B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

Learn about the different species of cetaceans found on the B.C. coast with the Aquarium's Nadine Pinnell. Follow this link.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

Nadine Pinnell:

Hi! My name is Nadine Pinnell, and I’m here to tell you a little bit about the whales, dolphins and porpoises we have living on the B.C. coast.

I work here at the Aquarium with the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, and we collect sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises, as well as sea turtles, from people out on the water.

Now, we’re going to be taking a tour today of the different cetaceans that live on the B.C. Coast.

We’re going to start small, with the harbour porpoise. The harbour porpoise is the smallest cetacean on the B.C. coast, and it’s also one of the shyest. They often travel in small groups of just 1 to 3 individuals in a group.

Harbour porpoises can easily be recognized by their distinctive triangular dark dorsal fin. When you see harbour porpoises, often what you’ll see is their triangular dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water, followed by the smooth curve of their back. It almost looks as if the harbour porpoise is on a wheel of some sort that allows it to move so smoothly through the water.

The other species of porpoise found on the B.C. coast is the Dall’s porpoise. Dall’s porpoises are very quick swimmers, and they often create a distinctive rooster-tail of spray as they’re skimming along the surface of the water. Dall’s porpoises are also very sociable animals, and they enjoy bow-riding – surfing the pressure wave off the bow of a boat.

Dall’s porpoises have triangular dorsal fins, just like Dall’s porpoises; however, they have a frosting of white on their dorsal fins that make them easy to distinguish from harbour porpoises. Dall’s porpoises are black and white, just like killer whales – the other black and white cetacean found on the coast.

Now, Dall’s porpoises are sometimes mistaken for baby killer whales; however, their dorsal fins are much smaller than killer whales, and they’re much smaller in length as well.

Killer whales have tall dorsal fins, and in fact, adult male killer whales can have dorsal fins that are as high as 6 feet tall. Killer whales are also known for their acrobatic behaviours, as they leap high above the surface of the water.

Pacific white-sided dolphins are the other smaller species of cetacean found on the B.C. coast. Unlike harbour porpoises and Dall’s porpoises, they have sickle-shaped dorsal fins – curved dorsal fins that are easily distinguished from the triangular dorsal fins of the two porpoise species.

Sometimes, Pacific white-sided dolphins will even “porpoise”, which is a behaviour when they leap completely clear of the water as they’re travelling forward.

Pacific white-sided dolphins are very social animals, and they travel in large groups. Sometimes Pacific white-sided dolphins travel in groups of 50 or so individuals, and other times they can be traveling in groups of up to 1500 individuals.

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whale species found on the B.C. coast. They’re relatively common and can often be seen feeding by themselves, amongst flocks of seabirds.

Minke whales are quite easy to recognize. They have a long ridge on the top of their heads, finger-like dorsal fins, and very pointed heads. Compared to other baleen whale species, minke whales are relatively small and slender.

Minke whales have earned the nickname “stinky minkes” for their bad breath, which is often noticeable from several hundred metres away.

Humpback whales are one of the easiest cetaceans on the coast to recognize. Unlike Minke whales, humpback whales have low, nubby dorsal fins. Humpback whales also have long pectoral flippers. These flippers can be as long as 15 feet in length.
If you’re lucky, you may see a humpback whale breaching, lifting most of its body clear of the water in an amazing display of strength.

Groups of humpback whales on this coast sometimes feed using bubble nets. Bubble net feeding involves a group of whales encircling a school of fish, such as herring, and swimming down below them. As they swim around the school of fish and spiral upwards, they blow bubbles. After you see the ring of bubbles on the surface, watch for several humpback whales surging up through the middle of that ring of bubbles with their mouths open to gulp down the fish that they’ve corralled using their bubble net.

Gray whales are sometimes known as “floating rocks” because of their mottled colouration and the fact that they can spend long periods of time motionless at the surface of the water. Gray whales get their mottled colouration from the barnacles and other parasites that live in large quantities on their skin.

Gray whales, unlike other baleen whales, don’t have dorsal fins. They do have a series of small knuckles proceeding down their back, but no dorsal fin.

Now that you know how to recognize the common species of whales, dolphins and porpoises found on the B.C. coast, I expect you to let me know whenever you see one.

Give us a call at 1-866-I SAW ONE or report your sightings online, at www.wildwhales.org.

Video footage and still photography provided by:
Tony Jenkinson
Doug Davis
Andrew Trites
Sven Koschinski
Boris Culik
George Johnson
John & Bev Ford
Graeme Ellis
Lance Barrett-Lennard
Kathy Heise
Doug Sandilands
National Film Board of Canada

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