This is just scratching the surface of what you can learn on one of our tours.
Commonly seen Toothed Whale
Killer whale – Orcinus orca
- Orca are the largest member of the dolphin family. Males can reach 10m (30’) long and weigh up to 10 tonnes.
- You can tell apart mature males and females using their dorsal fins. Males have straight dorsal fins that can reach 2m (6’) tall; while females’ fins are about half that size, around 1m (3’) tall, and curved.
- There are three main types of killer whales that we can find in BC’s waters: Offshore, Resident and Transient (also known as Bigg’s Whales). We mostly see transient and southern resident killer whales on our tours.
- The residents around Victoria travel in 3 pods known as J pod, K pod, and L pod. J pod is led by the oldest orca known to science, Granny, who is estimated to be 102 years old!
- Residents’ diet consists almost exclusively of salmon, whereas transients hunt marine mammals.
- This difference in diet has led to some physical and behavioural changes over time. As a result, it is estimated that transients and residents have not interbred in 700,000 years; leading scientists to wonder if they should be classified as separate species.
Harbour porpoise - Phocoena phocoena
- Our smallest cetacean, measuring in around 2m long (5-6’) and generally weighing under 200lbs
- They tend to be quite shy and are often difficult to spot because of their small size and elusive nature. However, when travelling in breeding groups, you can’t miss them as these groups can be as large as 150-200 individuals!
- Harbour porpoises are one of the favourite prey species of transient orca!
Dall’s porpoise - Phocoenoides dalli
- These guys are only slightly longer than their cousins the harbour porpoise, at up to 1.3m (6-7’) long, but are almost double the weight, tipping the scales at 400lbs!
- But that extra weight isn’t just blubber, it’s also muscle which makes them extremely fast. Dall’s porpoise are a much less common meal for transient orca, because the orca find it difficult to catch them.
- Dall’s like to show off their speed and agility and are totally opposite to the shy harbour porpoise. They prefer to bow ride and play in the wake of any boats they can find!
Commonly seen Baleen Whale
Humpback whale - Megaptera novaeangliae
- Humpbacks are the largest whale we see regularly in these waters with females able to reach a maximum size of about 50’ (15m)!
- Like all baleen whales, humpbacks have no teeth in their mouths, just baleen, also known as whale bone.
- Their scientific name means Big-winged New Englander. It comes from the area they were frequently seen off the Eastern US, and the fact that their pectoral fins can be up to 1/3 the length of their body length.
- In the Pacific Ocean, humpbacks spend their summers off the coast of Alaska and over-winter in Hawaii, Mexico, or Japan.
- They are usually alone, but sometimes travel in groups of 2-4. If you see one big one and one little one, it’s a mother travelling with her calf!
Northern Minke whale - Balaenoptera acutorostrata
- Minke whales are named after a Norwegian whaler called Meincke, who was the first to observe one, but incorrectly identified it as a blue whale! That’s a HUGE mistake. Blue whales are the largest baleen whale (not to mention the largest animal that has ever lived on earth) and Minke whales are the second smallest baleen whale. Whoops!
- We think Minkes are the most numerous whales in the world but it’s hard to know for sure because researchers have not found a reliable method to tell individual Minkes apart.
- Our nickname for these guys is Stinky Minke because they have awful fish breath, and a gland on the top of their head that releases a smelly oil when they exhale.
Grey whale - Eschrichtius robustus
- Slightly smaller than the Humpback, the best way to tell these whales apart is the dorsal fin. Humpbacks have one, Grey’s don’t! Grey whales are also usually covered in barnacles and other skin parasites because they have very porous skin.
- Grey’s also over-winter in Mexico. They prefer sheltered warm water lagoons in which to give birth.
- We often see these animals very close to shore. This is because they are the only whales that are bottom feeders! They fill up on tube worms and small shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods.
- Grey whales were hunted extensively and almost driven to the point of extinction, but now represent a rare success story for marine mammal conservation.
Commonly seen Pinniped
Harbour seal - Phoca vitulina
- Also called the common seal, they can be found on shorelines all across the northern hemisphere.
