West Coast Aquatic Safaris delivers ‘almost live’ footage of a whale tour to a group of Easter Seals campers on July 22. (West Coast Aquatic Safaris photo)

West Coast company brings virtual whale watching experience to youth with disabilities

About 40 Easter Seals BC/Yukon children, youth and adults with disabilities were treated to an extraordinary virtual whale watching tour a couple weeks ago.

The online accessible trip was an inaugural collaboration between Tofino’s West Coast Aquatic Safaris and Easter Seals, British Columbia & Yukon, British Columbia Lions Society for Children with Disabilities.

Easter Seals BC/Yukon spokesperson Mary-Lynn Hanson said the organization had to swiftly adapt their popular outdoor camps to online experiences due to COVID-19 restrictions. She said the campers that tuned in to their first-ever Zoom Video whale tour have diverse disabilities and many are on the autism spectrum.

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“Some of these campers are in rural communities and I can guarantee you they have never seen whales. Even though they were just seeing it on a screen, it was really cool to know they were still watching live footage from Keith who went out on a boat that very morning. It’s just so different from just watching something on National Geographic,” said Hanson.

In the early morning hours of July 22, West Coast Aquatic Safaris captain Keith Phillips set out in his crew boat called ‘WASCO’ towards a spot called Raffle Point in Clayoquot Sound with a small team in tow. Cody Graham from Media One came along to film and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation artist Moy Sutherland joined to help with the educational and interactive components.

They were lucky enough to get some good footage of gray whales and otters before zipping back to land to quickly edit the footage to share with the Easter Seal campers joining them aboard the ‘almost live’ virtual tour.

“It was a little by the seat of our pants,” said Phillips. “We just made it work. Throughout the whole experience it was just power on, keep going forward. The goal is to show these kids, who have been unable to attend camp, a bit of the West Coast and some wildlife.”

Out of the 40 or so participants on the hour long virtual whale watching tour, only three callers dropped out, notes Phillips.

“I was surprised about that. Being live and interpretive makes it more interactive. Interaction retains anyone,” said the captain.

Hanson said Phillips kept their focus the whole time.

“Just to see the crew on the boat was really exciting for them. He was really great about answering questions and talking about marine life,” she said, adding that the Zoom group chat feature was going wild with comments.

Sutherland said hearing the happiness in the kids voices made for such an awesome day.

Power To Be, a non-profit that creates access to nature for people living with physical, mental or financial barriers, helped pay for the videographer.

The campers enjoyed the virtual tour so much that West Coast Aquatic Safaris has since lined up several more virtual tours for the Easter Seals virtual summer camps.

“It’s rewarding to know they want us to do more,” said Phillips, adding that he is happy to help other businesses deliver their version of thinks virtual tourism.

“There is opportunity for this in all aspects.”

This summer, Easter Seals BC/Yukon campers have also participated in a virtual tour of a chicken farm. In terms of creating more accessible communities and attracting accessible tourism, she said wheelchair ramps and wider doors are very important.

“We are hoping to see a lot of changes in the future,” she said.

“If there were more accessible parks, playground, and swimming pools, the kids would be able to do more with their families. There is a desperate need for this sort of thing.”

Phillips said West Coast Aquatic Safaris is an accessible company, which provides a ramp to board the catamaran NANUQ and one to enter the office.

“As well the staff are trained to be aware of accessible spectrum and how to provide all superb tour no matter the guests abilities,” he said.

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