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Marine Mammals
A Few Notes on some of the Marine Mammals of British Columbia...
BC has an incredibly diverse and thriving population of resident and migratory marine mammals, and of particular interest to many are the whales, dolphins, porpoises, sealions and seals. The most commonly seen are listed below, with a few notes on where and when you might see them best, based on our experiences running marine mammal viewing trips over the last 25 plus years.
BRITISH COLUMBIA - ORCA or "KILLER WHALE"
There are (so far) three races (or maybe they are sub-species) of "Killer Whale" found in British Columbia's coastal waters.
RESIDENT ORCAS- Fish-eaters, who seem to prefer salmon but will eat other fish when salmon are scarce. Seen most often in coastal and near-shore waters, these are the 'killer whales" that are found gathering along the salmon's main migratory paths.

NORTHERN RESIDENTS- Threatened- About 250+ orcas who live year-round between northern Vancouver Island and the BC /Alaska border, and congregate during Spring, Summer and Fall on the Northern BC coast, and during Summer and Fall in Queen Charlotte Strait & Johnstone Strait. There are 17 PODS (extended families) who can be grouped into 3 major CLANS (related PODS)

SOUTHERN RESIDENTS -Endangered- consist of fewer than 80 orcas that live in Southern British Columbia and gather in Juan de Fuca Strait, Puget Sound, Haro Strait, and Georgia Strait around Southern Vancouver Island.

ALASKA RESIDENTS, who live almost exclusively north of the BC / Alaska border in the Alaska panhandle from occasionally as far south as Ketchikan and Prince Rupert but primarily further north.

PODS- are extended family groups, each of which has a unique dialect (John Ford, Dave Bain, Paul Spong, Helena Symonds and others figured this out) From 3 to 20 pods (extended families) make up each major group.

MATERNAL SUB-GROUPS (mothers and their offspring) are the definitive orca grouping and are almost always seen as a group travelling and socializing within acoustic range (a few miles) of each-other. One to several Maternal Subgroups (related females and their offspring)make up a POD
KILLER WHALE SIGHTINGS BY AREA & SEASON
Based on a full day on the water looking for them- plus from historical whalewatching tour success rates. Rates of sightings reflect both abundance of whales in an area, and numbers of people out who are looking, as in "if nobody is on the water, nobody will see the whales moving by..."
TIME OF YEAR FREQUENCY OF SIGHTINGS
(may vary significantly year to year)
January
to
March
All areas sightings occasional
April
Northern Inside Passages 50% sightings
Haro/Juan de Fuca Straits 30% sightings
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 10% sightings
May
Northern Inside Passages 70% sightings
Haro/Juan de Fuca Straits 70% sightings
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 10% sightings
June
Northern Inside Passages 70% sightings
Haro/Juan de Fuca Straits 80% sightings
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 50% sightings
July
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 90% sightings
Haro /Juan de Fuca Straits 90% sightings
Northern Inside Passages 70% sightings
August
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 95% sightings
Haro /Juan de Fuca Straits 95% sightings
Northern Inside Passage 70% sightings
September
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 90% sightings
Haro /Juan de Fuca Straits 80% sightings
Northern Inside Passage 70% sightings
October
Johnstone/ Queen Charlotte Straits 75% sightings
Northern Inside Passage 50%
sightings Haro /Juan de Fuca Straits 50% sightings
November
to
December
All Areas- sightings occasional
TRANSIENT ORCAS-Mammal-eaters, this population was given their name because they travel in small groups over very large ranges of the coast. Identifiable by their comparatively pointed dorsal fin, the generally long (greater than 4 minute) dives they do, their distinct vocalizations, their frequency of vocalizing, the comparative positioning of their saddle-patch, and of course, their diet, as they are the only confirmed marine mammal eaters. TRANSIENT Orcas are difficult to find at any time, but regularly seen in Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and on west coast of Vancouver Island near shore in summer months, and by some winter boaters in all inside and near-shore waters.

OFFSHORE ORCAS- Thought to be primarily eaters of schooling offshore fish (probably mostly salmon), this population was given this name because they are rarely seen close to shore or in inside waters. They are most often seen around the Queen Charlotte Islands and Queen Charlotte Sound (the Northern Offshore Group) and west of Southern Vancouver Island, Cape Flattery and LaPerouse Bank (the Southern Offshore group). The "Offshores" are often seen in groups of 30 to 60+ animals, and are distinguishable physically by a relatively round dorsal fin tip, often very faint saddle patches, their distinct vocalizations, and by location and group size. OFFSHORE Orcas are most often seen by recreational and commercial boaters in the Queen Charlotte Islands and by commercial and recreational vessels offshore of the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Very rarely seen in any inside waters.
OTHER COMMONLY SEEN WHALES
HUMPBACK WHALES-
May to July-Seen in the Queen Charlotte Islands, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait, and in the Northern Inside Passage.
August to October- Seen in the waters of Queen Charlotte Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait, Fitzhugh Sound and Northern Inside Passage.

GRAY WHALES- Late Feb to April- Common all west coast waters during Migration of 25,000 + whales north.
May to October- about 200 Local "summer feeding residents" stay on the beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the shores of Queen Charlotte Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait. Occasionally seen in "inside waters".
November-Common all west coast VI waters during migration of 25,000 + whales south

MINKE WHALES- Regular summer feeding residents in Queen Charlotte Strait & Johnstone Strait. Less common but seen occasionally on west coast of Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Islands, Hecate Strait, and all inside waters DOLPHINS & PORPOISES

PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHINS- These are the "friendly" dolphins that we see in Northern BC waters. They seem to spend fall, winter, and early spring in Northern inside and coastal waters, then move north and west in later spring and early summer, meeting the salmon offshore in Dixon Entrance, Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait. They follow the salmon south and east through the summer, generally arriving back in coastal waters around northern Vancouver Island by late August. We see groups of up to several thousand during summer in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound and by late August and through the fall in Queen Charlotte Strait, usually peaking in October. From December through April, we see groups of 50 to 200 regularly in Queen Charlotte Strait, and during May through August similar sized groups are in the Northern Inside Passages.

DALL'S PORPOISES- are seen in small groups (5 to 20) regularly year-round in Northern Inside waters. Seen fairly regularly in Queen Charlotte Strait and Johnstone Strait year-round. Uncommon in southern inside waters.

HARBOUR PORPOISES- are seen in near-shore waters and bays of the Northern Inside Passage, Queen Charlotte Strait and Johnstone Strait.

SEA OTTERS - transplanted back to Brooks Peninsula area, Vancouver Island in 1968 after extirpation in the fur trade, 80+ animals introduced, now number 6000. Range now continuous from Clayoquot Sd to Cape Scott, Cape Scott to Pine Island, plus the Goose Islands of the central coast, and S.Moresby Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands

SEALIONS & SEALS-

STELLAR SEALIONS- Seen at rookeries year-round, in Kyuquot, Cape Scott, Cape Calvert, several Hecate Strait locations and at several Queen Charlotte Island locations. Bachelor males travel south to the inside waters of Vancouver Island during winter to feed on herring and late salmon runs. Large groups gather at Nanaimo and Northern Gulf Islands during winter.

CALIFORNIA SEALIONS- Migratory bachelor males gather in large numbers during winter and spring right around Vancouver Island during winter and spring to feed on late salmon and herring runs.

HARBOUR SEALS- Common throughout entire coastal British Columbia. We see them and they "check us out" while diving year-round.

ELEPHANT SEALS- Seen occasionally in Northern and West Coast waters during their northward (spring) and southward (fall) migrations from their California/ Mexico breeding grounds to their Bering Sea feeding grounds.


NORTHERN FUR SEALS- Rare on south coast, seen occasionally on North coast and around the Queen Charlotte Islands. Further, more detailed "MARINE MAMMAL" INFO can be accessed through our "Favorite Links" page.