The ocean around Victoria and Vancouver Island teems with wildlife! Watch for migrating Humpback Whales slapping their flippers and showing off their flashy flukes. You might see a majestic Minke Whale silently surfacing, or spot a family of Orcas on the horizon.
Orcas (Killer Whales)
Members of the Dolphin family, Orcas (also known as Killer Whales) can measure nearly ten meters in length and weigh up to six tons. These apex predators can consume up to 500 lbs. of food every day! They use echolocation to hunt, emitting a series of clicks and whistles to determine the size, shape, speed, distance and direction of their prey.
Females can live to see their hundredth birthdays. The reason they can live this long comes as a shock, though: it’s because they have the chance to “offload” accumulated toxins into their babies, thereby restoring their own health. It’s an incredible statement about the condition of our Oceans.
The implications of this toxin offloading are even more sobering: Orca calves are born already carrying a huge amount of human-generated toxins. These toxins (such as paints, adhesives, fire retardants and preservatives) build up in the whales’ bodies over the years. After birth females continue to feed their calves “toxic milk” giving their young a 50/50 chance of life in the first year but extending their own life considerably. As the males of the species have no such opportunity to dump toxins, their life expectancy is ~ 40 years.
Our pacific waters surrounding Victoria and Vancouver Island make for spectacular whale sightings! Bigg’s Killer Whales are mammal hunting Orcas and they tend to be low-key and quiet, preferring to travel alone or in small groups as they go about their business of hunting seals, sea lions and other marine mammals.
Orcas are very acrobatic and can sometimes be seen leaping right out of the water. (They are Dolphins, after all!) This is called breaching. Watch for spy-hopping, too: that’s when they get curious enough about what’s happening above surface around them to “tread water” for a little while so they can check things out.
You thought Orcas were big? Humpback Whales can grow up to 16 meters long! Even just their blows can measure as high as three meters. Over the past 40 years since commercial whaling was banned in the North Pacific, Humpbacks have been making a comeback in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island. These long-distance migrators show great fidelity to their favourite feeding spots along the BC coast, typically appearing during the months of July to November. Around the waters of Vancouver Island and off the Washington coast, we share our fragile marine ecosystem with about 200-400 Humpbacks. We can identify individuals by the markings on the underside of their tail flukes – this is similar to how fingerprints are used to identify humans.
Humpback males sing long, complex songs as part of their mating strategy, and possibly as a way to organize their social hierarchy. Humpback calves will live with their mothers for only about a year before they hive off and go their own way. Humpbacks aren’t as social as Orcas, and don’t live in any sort of long-term social grouping.
Humpback Whales are named because of the distinctive hump that rises on their backs when they dive. Humpbacks are filter feeders, like other baleen Whales, they gather up their diet of krill, herring and pilchard in a huge mouthful and then push the excess water out through these sieve-like filaments of keratin. One of the coolest hunting strategies in the ocean belongs to the Humpback: “Bubble netting” occurs when one or more animals swim in a circle, releasing a thin stream of bubbles. The bubbles form a wall, confusing and confining the whales’ prey into condensed groups. When the bubble net is complete, the whale swims through with its mouth open.
Of course, Humpback Whales have to be careful when Orcas are near; Humpback snacks are a favourite of the Killer Whale! Other, human-induced threats to the Humpback Whale are habitat degradation, entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.
When you’re on board Marauder IV, be sure to come down and listen to our naturalists’ talk! We’ll pass around a sample of whale baleen so you can see (and feel) for yourself the unique mechanism these Whales use for gathering their prey.
Visible in our waters all year long, the Minke Whale is the smallest cetacean in the North Pacific, similar in size to Orcas. These generally solitary whales avoid boats but can be seen from a distance. Although they’re sometimes mistaken for Fin Whales in certain parts of the world, Minke Whales are much smaller. Everything about them – including their small, rarely-seen blow – is a little bit mysterious and elusive.
