If you see a whale, dolphin, porpoise or turtle, we’d like to know!

Sure, we want to save the whales. But first we need to know more about them, like how many of them there are, where they spend their time, and what they do. With a coastline as long and intricate as the one in British Columbia, monitoring cetaceans year round is impossible for researchers and scientists. That’s where the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network comes in.

Set your sights

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is the place to contact if you see a whale, porpoise or dolphin. It also monitors sightings of sea turtles. As the central place for cetacean sightings in B.C., it collects information on cetacean activity that researchers wouldn’t be able to get on their own.

The network gets sightings from whale watchers, tour guide operators, lighthouse keepers, and members of the general public who were lucky enough to spot a whale, porpoise, dolphin, or sea turtle. Information about each sighting is then entere Read More
If you see a whale, dolphin, porpoise or turtle, we’d like to know!

Sure, we want to save the whales. But first we need to know more about them, like how many of them there are, where they spend their time, and what they do. With a coastline as long and intricate as the one in British Columbia, monitoring cetaceans year round is impossible for researchers and scientists. That’s where the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network comes in.

Set your sights

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is the place to contact if you see a whale, porpoise or dolphin. It also monitors sightings of sea turtles. As the central place for cetacean sightings in B.C., it collects information on cetacean activity that researchers wouldn’t be able to get on their own.

The network gets sightings from whale watchers, tour guide operators, lighthouse keepers, and members of the general public who were lucky enough to spot a whale, porpoise, dolphin, or sea turtle. Information about each sighting is then entered into a database, which is available to researchers and scientists working on ways to help these species at risk. You can help the researchers by reporting your sightings.

Get updates from researchers in the field by checking out the Wild Whales website.

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is a joint program of the Vancouver Aquarium and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with funding from the Government of Canada Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.

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

Two humpback whales feeding at the surface, mouths open, baleen visible

Photo : D. Davis

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


During the busy summer season, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network may receive 50-100 sightings every week.
During the busy summer season, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network may receive 50-100 sightings every week.

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

Being a marine biologist isn’t always exciting. Sometimes it means sitting in an office, answering phone calls, and entering data into a computer. Yet, this deskwork can be just as important to helping whales, porpoises and dolphins as studying them in the field.

Doug Sandilands and Nadine Pinnell know this. As researchers for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, they spend a lot of time collecting information from members of the public. The reports and pictures arrive by email, over the phone, or via logbooks.

Whale accountants

Once the data is collected, Aquarium volunteers enter the information into a database. This database has over 20,000 entries and is growing every week.

If the information is accompanied by a photograph of a killer whale, experts must identify which individual it is. This is not an easy task, even though they have a catalogue of all known whales for reference. Sometimes the only difference between two whales is a spot on one’s saddle patch or a nick on another’s dorsal fin.

Want Read More
Being a marine biologist isn’t always exciting. Sometimes it means sitting in an office, answering phone calls, and entering data into a computer. Yet, this deskwork can be just as important to helping whales, porpoises and dolphins as studying them in the field.

Doug Sandilands and Nadine Pinnell know this. As researchers for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, they spend a lot of time collecting information from members of the public. The reports and pictures arrive by email, over the phone, or via logbooks.

Whale accountants

Once the data is collected, Aquarium volunteers enter the information into a database. This database has over 20,000 entries and is growing every week.

If the information is accompanied by a photograph of a killer whale, experts must identify which individual it is. This is not an easy task, even though they have a catalogue of all known whales for reference. Sometimes the only difference between two whales is a spot on one’s saddle patch or a nick on another’s dorsal fin.

Want to try your hand at identifying killer whales? Check out our Familiar fins section to get the lowdown.

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

Go behind the scenes at the Vancouver Aquarium with cetacean research team member Doug Sandilands. Follow this link.

Behind the scenes with Cetacean Researcher Doug Sandilands

Nikki: Hi, my name is Nikki Espiritu. I’m a volunteer here at the Vancouver Aquarium, and today, I’m here to interview Doug Sandilands who is a scientist for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. So come with me, and we’ll go and get him.

Nikki: Hi Doug.

Doug: Hey Nikki, how’s it going?

Nikki: I’m great.

Doug: Good.

Nikki: For my first question, I would like to ask you, what are the major causes in the endangerment towards killer whales?

