Vancouver Island is a fantastic place to observe marine wildlife in its natural habitats. From Orcas, and humpback whales to grey and minke whales, learn more about the whales you can expect to encounter during a wildlife tour on the Salish Sea.
Orcas are one of the more iconic marine animals. You can find two different ecotypes of orcas in the Salish Sea: the transient and the resident orcas.
The transient killer whales, also called Bigg’s Killer Whale, move along the coast from Southeast Alaska to Southern California but often stay in the Salish Sea. They live in small pods (family groups) of 2 to 6 individuals. They are always on the move looking for food, easily travelling up to 100km per day. Transient killer whales only eat marine mammals, particularly harbour seals and porpoises, and occasionally hunt larger prey like whales and are often called “the wolves of the seas.”
The Southern Resident Killer Whales population lives in the inland waters of British Columbia and Washington state. They travel and hunt in large social groups and have very tight bonds between members. Unfortunately, they are listed as endangered, mainly because their primary food source, the Chinook salmon, is in decline. In 2017, Sidney Whale Watching and other Pacific Whale Watch Association members agreed to no longer view the Southern Resident Killer Whales, instead focusing our tours on Transient Killer Whales and Humpback Whales.
Transient and Southern resident orcas can be seen nearby but never engage in social interactions. They actually tend to avoid one another.
Sightings: possible year-round, peak April through October
Humpback whales made a significant comeback in the Salish Sea over recent years. They are the area’s largest animal but only feed on bait fish or krill. Humpback whales are well known for their melodic vocalisation, spectacular breaches, and distinctive tail fins called flukes.
Commercial whaling had reduced the humpback whale population in BC waters by more than 95% before a final moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985. But they are now rebounding! During the last twenty years, the North Pacific humpback whale population has grown from approximately 2,000 to more than 21,000. And last year, 21 humpback whale calves were spotted swimming with their mothers (vs. 11 in 2020).
Humpbacks travel very long distances yearly (up to 10,000km road trip) and have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet. Most humpbacks spend summers feeding in cool or temperate waters, and winters mating and calving in warmer waters in Mexico or Hawaii. Although, they can be seen year-round in BC as some may leave later in the winter, which can overlap with those returning. In early fall each year, many humpback whales have been spotted gathering in the Juan de Fuca strait before starting their migration – Sometimes up to 50 whales in one place! Perhaps they are getting together for a final meal before their long journey south. It is a magical moment for those lucky enough to experience it!
Sightings: possible year-round, peak February through June
North Pacific grey whales are the largest population of grey whales in the world. They spend winter breeding and birthing in the warm waters of Mexico, then travel back to the cold water of the arctic to spend summer. About a dozen grey whales break off their northern migration to feed for 2 or 3 months each spring in the Salish Sea. They frequently travel alone or in small groups and feed on sediment and small marine crustaceans from the sea floor. These gentle giants are known to be curious about boats and relatively friendly.
Sightings: possible year-round, peak May through September
Minke whales are one of the smallest whales in North American waters. They frequent the Pacific Northwest during spring and fall to feed, and a small resident population can be found year-round in Puget Sound. Minke whales are often seen alone or in small groups of 2 or 3. They feed on crustaceans, plankton, and small schooling fish. It can be hard to spot minke whales as they don’t spend much time on the surface. They take longer dives than the other whales, between 10-12 minutes and up to 25 minutes.
The other animals of the Salish Sea
You can encounter many other animals on a whale watching trip in the Salish Sea. Dall’s porpoises are a common sight and are one of the fastest small cetaceans. They are often mistaken for orca calves because of their black and white colour. You can also watch harbour seals and Steller or California sea lions resting on rocks. Sea otter sightings have also been increasing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There is an abundance of marine birds in the area, like the bald eagle, the tufted puffin, the cormorant, and the great blue heron. It’s also not rare to spot exotic land animals on Spieden island that have been imported, like the mouflon or bighorn sheep.