Remote Passage

Tofino whale watching
Whales Bears Hot Springs Sea Kayaking Meares Island

Whale Watching in Tofino - Pacific Gray Whales

The Pacific Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus)

Gray Whale Facts

  • low hump and series of knuckles instead of a dorsal fin
  • baleen plates of coarse bristles that hang from the upper jaw instead of teeth
  • double blowholes creating a heart-shaped spout 4.5 m (15 feet) in height.
  • 10 -14 m (30 - 50 feet) which is mid-range for baleen whales
  • 27,000 - 36,000kg (30 - 40 tons) with the females usually larger than the males
  • Calves are approximately 4.5 m (15 feet) and 700 kg (1500 pounds) pounds at birth
  • Yearlings are up to 8 m (26 feet) and 3600 kg (4 tons)
  • reach sexual maturity at about 8 years or 12 meters
  • female Gray Whales can give birth every 2 years and have a gestation period of 12 - 13 months
    life expectancy of up to 60 years


The Gray Whale’s life cycle begins in early January with breeding and the birth of new calves in the warm, protective lagoons of Baja, Mexico. They will remain there until calves can strengthen and build up a layer of blubber to sustain them on the long migration and in the cold northern waters. In February the first non-breeding Gray Whales arrive off Vancouver Island en route to their Arctic feeding waters in the Bering, Chukchi and western Beaufort Seas.

Gray Whale food is very scarce in warm water so winter is essentially a long fast during which the whales can lose up to a third of their body weight. Consequently, Gray Whales tend to tightly follow the coastline as they migrate and pause frequently to feed in any shallow, mud or sand-bottomed areas they encounter. This makes for ideal whale watching, especially in Clayoquot Sound with its numerous beaches, mudflats and sandy bays. Peak numbers are seen off Tofino throughout March and early April with cows and their calves drawing up the rear of the migratory population, and a number of the migrators remain off Tofino until October each year.

During migration Gray Whales cover 60-80 kilometers a day at 3-5 km/hour but can swim up to 18 km/hour for short bursts. Generally they swim at the surface and blow 3-5 times at intervals of 30-50 seconds before a deep dive of 5-10 minutes. Sometimes as Gray Whales dive they raise their tail fluke; if a whale raises its tail fluke on most dives in a certain feeding area, it is often called a “fluker”.

After feeding all summer Gray Whales begin to leave the Bering and Chuchki Seas in October and Tofino as late as November with the pregnant females in the lead traveling southward at about 8 km/hour. The migrating whales arrive in the Baja lagoons through December and January to repeat the mating and birthing cycle.

Not all whales make the 16,000 - 22,000 kilometer (10,000 - 14,000 mile) migration, which is the longest migration of any mammal. A sub population of “Resident” Gray Whales return here to Tofino and the west coast to feed throughout the summer. These whales have been identified through photo identification projects, and more recently through genetic studies, and they are known to return to the west coast of central Vancouver Island during most summers. Some of the local “Residents” have been observed repeatedly for as long as whale watching has been offered from Tofino. These ‘resident’ whales are well-known to locals, as some individuals such as Two Dot Star and Saddle have been seen regularly off Tofino since the 1970’s.


Two former Gray Whale populations in the North Atlantic and Korea are now extinct as a result of over-hunting. It was only after Eastern Pacific Gray Whales were hunted to the edge of extinction that the International Whaling Commission gave them full protection (1946).

Since then, they have made a remarkable recovery, with the current population estimated at 19,000 animals. In 1994, the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale population was taken off the endangered species list, thus losing its protection. Presently, subsistence hunting is allowed by natives in Alaska and Siberia. Other perils threatening the Grays are increased industrial activity and boat traffic in the birthing lagoons, and pollution of feeding grounds with oil and toxic wastes.

While the Gray Whale has recovered, its habitats are endangered. It is certain that a concerned public will continue to be the whale’s greatest hope for the future.