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March 2, 2024

Celebrating the return of the whales

by Erin Linn McMullan

A whale’s gaze feels like a portal into ancient living wisdom and a mysterious underseas world. Close encounters with these sentient giants will leave you transformed whether it’s spotting a Pacific Humpback spy hopping off Green Point at Long Beach, an Eastern North Pacific Grey Whale mother and calf peacefully feeding nearby while you surf Chesterman, or passing whales further out in the channel while SUPing off Tin Wis aka MacKenzie Beach or Ḥiłwinʔis, (pronounced Hilth-win-is) aka Middle Beach.

The west coast of Vancouver Island is home to Orcas (Orcinus orca), a toothed whale in the oceanic dolphin family, and the summer feeding grounds for baleen whales including Pacific Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), and a thriving population of Eastern North Pacific Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) – whose return the community celebrates each spring during the Pacific Rim Whale Festival over BC’s March break. Both humpbacks and greys are migration superstars traveling back from warmer winter breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico/Baja California to feed around Vancouver Island or using it as a stopover enroute to Alaska.

The general Nuu-chah-nulth central region dialect word for whale is Ihtuup — “Ih” meaning “really big” and “tuup” meaning “animal” or “creature” and an orca is known as kakaw̓in. Nuu-chah-Nulth People have a profound relationship with whales as a whaling culture which has made the transition to eco-tourism. Collaborative work between whale scientists and knowledge keepers has identified that Fin Whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and North Pacific Right Whales (Eubalaena Japonica) were once common in these waters, with recent sightings suggesting they’re returning.

Tin Wis Resort, an accredited Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) Original Original, is partnering with Ahous Adventures, ITAC 2024’s winner of “New Operator or Business that launched a new experience”. It’s the perfect combination of accommodation and adventure during this celebration of whales. This Ahousaht-owned ecotourism company offers guided whale and bear watching tours and exclusive-access visits to the medicinal Hot Springs on traditional Ahousaht territory providing interpretation through an Indigenous lens.  

“When I think of whales, I don’t think of them by their scientific name, I highly respect and think of them as a giving being—beings imbued with significant spiritual power who make incredible contributions to our society,” says Tyson Atleo (?ikaatius), co-owner of Ahous Adventures and a hereditary representative of the Ahousaht Nation. “Our family’s reverence for the legacy of and alignment to supernatural law is very important to us,” he stresses, personally coming from a whaling ancestry through his great-great-great grandfather Keesta, the last generation in his family to practice whaling along with Keesta’s late-grandson-in-law Edwin Frank.

Tyson recounts traveling with his grandfather, Dr. Richard Atleo (Umeek) and father, Shawn Atleo (Ahupwaeek), former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to Neah Bay, to present the Makah whaler with a headdress given to his grandfather on receiving his doctoral degree.

Tyson emphasizes that Ahousaht is amidst an “historical transition” as a Nuu-chah-nulth whaling culture rebuilding its relationship with the whale through eco-tourism with this venture. Through Ahous Adventures, which provides economic opportunities, employment, and training for Ahousaht community members, there is continuity with the whale as an “iconic resource”.

“For the community, we’re still dependent on the concept of the whale. It’s important for the world to know that they’re so much more than just their physical presence. They’re still alive and well for us and it is not without spiritual intent that we made our first foray into whale watching. They continue to provide for us. 

“There’s archaeological evidence of whaling in Nuu-chah-nulth communities – Ahousaht being central to that – that date back 4,000 years,” says Tyson, a relationship with whales also captured by several anthropologists. However, he points out, “Traditional knowledge and oral histories clearly depict a well-established society of whaling for a significant time beyond that. Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples and Ahousaht People are connected for many thousands of years of history, dependent on whales for social and economic well-being.

“Historically, the community would maintain connection to the whale through spiritual protocol and rigorous prayer by the whaler and family, the crew and community to petition the great being of the whale to give themselves to our community that we might survive. We pay them respect by committing ourselves to their spirit through prayer, ceremony, and celebration.

“And so, we are rebuilding our connections,” says Tyson, with the launch of Ahous Adventures in 2023, “staying true to our culture and traditions, we are finding our way back to that.”

Coming from a whaling lineage, Tyson is carrying forward “the lessons of my ancestors that tell me that a whale is a beautiful being that sacrifices themselves to us – representative of leadership and discipline.

“As an avid naturalist, I am in awe of their intelligence, their social bonds, their grace, their power. I went to the island of Rurutu, in the Austral Islands in French Polynesia to learn more about those connections.

“What I learned is how similar people’s connections are with whales around the world and how our captains and guides can share a bit about that history with our guests. It’s going to take more effort to increase awareness of the true breadth of whales’ characteristics in our culture, and it’s up to us to educate ourselves. Ahousaht and Ahous Adventures will do our best to invite people into deep culture and spiritual relationship.

