For many of our guests seeing a whale is a bucket-list experience, something they’ve always wanted to do (and for good reason – whales are amazing creatures). But here, in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island, there’s a whole range of other wildlife to see and that’s what this blog is about. We wanted to introduce you to some of the other Marine Wildlife in Victoria, BC that we often see on our tours, and that we think are absolutely fascinating!
Some of you might be asking, what exactly is a Pinniped? And believe it or not, if you’ve ever lived by the ocean you are probably really familiar with these animals. Pinniped is the name given to fin-footed, semiaquatic marine mammals, in other words, it is the name given to all types of seals and sea lions. This family of animals is comprised of three groups, the Odobenidae (whose only living member is the walrus), the Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals), and Phocidae (the earless, or true seals).
On our tours we have the opportunity to see four species of Pinniped: Elephant Seals, California Sea Lions, Stellar Sea Lions and Harbour Seals. Much of the time we see these (sometimes smelly) creatures hauled up on the rocks at locations such as Race Rocks and Trial Island. However, it is also quite common to see them bobbing in the water, hunting squid and fish.
It is the abundance of these animals that brings the Transient Killer Whales to our waters. In fact, researchers estimate that over 50% of a Transient’s diet is made up of Harbour Seals. Despite making up such a large portion of the whale’s diet, seals and sea lions aren’t necessarily easy prey. They are generally slower swimmers than cetaceans (whales and dolphins), however they are incredibly agile and flexible in the water. In fact, California Sea Lions are capable of bending their necks backwards far enough to reach their hind flippers, allowing them to make dorsal turns.
When viewing seals and sea lions, especially in the water, it can be hard to tell what you are looking at. A simple trick to remember is to look at the ears. If the animal has visible ears, it is one of our local sea lions. If it is earless (or rather, has internal, non-visible ears), it is a seal!
Vancouver Island is home to huge range of amazing bird life, including Blue Heron, Auklets, Guillemots, Black Oyster Catchers and the Common Murre – just to name a few! Both Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits are known for their excellent bird watching opportunities and have been dubbed the “Pacific Flyways” by bird and whale enthusiasts alike. For many though, it is our local Raptors that capture the imagination. On the Island we have five types of Raptor: Bald Eagle, Osprey, Turkey Vulture, Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon. While we have seen all of these stunning birds on our tours, we most commonly encounter Bald Eagles at sea. Not only is Victoria home to the second largest population of Bald Eagles in the world (second only to Alaska) but these stunning birds absolutely love to hang out on the rocky outlets and small islands that we often pass on our way to see whales. Despite their fishing skills, Bald Eagles are not really ‘designed’ for the water. Unlike Osprey and many other sea birds, Bald Eagles do not have lot of oil coating their wings. This means that they are unable to fly once their wings are wet. For our passengers, this fact has led to some fascinating eagle encounters, where a Bald Eagle has taken a dive into the water (to capture either a fish or another bird) and has had to swim back to shore with its prey. This is often a comical affair, as these usually graceful birds are clumsy swimmers and have to do what looks like an awkward breaststroke to reach dry land. Whether it’s Raptors or the abundance of smaller sea birds you are looking for, whale watching with SpringTide is a great way to see them.
Dolphins and porpoises
If you love whales, chances are you’ll also love their cousins – dolphins and porpoises.We have two types of porpoise and one type of dolphin that we frequently see on our tours.
Of the porpoises, we most frequently see Harbour Porpoise on our tours as they are very common in the Salish Sea. These small porpoises are extremely cute to look at but are very shy. While they are abundant in the area they can be difficult to spot as they do not make a splash as they swim. Groups of three to five often pop up close to the boats, but are rarely seen again after the first look. Along with seals and sea lions these small cetaceans make up a portion of the Transient Killer Whale diet.
The second type of porpoise that we have the chance to see on our tours is the Dall’s Porpoise. These are slightly bigger than the Harbour Porpoise and much more friendly. On occasion we have had these playful critters ride the bow wake of our boats and really show off for the passengers. The nice thing about these porpoise is that they are really easy to spot as they have colouring very similar to that of an Orca. The main part of their body is very dark grey to black, with white patches on the flank and belly.
While the Dall’s Porpoise are playful at times, nothing beats Pacific White-Sided Dolphins when it comes to acrobatic talent. These small dolphins are known for their acrobatic nature and ability to jump up to 9 feet out of the water! While over the last few weeks, we have seen single or small groups of these animals, back in March/April this year we had a pod of almost 250 making their way down Haro Strait toward Victoria.
Sea Otters in the Vancouver Island area were hunted to extinction in the 1900’s and are now known as a rehabilitation success story due to re-introduction efforts in 1969. A total of 89 otters were brought to the Island and since then the local sea otter population has grown to an estimated 3,000 individuals!
Earlier in the year many of our passengers were lucky enough to meet a local Sea Otter living just off Bentinck Island. The otter was a pleasure to watch, often impressing passengers with its ability to float on its back and smash molluscs using a rock. Of all the animals we have the chance to see on our tours, many people feel most intrigued by the Sea Otters as they have so many unique and fascinating traits. Here are a few fun Sea Otter facts to get you started.
1) Unlike seals, sea otters do not have blubber to keep them warm. Instead they rely on their fur. Sea otter fur is the finest of any mammal, consisting of at least 850,000 to 1 million hairs per square inch!
2) As predators, sea otters are critical to maintaining the balance of the near-shore kelp ecosystems. Without sea otters, the undersea animals they prey on would devour the kelp forests that provide cover and food for many other marine animals.
3) Sea otters are one of the few mammals other than primates known to use tools. They use small rocks or other objects to pry shellfish from rocks and to hammer them open.
The island-hopping Wolf
While not typically featured in blogs about marine wildlife, we have chosen to include a Wolf in our blog! The reason is that one particular wolf, known as ‘Wily the Wolf of Discovery Island’ has fascinated locals, having swam out to, and inhabited, Discovery Island last July. The island-hopping wolf has occasionally been spotted on other nearby islands and appears to be healthy and happy living off seals and other inter-tidal marine life. The wolf is very much wild, shying away from island visitors; however, it is often seen by kayakers and has been spotted by our crew.
While we don’t see wolves and otters every day, they are a part of the local eco-system and show that you never know what you’ll see on a trip out with SpringTide! There is such an array of Marine Wildlife in Victoria, BC, that share the ocean with our beloved whales – we really wanted to introduce you to them! We hope you enjoyed learning a little more about the diversity of our local marine life and we look forward sharing our local wildlife with you aboard one of our tours!