In Tofino, Bears and Otters

· Updated on March 23, 2023

During our last roadside stop on a six-hour drive from Victoria, British Columbia to the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, my Dad and I watched a tall and lanky German tourist with a tuft of hair on his chest climb a twenty-foot rock in the hot August sun.

He stood on the edge of the smooth grey cliff, turned his back to the cold mountain water and faced the stands of giant cedars on the glacially-carved hillside. He paused, put his arms straight by his side and shouted, Eins, Zwei, Drei! before backflipping beautifully into a little cerulean pool of the Kennedy River.

He splashed and slid about playfully in the water as his friend, a much hairier and bear-ier man, recorded him on a GoPro from the side and boomed exclamations after capturing his friend’s daredevil stunt.

Welcome to Tofino, I thought.

Before my trip, I had gawked at photos of the gorgeous district of nearly 2,000 that sits on the Esowista Peninsula in the Clayoquot Sound and read about the region’s first people, the coastal Nuu-chah-nulth.

Tofino, British Columbia rests among a land of towering mountains, massive freshwater lakes, temperate coastal rainforests, seasonally snow-covered beaches, wolves, bears, sea otters, river otters, werewolves (seriously, Twilight: New Moon was filmed in the area) and epic Pacific swells that have made it an internationally known surf town. It is, in essence, a land lover’s paradise, a wildlife enthusiast’s dream, and an outdoors person’s playground, but the town welcomes all with a crafty food and arts scene.

After we got back into our car rental, we drove the remaining forty minutes on the Pacific Rim Highway that swerved us through the coastal marine layer and by wide black sand beaches freckled with white sand dollars before we arrived in town.

As my Dad and I settled into our little Airbnb on the waterfront, we watched bald eagles flap by as the sun set starfish pink over the Pacific. We watched seaplanes coming and going from Vancouver, struggling for liftoff from the water like flapping loons.

The following morning was overcast, with sprinkles of rain. Tofino, after all, receives about 200 days of rain and 7 days of snow a year. After grabbing coffee at Rhino, one of Tofino’s many little coffee shops, we strolled through town towards The Whale Center so we could get out on the water, take in the region by boat, and hopefully see whales. But I was especially hoping to see an entirely different sea mammal, perhaps my favorite animal, Enhydra lutris, the sea otter.

We checked in at the center for our tour before stepping into our mandatory firetruck red anti-exposure coverall flotation suits. As we waited for the other tour guests, I read about the company’s other experiences. They offered full-day tours to remote hot springs (perfect for the region’s moody, cold days) as well as “bear-watching” tours that took visitors to remote shores were black bears scavenged for food.

I’ve had the lucky opportunity of countless sightings on trails and at campsites from California to Canada with the beloved Ursus americanus, so I was happy we picked the whale tour, to see animals I rarely came across. That said, the thought of bears on the rocky shores beside the sea seemed truly exotic—I’ll have to come back, I thought.

After my Dad and I and six others boarded the small tour boat, we got a safety debriefing from our guide and captain, Howie, who told us of his love for his job. The man doesn’t take a day off during the high tourist season and also told us that he loves Tofino so much, he hasn’t left the area for over a decade. His Instagram is a love note to the region’s wildlife—he’s captured swimming wolves, breaching orcas, and rafts of otters.

Photo: Jeremy Koreski

Once on board, we threaded through the inlet slowly, curved around the peninsula, then rocketed out of the no-wake zone into the open waters of the Pacific. For a few minutes, we blasted across the sea as the boat smacked against the waves before coming to a complete stop.

Bobbing beside us was a large forest of bull kelp. It was slimy, brownish red, partially puke green, and wiggled with each oncoming wave. Also known as Nereocystis (which is Greek for mermaid’s bladder) the brown alga is an amazing specimen that dominates the waters of the Pacific Northwest. But we didn’t stop to inspect the kelp.

“Well, would you look at that!” Howie said over the boat’s intercom, “We’ve got an otter, here!”

Anchored and tied securely in the kelp was a large, mature sea otter lounging on its back.  It massaged its head with its furry little paws as if it were shampooing itself. Its face was lighter than its dark brown body and it began scratching the coarse fur on its tummy as its feet sculled about.

Its whiskers erupted from its wet nose that sniffed the smell of salt and kelp and exhaust from our boat’s motor. After another minute lounging, the otter flipped over and swam around the kelp, moving its long body like a slinky through the water in perfect grace.

My words can’t describe the wonder and I couldn’t capture the scene with my camera in the lighting, so check out these gifs of other sea otters to understand the show this otter was performing:

After years of otter obsession—sending gifs like these, postcards, and memes of the giant marine weasels playing, holding hands in large single-sex rafts, and smacking sea urchins with rocks—I finally had my first sea otter sighting and it was the most endearing wildlife sighting I’ve yet to experience.

This is otterly adorable, I thought to myself but didn’t dare say out loud.

Howie gave us some information about sea otters, as the animal continued to put on an adorable show, parading about with kittenish, buoyant, look-at-me gazes:

— Sea otters live 99.99% of their lives entirely in the water.

— They were hunted ruthlessly until 1911 during the otter pelt trade, until only 2,000 remained. The sea otter still remains threatened.

— They are one of the few mammals to use tools (stones) which they keep in a little armpit pocket for their entire life to break open sea urchins.