- They are our smallest pinniped and are typically about 2m (5-6’) long, and weigh around 200lbs
- Harbour seals are the number one favourite food of transient orcas. One orca can eat one seal per day!
Northern Elephant seal - Mirounga angustirostris
- These giant pinnipeds are the second largest seal in the world. The only bigger ones are the Southern Elephant seals in Antarctica.
- These species is an extreme example of sexual dimorphism. That’s where one gender looks very different than the other. Male elephant seals can reach 4-5m (13-17’) long and weigh over 5000lbs. Females on the other hand are just 2.5-3.5m (8-12’) and weigh a meagre 1500lbs.
California sea lion - Zalophus californianus
- Historically a common sight in zoos and circuses balancing a beach ball on their nose, California sea lions are much better viewed in the wild. We mainly see them at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, but we also hear and smell them too!
- You can tell these guys apart from Steller sea lions by their size and colouration. Californias are smaller, generally weighing under 900lbs and darker in colour. They also make different sounds; these guys bark like dogs.
- By the way, they can’t actually balance a beach ball on their nose. Come on a tour to find out how they do it!
Steller Sea Lion - Eumetopias jubatus
- Also found predominantly at Race Rocks, you can tell the Steller sea lions from the Californias because they are larger (weighing up to 2500lbs), lighter in colour and growl instead of barking. Well, growling is the nice way of putting it; it actually sounds more like a belch.
- Their closest land relative is the Grizzly Bear. In fact, they’re so closely related, it’s almost impossible to tell their skulls apart!
- You will often see the males wrestling and fighting on the rocks. This is because whoever controls the rock gets all the females on that rock, so they’re always practicing.
Commonly seen Bird
Bald eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Bald eagles are our largest raptor here on the west coast. A raptor is a special kind of bird of prey (bird that hunts meat). Raptors have large eyes and keen eyesight; powerful, hooked bills; strong feet for carrying food; and long, curved talons.
- Their wingspan can reach 2m (6’), but they generally weigh less than 10lbs.
- Bald eagles mate for life, but if a nest is unsuccessful, divorces are possible!
Rhinoceros Auklet - Cerorhinca monocerata
- When you get back from your whale watching trip be sure to tell everyone that you saw a rhino! Ok, not quite. But Rhinoceros auklets do grow a rhino-like horn on their bill every breeding season.
- Auklets are in a family of birds called the Alcids, which also includes auks, murres, murrelets, and puffins.
Pigeon Guillemot - Cepphus columba
- They nest in crevices on rocks as part of large colonies like the one visible at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve.
- If you’re in the reserve and there are little blacks birds with red feet peeping at you, those are pigeon guillemots!
More Birds! - Below is by no means an exhaustive list of many of the birds you can look for. Bold birds are the most commonly seen.
- American Wigeon
- Ancient Murrelet
- Baird’s Sandpiper
- Bald Eagle
- Barn Swallow
- Black Oystercatcher
- Black Turnstone
- Bonaparte’s Gull
- Brandt’s Cormorant
- Brant Goose
- Brown Pelican
- California Gull
- Canada Goose
- Caspian Tern
- Common Loon
- Common Merganser
- Common Murre
- Common Raven
- Cooper's Hawk
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Glaucous-winged Gull
- Great Blue Heron
- Greater Yellow Legs
- Harlequin Duck
- Heermann’s Gull
- Herring Gull
- Hooded Merganser
- Horned Grebe
- Marbled Murrelet
- Mew Gull
- Northwestern Crow
- Northern Fulmar
- Pacific Loon
- Parasitic Jaeger
- Pectoral Sandpiper
- Pelagic Cormorant
- Peregrine Falcon
- Pigeon Guillemot
- Red-breasted Merganser
- Red-necked Grebe
- Red-necked Phalarope
- Red-Throated Loon
- Rhinoceros Auklet
- Rufous Hummingbird
- Snow Bunting
- Sooty Shearwater
- Surf Scoter
- Thayer’s Gull
- Tufted Puffin
- Turkey Vulture
- Violet-green Swallow
- Wandering Tattler
- Western Grebe
- Western Gull
- Western Sandpiper
- White-winged Scoter