How do you spot a Minke Whale? Look for the wheeling flocks of seabirds! These gentle giants are no dummies: they let the birds do the hard work of schooling the fish together, and then they come along and coast right through the school of fish, mouth wide open.
Although Minke Whales become sexually mature around age seven or eight, no one has ever seen them actually…making “mini-Minkes”. (We suspect it’s rather similar to other whales. But that’s just a guess.)
In our waters and around the world, these whales need to be on guard for mammal eating Orcas, who aren’t at all opposed to taking a mouthful of Minke. If a Killer Whale sneaks up on a Minke Whale in open waters, chances are the Minke can out-swim the Killer Whale over a long enough distance – they’re amazing endurance athletes.
The sea otter is a species on the west coast that is currently building its success story! The heaviest member of the weasel family was hunted almost to the point of eradication from 1741 to 1911. It was hunted for its luxurious pelt that can have about 100,000 hairs per square centimeter. In comparison, humans have about 100,000 hair follicles over their whole head! By about 1929, there were no sea otters found from Alaska to California. In B.C., government biologists on the west coast of Vancouver Island released 89 individuals between 1969 and 1972. By 2008, their population was estimated to have grown to nearly 5000 individuals!
This increase in the sea otter population means big changes for their ecosystem as they are what is referred to as a keystone species. A keystone species is one of extreme biological significance in contrast to a relatively low biomass. Their biological significance is due to their food choice, sea urchins. Sea urchins feed on giant kelp and can destroy whole kelp forests when they lack a natural predator. Kelp forests are integral to the health of B.C. coasts and provide habitat, food, and nursery grounds for a wide variety of species.
While their numbers are growing on the west coast, they are not too often seen in the southern waters around Victoria. However, we are lucky that at least one sea otter has made a home in the kelp forests just southwest of Victoria in an area known as Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. Often, when spotted, the sea otter fondly dubbed “Ollie” can be seen “scrubbing” his facial hair which is common behaviour for sea otters. This scrubbing motion adds air down to the roots of their hair follicles which provides them with insulation from the cold!
Harbour seals, also known as the common seal, is the most widely distributed pinniped in the world. Harbour seals sport a varying range of colours; however, all have a spotted coat. As these mammals are categorized as ‘true seals’, they lack external ear flaps and move by a crawling motion. Unlike the larger sea lions, harbour seals do not have pronounced hip joints and so use a flopping motion when on land. A common nickname for this marine mammal is “rock sausage” as they are commonly seen basking on rocks, for up to 10 hours a day, and are the preferred meal of Killer Whales. As the seals have limited motion on land they are not able to easily crawl up onto rocks. Instead, they position themselves over rocky outcrops while tides are high. As the tide recedes, they are left to bask on the rocks. When in the water, they are proficient divers. They can dive to depths of 1,500 feet for up to 40 minutes at a time. Harbour seals are officially classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List given their global population of 350,000-500,000 individuals. This high population number is largely due to their surprisingly long lifespans of up to 30 years. Females become sexually mature at around three years old and can have a pup every year for the rest of their lives! A fun fact about seal pups, their mothers do not teach them how to hunt, they learn all on their own!
Steller Sea Lions
One of the loudest and smelliest marine mammals that passengers can come across on our tours is the Steller Sea Lion. These sea lions are named after the naturalist, George Wilhelm Steller, who first described the species in 1741. Male Stellers can reach sizes of 11 feet (3.25 m) in length and weight up to 2,500 pounds. This makes them the largest species of sea lion in the world! These hefty fellas are often confused with the other sea lion species we tend to see on our tours, California sea lions. They can be distinguished by their light blonde to reddish brown colour, their size, and their growling & roaring sound.
Stellar sea lions travel between feeding and breeding grounds, with the closest rookery to Victoria being in the Gulf of Alaska. During breeding seasons, males compete to win the rights of breeding with the females. Pups are usually born in mid-May to mid-July. Females will stay with the pups on the breeding grounds while the males head to southern waters to feed. A common location that we see these large sea lions is at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, southwest of Victoria Harbour. Here it is quite frequent to see males that are nursing wounds from losing the competition for breeding rights. Males will slowly start to trickle into our waters throughout the summer and begin to dominate the rocky outcrops from late summer through to winter.
California Sea Lions
Perhaps the most comical marine mammal that passengers may encounter on our tours is the California sea lion, due to its dog-like barking sounds. Known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking; they have long been the preferred species for zoos and aquariums due to their ability to be trained. California sea lions range in colour from dark brown (males) to lighter, golden brown (females). Males can reach up to 850 pounds and seven feet in length while females are significantly smaller, growing to only 220 pounds and six feet.
These sea lions are found from the coast of Vancouver Island down to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. From May to August these sea lions tend to be found in the southern parts of their range to establish breeding grounds. However, from April onwards we have the chance to see them on our tours as unsuccessful males start making their way to feeding grounds. By late summer through the winter months, rocky outcrops near Victoria can often be seen swarming with these noisy mammals. Fun facts about the California sea lions: they are one of the fastest pinnipeds in the world, capable of burst speeds of about 40 km/hr.! While at sea, these sea lions may gather together in groups to rest while floating on the surface of water, this is referred to as a “raft”.
We are lucky to be located on the Pacific coast where there are multiple different cetacean species that inhabit the local waters. One of the lesser-known cetaceans that we can see on our tours is the smaller-bodied Dall’s Porpoise. Black-and-white in colour and reaching speeds of up to 55km/h, these little porpoises look like torpedoes in the water!
Dall’s Porpoises can reach a maximum length of 8 feet and can weigh up to 440 pounds, tiny in comparison to Killer Whales who can reach up to 32 feet in length and 6 tons in weight. These smaller cetaceans can often fall prey to the much larger Killer Whales. They are known to be a very active species who will zigzag around at great speeds. Our waters are perfect for them as they prefer colder water habitats. One little known fact of Dall’s Porpoises is that females can successfully birth hybrid babies with another cetacean species in our waters, the Harbour porpoise!
The harbour porpoise is one of the smallest marine mammals and one of the six species of porpoise in the world. There is still lots that is unknown about this elusive species. One reason for this lack of knowledge is that scientists still do not know where teenage herring go, which is a main food source that this species follows. Adult harbour porpoises reach sizes of only 1.4 to 1.9 meters in length. This tiny yet playful species can, at times, be seen in small groups traveling through waters of the Salish Sea even though they are thought to be mostly solitary animals. Harbour porpoises are dark gray in colour on their dorsal side, light gray on their flanks, and have a white underbelly. A relatively unknown fact about this species is that they can only acoustically see about 20 feet in front of them, which is why they have the tendency to blunder into fishing nets. They utilize echolocation to navigate and feed by producing very high-frequency whistle and clicks. High-frequency sounds do not travel as far as low-frequency sounds do, which is the reason for the harbour porpoise’s “nearsightedness”.
Northern Elephant Seals
Possibly the strangest looking marine mammal that can be seen on our tours is the Northern elephant seal. Its strangeness stems from its giant proboscis (nose) that is found on the males. This enlarged nose is what gives them their common name, as it looks akin to the trunk of an elephant. They use this flabby appendage to make extraordinarily loud roaring noises. This species shows huge size discrepancies between the males and females, known as sexual dimorphism. While the females can only reach sizes of approximately 1900 pounds and 3.6 m in length the males dwarf them in comparison, reaching over 5000 pounds in weight and 5m in length. These interesting looking mammals have a range from Baja California, Mexico up to the Gulf of Alaska. While seeing these giant mammals in Victoria’s water is rare, we have been lucky that a small breeding colony has been established at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. This represents the most northerly breeding colony on the Pacific Coast! These funny-looking mammals can be seen December through to April and less frequently through the summer months. A less-known fact of the northern elephant seal is what proficient divers they are. In 2012, marine biologists tracked a female while she dove in search of squid to eat. She dove to the impressive depth of 5788 feet! Elephant seals can keep themselves emerged for up to two hours at a time, impressive!