— Sea otters are listed as a species by Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl  (1 of over 450)  that has been observed showing homosexual/bisexual/queer behavior (OK, Howie didn’t tell us this, but, I researched it and so if you can handle it, check out this related story on Daz and Chip, two gay Asian small-clawed otters who once lived inseparably for 15 years in a zoo in Nelson, New Zealand until one died. The other died an hour later due to a heart attack).

— Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning, in layman’s terms, that the entire ecosystem relies on them.

After Howie finished his brief overview of the otter, we slowly left the sopping wet creature—which broke my dear little heart—as we pushed deeper into the heavy marine layer in search of what? Oh right, whales…

After a few minutes of silence, looking left and right at the endless greyness that engulfed us, we had our first sighting. It was a lone humpback whale that came up for a breath a hundred feet from the boat, sprouted an eight-foot-high phloosh! from its blowhole, before flapping and dunking its massive whale tail into the water.

Whale, hello there, I thought but didn’t dare say aloud.

We trailed the lone humpback, giving it plenty of space as it popped up unpredictably after two minute long dives until it eventually swindled us and disappeared into the greyness. It was a beautiful animal, it really was. I absolutely love whales and am in awe of them and will march with Greenpeace until they are safe (looking at you, Japan), so don’t get me wrong here, but the thing about whales is if they’re being shy i.e. not swimming near you or breaching, you can’t really get a good look at them from afar. So while some of our snap-happy boat mates were especially sad to lose the whale, my mind was delightfully musing on otter things.

But, no luck. I predicted we were too far out to sea for otters who tend to hug the kelpy coastline. Instead, we caught our second whale sighting of the day: a grey whale that, like the humpback, would show us its long blubbery back and whale tail before disappearing for minutes, only to pop up hundreds of meters away.

We chased the grey whale, just like we tailed the humpback until it too disappeared into the greyness. It became a tired game, this whole whale watching charade—I asked myself, why don’t we just park next to the otter and watch it all day? We could have brought beers and snacks and just spectated, cheered on the little fella as it napped and munched on sea urchins? Surely that would have been more entertaining?

I crossed my fingers and hoped for more giant sea weasels, but, the three-hour tour went on and all we came across were a duo of harbor porpoises and a colony of stellar sea lions, stinking up a rock island. I realize the fortunate tour we were given with two whale sightings, porpoises, and other aquatic mammals (and some birds! Like Marbled Murrelets and Black Oystercatchers!)…but only one otter?!

On our return back to land, I began to consider the otter, not only because I missed it, but because I admired it. In many ways, the animal is a constant reminder of the pursuit of happiness — perhaps even the furry, whiskered embodiment of it. I considered its role not only as the most adorable creature in existence but also, in the gay tribe of people.

The otter, like the bear, is hairy, though, not nearly as burly. A bear was the German tourist videoing his friend, and an otter was the cliff jumper with his tuft of hair on his chest that fell down to his treasure trail. The otter, it seems, is not a twink, but also, not yet a bear or a cub. A rugged twink? Maybe. A rugged twunk? The human otter is an in between species; the question is, is it a keystone species like the sea otter?

Perhaps, it’s just a phase, perhaps it has to do with the right amount scruff to age ratio—but no matter what, I believe the tribe to be inclusive. I believe anyone can identify as an otter regardless of their body type, if they so choose, as long as they exhibit playfulness.

Photo: John Forde

When we box ourselves into groups and subgroups in our community, are we anthropomorphizing these animals, or are we zoomorphizing ourselves? Either way, it seems we are escaping from the confines and stressors of not only heteronormative humanity but from the limiting queer mainstream image we’ve been told is handsome. We can be something besides gay, besides human, besides… tragic. We can be carefree and happy, playful and lovable.

What the sea otter and its river cousin do that has cast the species in memes, viral videos, get well cards, ornaments, and gifs is promote an ever winsome zest for life through a buoyancy that is nearly impossible to not admire. What’s more, they show us, through their cozy rafts, an act of affection and connection, which is, no matter what we’re into, what we all yearn for.

It is the same playfulness I admired in the cliff jumper, who took the opportunity of a warm day on a road trip to enjoy his surroundings, to be active, silly, puerile, and adventurous. That may be one of the qualities I find most endearing — I hope one day for a partner with the same zeal for playful escapism. To jump with, splash with, and float side by side with.

To better understand what I’m after, please see the gifs below:

I was taken out of my otterly thoughts as the marine layer began to burn off and the afternoon sun began to throw itself on the water, turning what was once a grey and disorienting seascape into dark blue nirvana with a backdrop of titanic mountains and polka dot islands.

As we began to exit the open ocean for the inlet, we slowed and hugged the border of another kelp forest. I scanned as we crawled by. Everyone else on the boat, except for my father and I, had checked out. Their cameras had been stashed and they were celebrating their whale sightings no longer looking at the sea.

And so they missed, in my opinion, the best sighting of the day. To my immense enjoyment, tangled in the bull kelp were two otters. They were neatly camouflaged in the algae and held themselves together by their paws as they floated on their backs.

With their little eyes closed, the sun on their thick coats, and their bodies anchored in the kelp, they snuggled side by side, despite the ravages of the Pacific, and of life itself.

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