The winter season is upon us and things are slowing down in Victoria, British Columbia. Is it only the tourist season ending? Does the marine wildlife take a break too? – The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Marine Wildlife

Even though temperatures drop and rain and snow gets more frequent, the water in the Salish Sea remains open year-round. Cold waters are more nutritious than warm waters and the high primary production of phytoplankton and krill (very small organisms living in the ocean supporting the food web) provides food for marine life! In late autumn we still get humpback whales visiting theses waters in search for these small organisms that they feed on, it is all about fueling up before winter migration for these gentle giants.

Sea lions increase in numbers during winter as more of them arrive from the breeding grounds that are further north and south. Seals haul-out on the shores and rocks all winter, with the exception of going out fishing. Bald eagles become very dependent on the coastal waters during winter time and you can see them sitting on rocks and perched in trees looking for food. Killer whales are the most popular animal around Vancouver Island and the species most people want to see on a tour with us. They won’t leave these waters during winter as they stay up north all year. The trick is to find them and with fewer boats out in the winter searching, it is a matter of luck, but we do see them! Especially the marine mammal eating killer whales (transient)!

Breaching Humpback Whale with Springtide Whale Watching
Marine wildlife can still be quite extraordinary even in winter-time!

Sea lions

During autumn and winter sea lions are gathering in larger numbers in the Salish Sea and a good place to see them is at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. Here both California sea lions (Zalophus Californianus) and Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) are sharing the space up on the rocks and the biggest males take the best spots. Steller sea lions are the largest member of the eared seals and a big male can reach an impressive size of 3-4 m and weigh up to 1 ton! Not always easy to tell the two species of sea lions apart while they are mixed together at Race Rocks. California sea lions are darker in colour and if you listen you will hear them making a barking sound and they can be very noisy.

Unlike California sea lions, the Steller sea lions won’t bark instead they roar very similar to a lion and their colour is a more lighter brown/gold. You always see more males than females in this area. This is because we are quite far away from the breeding grounds so mostly males have the time to come this far away. Females stay at breeding sites longer with the pups and not all of them get this far during the winter time.

Steller sea lions of the Salish Sea.
Steller sea lions hauling out on the rocks.

Harbour seals

You can always find harbour seals in the Salish Sea, they have become very numerous. They will rest on rocks and beaches everyday. A place where seals come out of the water to rest and dry out is called a haul-out site and they often return to the same site/rock every day. There they will rest for up to seven hours each day, getting a break from the cold water. Harbour seals are the smallest species of earless seals and widely distributed across the globe. The killer whales in this region have harbour seals as their main prey, the size of the seals and that they are easy to catch makes them a perfect “snack” for the transient killer whales. Therefor it is not easy being a harbour seal in these waters.

Harbour seals up on the rocks.
Harbour seals resting on the rocks.

Bald eagles

Late autumn and winter is the months when it is common to see bald eagles on our tours. They are around all year and if you really look for them you will see them daily but during spring and summer when they are busy nesting/raising their young they become more spread out in their breeding pairs. In the autumn and winter more of them are returning to the coast to live off the sea. Often sitting on high rocks or islands looking for food, hours at a time. Bald eagles are majestic birds with a 2-meter wingspan and their white head.

majestic bald eagle taking off
A bald eagle is flying off!

All of this is commonly seen on our Marine Wildlife Tours that we run during late autumn and winter. We of course always look for killer whales and humpback whales too and on most tours, we are lucky to encounter whales even in the winter time. It is such an experience seeing whales in late autumn and winter since you are often alone with the animals and avoid the summer stress with more boats out. Dress warmly and book your winter tour now!

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