Doug: Well, the threats to their recovering populations are mainly PCB’s and other toxins in their system that interfere with their immune system and their reproductive systems. And on top of that, boat traffic has increased a lot over the last decades, making it harder for them to find their fish and do the things that they need to do to be whales.

Nikki: Do you know how the Vancouver Aquarium is helping the conservation for killer whales?

Doug: Doctor Lance Barrett-Lennard, who studies genetics, and his research has led to a greater understanding of the genetic structure of the different populations. And he’s recognized that this population dichotomy where you have residents and transients living in the same area, goes all the way off into the Aleutians and previously, it was understood that this was unique to B.C. In addition, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, which is the project I work on, collects sightings from a group of about fifteen hundred observers on the coast. One of the big questions about killer whales is where they go in the winter, and the Sightings Network is starting to get more and more sightings during the winter so we’re helping to answer that question, understanding what habitats are important to them.

Nikki: As far as different killer whale communities in B.C. and Alaskan waters are concerned, how often, if at all, do the pods come together and breed?

Doug: Yeah, there are relatively few incidents of their interaction being observed. For the most part, they just ignore each other and, and as far as I know, we have no knowledge of offshores interacting with residents or transients.

Nikki: Let’s say a secondary student would want to enter the same field as you. What advice would you give to them?

Doug: A lot of students are very interested in marine biology. It is a lot of fun. Aside from taking a lot of biology courses, it’s important that you get a lot of skills in things like operating boats, and an understanding of navigation and that sort of thing, and diving is also another skill that it will be very helpful. And finally I would suggest that a lot of biology students don’t like math, and math was one of the main reasons I got a job studying whales.

Nikki: So what’s your favourite part of the job?

Doug: The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network in the last year has just started to do cetacean surveys, where we go out in our little boat, the Seneca, and mostly in the Northern Strait of Georgia, and look for whales, dolphins, and porpoises. It certainly is my most favourite part of the job, to be out on the water.

Nikki: Really exciting, I bet?

Doug: Oh it’s great. Yup, getting up at five in the morning and back at ten, and standing out in the cold, rainy weather is sometimes hard, but I have a smile on my face for the whole day.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

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


A humpback whale at the surface with visible throat pleats

Photo : A. Trites

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


The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network uses its database to help cetaceans. Here’s how:

Researchers use the data for conservation, research or education

With records of where the cetaceans are and what they do there, scientists can get an idea of where important habitats are. When the Canadian Wildlife Service wanted to create a marine protected area to keep marine wildlife safe, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network’s database was used to make sure that cetaceans would benefit from protecting the area.

Data not released for whale watching

The information in the database is not given to the public for whale watching purposes. This protects cetaceans from being exposed to too much boat traffic, which could disrupt their feeding or resting. It also allows people who live in remote locations to keep their privacy when they spot and report a cetacean in their backyard.

If you’d like to use the information for research, conservation or educational purpose Read More
The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network uses its database to help cetaceans. Here’s how:

Researchers use the data for conservation, research or education

With records of where the cetaceans are and what they do there, scientists can get an idea of where important habitats are. When the Canadian Wildlife Service wanted to create a marine protected area to keep marine wildlife safe, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network’s database was used to make sure that cetaceans would benefit from protecting the area.

Data not released for whale watching

The information in the database is not given to the public for whale watching purposes. This protects cetaceans from being exposed to too much boat traffic, which could disrupt their feeding or resting. It also allows people who live in remote locations to keep their privacy when they spot and report a cetacean in their backyard.

If you’d like to use the information for research, conservation or educational purposes, however, you can contact sightings@vanaqua.org and apply for access.

If you’re looking for tips on where to go on your next B.C. whale watching trip, try using a tour operator who follows the marine mammal watching guidelines. If you’re going out boating on your own, don’t forget to follow the guidelines yourself.

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

Pectoral fins are a key feature used to identify humpback whales. These fins can be up to 1/3 the length of the whale's body.
Pectoral fins are a key feature used to identify humpback whales. These fins can be up to 1/3 the length of the whale's body.

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

A humpback whale's long, white pectoral fin

Photo : L. Barrett-Lennard

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


Look! Out in the water! It’s some sort of moving whale thing! What is it, exactly? Here are some tips to identify it. Remember, it’s better to get a good description than to put a name to what you found. You can always look up the name later.

