scientists look at the scars left on their sides from warm-water parasites. To tell them apart from Humpbacks, look for a row of knuckles between their dorsal hump and tail.
These are the most common summer whales on the coast of Ucluelet. They’re also the largest of whales around Vancouver Island. They grow to about 16m long at the largest, and can weigh up to 36,000kgs! They possess baleen instead of teeth, and feed on some of the smallest ocean creatures around: plankton, krill and small fish. Considering their large size, they need to eat up to 2 tonnes of food every single day. Thanks a lot of little creatures! Humpbacks are identified by the unique patterns on their tails, often spotted as they take a deep dive. They have a big hump on their back (no surprise there) and are usually dark gray in colour. You can see them putting on magnificent shows by spy hopping, breaching and diving.
When to Go
Depending on the kind of whales you want to see, the time of year to go will vary. Most companies close down from October-February or March for the storm season, and re-open for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival. To see Humpback Whales, visit in May to September. Then, in February to April, it’s time for the Gray whales to take over as they explore the coast during their migration. The others – transient orcas and resident whales – kick around nearly any season. Besides whales, you’ll see tons of other animals like seals, sea lions, otters, eagles and even porpoises no matter what time of year you go. No wonder whale watching is a top thing to do in Ucluelet!