Written by: Lori, Marine Naturalist
The Salish Sea is a spectacular marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean encompassing the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. It is one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, and there are many different species of whales in the Salish Sea. There are two types of whales; baleen and toothed. We are fortunate enough to be able to find both of these types in the Salish Sea.
Toothed Whales in the Salish Sea
There are two distinct ecotypes of killer whales that call the Salish Sea home. Resident Killer whales are critically endangered and primarily feed on Chinook Salmon. They use echolocation to find their prey and live in a complex matriarchal society, in which sons and daughters stay with their mothers for life.
Transient killer whales, on the other hand, are mammal hunting killer whales and specialize in animals like harbour seals, harbour porpoises, sea lions, and occasionally other whales. Transient killer whales travel in smaller groups of about 2-6, which is ideal for stealthily hunting their prey.
There is a third ecotype of killer whale that is rarely seen in the Salish Sea, known as offshore killer whales. As the name suggests these animals are usually spotted much further offshore and are known to prey on sharks. When sighted they are usually in groups of twenty or more.
The Dall’s Porpoise is the largest species of porpoise, growing up to 7.5 ft in length. Dall’s porpoises are well-known for their incredible speed and willingness to engage with boats. They love to bow ride and are often seen travelling together in groups of 2-10 individuals. They are also known to hybridize with harbour porpoises.
Harbour porpoises are one of the smallest species of cetacean and are commonly seen on whale watching tours. They mostly feed on small schooling fish but have also been known to feed on squid and crustaceans in certain areas. Harbour porpoises are often hunted by Transient killer whales and are one of their favourite prey sources.
Pacific White Sided Dolphin
Pacific white-sided dolphins are known for their impressive speed and acrobatic displays. They are highly social and playful animals that can be seen in groups ranging from ten to hundreds. They have been known to feed on over 60 species of fish, and are occasionally seen on our tours. Usually, there are sightings of Pacific white-sided dolphins once or twice a year in the waters around Victoria.
Are Warmer Water Species Coming to Our Region?
Sightings of offshore and warm water species have become a bit more common in the Salish Sea over the last decade or so. Risso’s dolphins, which are usually spotted in deeper offshore waters have been sighted occasionally in Puget Sound. Long-beaked common dolphins as well as Bottlenose dolphins typically inhabit warmer temperate waters, but sightings of live as well as stranded individuals have been increasing in the Salish Sea. While these sightings are still rare, researchers believe that warming trends may increase the occurrence of these animals visiting the Salish Sea.
Baleen whales have also been called toothless whales, as they have no teeth in their mouths and instead utilize baleen to feed. Baleen whales seek out small prey such as plankton, krill, and tiny fish. The whales open their mouths, take in huge amounts of water and prey, and squeeze that water out of their mouths, catching the tiny prey behind the baleen bristles. We are fortunate to see several baleen species of whale on our tours outside of Victoria and Port Renfrew.
Humpback whales are the most commonly sighted baleen species on our tours. These impressive whales grow to be about 50ft in length and can weigh between 50,000 and 80,000 Ibs. We were happy to hear that a record number of humpback whale calves were recorded in the Salish Sea last year. Twenty-one calves were sighted in the Salish Sea by researchers and whale watchers, the highest annual number on record in this region.
Gray whales are a unique species of baleen whale that feed in shallow areas. Unlike other baleen whales, Gray whales are bottom feeders and use their baleen to filter out small invertebrates (amphipods, ghost shrimp, crab larvae) from soft, muddy areas on the seafloor. Gray whales bear their young in warm, shallow bays during the winter months. They have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet, and migrate from Mexico up to Alaska, usually staying within a few kilometres of the coastline.
The Minke whale is the second smallest baleen whale, second only to the Pygmy right whale in size. At sexual maturity, female Minke whales only reach about 8 metres in length on average. Minke whales are very fast and can reach speeds of about 35 miles per hour. Their surfacing can be sporadic and difficult to follow. Minke whales breaching has been observed, but it is a very rare sight to see the entire body of these animals!
The Fin whale is the second-largest animal on the planet and is generally found in deeper waters off the coast of British Columbia. However, Fin whales have been spotted in the Salish Sea on rare occasions. In both 2015 and 2016, Fin whales were sighted in the Juan de Fuca Strait. If you see a Fin Whale, send your sighting to BC Cetacean Network through the Whale Report App. Reported sightings further research into Fin Whale populations, and prevent vessel strikes. Fin Whales are the most commonly struck whale in the world, and vessels must take extra precautions when navigating around these large animals.
Happy Whale Watching
Now that you’re familiar with some of the incredible cetaceans that you can find here in the Salish Sea, I hope it encourages you to keep your eyes peeled when you find yourself near the ocean. We are fortunate to live in an area with incredible biological diversity, and charismatic megafauna such as humpbacks and killer whales can even be spotted from shore on occasion.
Ready to get a closer look at these animals in their own habitats? Join us on a whale watching tour. There is always so much to see and so much to learn from our incredibly passionate and knowledgeable guides. We hope to see you out on the water!