“As a conservationist, we need to respect traditional knowledge – there are some private things but the world needs our relationship with whales – our historical relationship, more.”   

Ahous Adventures’ role is to foster this relationship between guests and whales and create a space for respectful interaction while adhering to Canada’s regulations designed to ensure the whale’s safety and peace of mind.

A grey whale named “Ditto” has been frequently sighted on recent tours and Tyson adds that Minke Whales, Pilot and Baird’s Beaked Whales have also been spotted offshore.

“We hope our guests experience awe and wonder about the magic of the lives of whales and their relation to Nuu-chah-nulth People, and a curiosity to learn more about how they can contribute to ecosystem health and conservation efforts that ensure cultural and economic opportunities to Ahousaht.”

Tyson himself feels fortunate to have had so many incredible interactions with whales. “Every interaction is unique, is a learning moment if your hearts and minds and eyes are open. It never gets old to me.

“I’ve seen breaching humpbacks in the sound – a rare occurrence on a beautiful, sunny evening boating home, calm water, flashes of white – two humpbacks fishing and playing. I’m very grateful to have had these experiences.”

Tla-o-qui-aht-owned Tin Wis Resort is your perfect home-away-from-home – your family-friendly haven during spring migration as you relax, regroup, and plan your next adventure.

When you come back off the water with an appetite, kick back and #socialize at Brown’s Socialhouse onsite where you’ll find Wild Salmon, locally sourced, on the menu. Choose from starters like Spicy Salmon Tataki Rolls from the Sushi bar and hearty meals-in-a-bowl from the West Coast Salmon Poke Bowl (avocado, cucumber, mango, romaine, jalapeño, toasted macadamia, sesame poke marinade) to the Grilled Organic Salmon Bowl (coconut rice, tartar sauce, and Cowboy salad).

Dig in while you share your photos and revel in the day’s experiences, or plan ahead, choosing from a calendar of activities for all ages at the Pacific Rim Whale Festival 2024. This two-week festival (March 16-24) has button and ticketed events and is hosted by Tofino, Ucluelet, and the co-managed Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

Whale Festival offers something for everyone from educational opportunities to learn more about whales and their west coast environment with hands-on beach seines and cleanups to an inspiring film about conservation-in-action, The Whale and The Raven, narrated by iconic artist-activist, Roy Henry Vickers, to all-out fun at the Spout Ball showdown between volunteer firefighting departments and the festival closer, the Baleen Bash.

Sated with food and unforgettable memories, unwind with a relaxing soak in the hot tub. March is the perfect month for sunset walks, surfs or paddles! And remember, keep your eyes on the horizon for telltale blows and those gargantuan silhouettes as nearly 20,000 greys swim their way up the Pacific Northwest coast.

If you’re keen to contribute to our understanding of west coast whales, you can also upload your humpback whale sightings with photos of their unique tail IDs for Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, and Victoria, BC, and peruse an online catalogue of over 600 whales to get better acquainted.

While only humpback males sing on their winter breeding grounds, whales are great communicators so listen carefully for humpback social sounds and calls while co-operatively bubble-net feeding on herring, for greys’ social low-frequency pulses or knock sounds, and orcas’ clicks used as echolocation for navigation, whistles, and calls unique to specific families.

No matter how you imagine your close encounters of the whale kind from a humpback’s explosive exhale as its plume of breath mingles with a rainbow to a pod of orcas racing down the channel or a grey gently gliding past your tour boat, your IRL experience in Clayoquot Sound will exceed all your fantasies.   

The perfect combination of accommodation and adventure during this celebration of whales. 

To learn more about Canada’s regulations for safe whale encounters, visit Strawberry Island Marine Research.

Ask for your discount code when reserving your stay at Tin Wis Resort to receive $20 off your booking with Ahous Adventures online or by calling 250-725-0650. Ahous Adventures is located downtown at 368 Main Street, Unit 313.

Guests of Tin Wis Resort also enjoy a 10% discount for online bookings at Tofino Paddle Surf onsite year-round. Open daily in March from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Book Here.

Until March 15, 2024, you can still take advantage of these offers:

Use the code JOMO to buy two nights and get the third night free: Book Here.

Or plan a “Couples Getaway” (2-night minimum) and receive a $75.00 Browns Socialhouse gift card at check in, redeemable only at this Tofino location. Book directly by calling the resort’s reservation desk at 250-725-4445.

Tofino Wine & Dine 2024 Event Information and Tickets Available Here. Reserve your room now from May 31st to June 3rd (2-night minimum). Book Here or by calling the resort. For longer stays, please email: