As a Biologist living in Victoria B.C., some of the most common questions I am asked are about our whale watching season. Do we have Killer whales here year round? When is the best time to see Orcas? Do we get other types of whales here during the year such as Grey whales and Humpbacks?
These are all great questions, because there is no single answer. Depending on which species of whale you want to see, and what type of experience you would like, the answer can be different. Here is a good guide to help you make a decision about the whale watching season in Victoria.
Our whale watching tour season here begins in April, and finishes in October. During this time, it is possible to see four different species of whales, two species of porpoises and one species of dolphin depending on the month you are here. Generally the majority of guests who join us are most interested in viewing our Orcas, but recently we have been getting a lot of interest in the humpback whales which also feed in our waters.
To see Killer whales (another name for Orcas), any time from May to October is an excellent. We actually have two different ecotypes of killer whales which can be viewed off the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orca)
If you would like to see Southern Resident Killer whales, you have the best chance in the summer months, however, sightings are consistent from April, right through to the end of October. We do see Southern Resident Killer whales, particularly the J-Pod family group, outside of peak season, but sightings are much less frequent. The main reason for this is that Southern Resident Killer whales rely on Chinook Salmon as their primary food source. Each year they intercept the salmon migration in the waters off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. For whale watchers, this makes for regular and relatively reliable Southern Resident Killer Whale sightings near the American San Juan Islands throughout the summer months.
Transient Killer Whales (Orca)
The second ecotype of orca, the Transient Killer whales, feed on marine mammals such as harbour seals, steller sea lions and harbour porpoises. These smaller marine mammals are here in abundance during the summer and winter, and therefore our transient killer whales are spotted frequently during summer, and can also be seen periodically during the winter months. Transient Killer Whales are often spotted in smaller groups (2-6) just off shore, or close to rocky outcrops and islands, where they are able to scare their prey off the rocks and into the water. These Killer Whales are stealthy hunters, they work together to catch their prey, and are often referred to as “Sea Wolves”.
For anyone more interested in viewing our largest whale species, the Humpback Whale, the best time to go whale watching is generally from May-June and September-October. Unlike our Orcas these whales are migratory, which means they are travelling to different places during the year depending on the water temperature.
At the beginning of our summer the Humpback whales are traveling up the coast of British Columbia in order to reach Alaska, which is where they spend their summers feeding. During May and June, we see an increase in the number these large baleen whales as a result of this northern migration. Similarly, starting around the end of August, we see another increase in the number of Humpbacks as they start the opposite migration down our coastline towards Hawaii, which is where they spend their winters. This being said, in the past five years we have observed a huge increase in the number of Humpback whales stopping to feed in our strait. As a result, we can often see Humpbacks for the majority of our season.
For viewing other baleen whales, March and April is the best time to spot the Gray whales which migrate through the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Similar to Humpbacks, Gray whales are traveling through the Salish Sea towards Alaska to feed in the nutrient rich water during the summer. As a result, their spring migration is generally the best time to see them.
Lastly, for those visitors who may be coming to Victoria outside of our main whale watching season, but still want to enjoy a wildlife experience, there is always a chance of being able to view our Minke whales. These small baleen whales look similar to a humpback whale, but are about one-third the length, and can be spotted in our strait almost year-round.
Minke whales are infamous for being the most secretive of all the whales we see here in the Pacific Northwest. Until recently, it was not known whether they migrated during the winter months. Researchers have now concluded that our local Minke whales do in fact migrate as far as 424km north in the spring, and 398km south in the autumn. It is known that they are moving to warmer waters during the winter months, but there is still much to learn about where they go during this time. This coincides with frequent Minke Whale sightings in the summer months, when they are seen feeding on small schooling fish such as herring.
Other Marine Wildlife
Finally, in addition to whales, our winter months are also a good time to spot other marine mammals common to our area such as harbour and dall’s porpoises, harbour seals, and steller and California sea lions. No matter what time of the year you might be coming to visit Victoria, there is always a chance of getting a great view of some of our marine wildlife!
To learn more, check out our What’s out there other than whales blog!