Cetacean Sighting Tips

Estimate its size. You can use your boat or something of known size for comparison.

Look for its dorsal fin. Does it have one? If so, what does it look like?

Note its general appearance. What is the general body shape and colour?

Watch what it’s doing. Some behaviours are unique to certain types of cetaceans. Look to see if your mystery animal is sticking its tail up in the air, splashing around a lot, or stalking some hapless sea lion.

After watching the video, put your skills to the test with our "Whale Detectives" game.
Look! Out in the water! It’s some sort of moving whale thing! What is it, exactly? Here are some tips to identify it. Remember, it’s better to get a good description than to put a name to what you found. You can always look up the name later.

Cetacean Sighting Tips

Estimate its size. You can use your boat or something of known size for comparison.

Look for its dorsal fin. Does it have one? If so, what does it look like?

Note its general appearance. What is the general body shape and colour?

Watch what it’s doing. Some behaviours are unique to certain types of cetaceans. Look to see if your mystery animal is sticking its tail up in the air, splashing around a lot, or stalking some hapless sea lion.

After watching the video, put your skills to the test with our "Whale Detectives" game.

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

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

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

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

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


A rarely-seen minke whale breach

Photo : T. Jenkinson

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


Put your skills to the test with our "Whale Detectives" game.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

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


The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network was formed in 1999, but its story began many years ago. And the story is closely linked to the public’s changing view of killer whales.

Kill the beast!

"Savage murderers!" "Killing machines with huge teeth!" Up until the 1960s, many people thought of killer whales as ferocious creatures and feared them as much as sharks. Sadly, some killer whales were hunted and shot on sight at this time.

The tide turns

Everything changed in 1964, when a killer whale – later named Moby Doll – was captured and brought to a makeshift pen in Vancouver harbour. Tens of thousands of people came to see the whale and were shocked by how gentle it was. Newspaper articles were published around the world. When Moby Doll died, the London Times gave the event as much attention as it had the outbreak of World War II.

Star attractions

Another killer whale, named Namu, was the first real cetacea Read More
The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network was formed in 1999, but its story began many years ago. And the story is closely linked to the public’s changing view of killer whales.

Kill the beast!

"Savage murderers!" "Killing machines with huge teeth!" Up until the 1960s, many people thought of killer whales as ferocious creatures and feared them as much as sharks. Sadly, some killer whales were hunted and shot on sight at this time.

The tide turns

Everything changed in 1964, when a killer whale – later named Moby Doll – was captured and brought to a makeshift pen in Vancouver harbour. Tens of thousands of people came to see the whale and were shocked by how gentle it was. Newspaper articles were published around the world. When Moby Doll died, the London Times gave the event as much attention as it had the outbreak of World War II.

Star attractions

Another killer whale, named Namu, was the first real cetacean celebrity. His shows at the Seattle Public Aquarium were so popular that he starred in his own movie and had his own song. His fame spawned a rush for aquariums all around the world to display killer whales.

Concern for killer whale populations

As more young whales were captured for aquariums, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) realized that we knew very little about wild killer whale populations in B.C. Someone was going to have to find out! That someone was DFO scientist Dr. Michael Bigg.

The census begins

Counting every killer whale on the coast was a big job, so Dr. Bigg decided to ask the public for help.

During this study, Dr. Bigg learned to identify individual killer whales by the shape of their dorsal fins and their grey saddle patches, just like we can be identified by our fingerprints.

Forming the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

The public continued to report their sightings to the scientists, but the information wasn’t organized in one place. That’s why DFO and the Vancouver Aquarium got together to create the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. Now, the public had a place to call whenever they saw a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

Looking to the future

We still have a lot to learn about B.C.'s cetaceans. The public's sighting reports may give researchers more insight into the fascinating world of marine mammals – and, in the process, find ways to protect them.

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

Closeup of killer whale flukes

Photo : A. Trites

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


In 1977, killer whales were featuredin a Jaws-style horror movie. Bo Derek made her film debut in the suspense thriller, called Orca.
In 1977, killer whales were featuredin a Jaws-style horror movie. Bo Derek made her film debut in the suspense thriller, called Orca.

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

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in biology;
  • assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity;
  • describe how personal actions help conserve natural resources and protect the environment in their region;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans