West Coast Whale Species and How to Identify Them

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Your Complete Guide to Whales of the Pacific

One of the great things about living on the west coast is that we are privy to an amazing diversity of wildlife that includes the whales of the Pacific.  

If you are a boater, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen seals, dolphins, transient or resident orcas and other whales as you cruise the waters around Vancouver Island. 

While orcas and seals are fairly easy to identify, it isn’t always that easy to know what you are looking at.

This quick guide will help you identify the whales of the Pacific and teach you the do’s and don’ts of interacting with these amazing creatures.

What are the Types of Whales Found in the Pacific?What are the types of whales found in the pacific

Along with orcas, dolphins and porpoises, whales belong to the order Cetacea, which consists of completely aquatic mammals. 

There are 8 types of whales found in the Pacific, including:

  • Grey whale
  • Humpback Whale
  • Blue Whale
  • Minke Whale
  • Sperm Whale
  • Short-Finned Pilot Whale
  • North-Pacific Right Whale
  • Fin Whale

Gray Whale

Gray whales are a species of baleen whale, which means that they have a comb-like plate in their mouth that serves to sift plankton from the water. As a migratory species, the gray whale travels between their breeding grounds in Mexico through the Pacific to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. They are typically dark gray, mottled with lighter gray. Their throat has 4 deep ridges running backward from the mouth to their short flippers.

Average Length: 44 to 48 feet

Life Span: 50 to 70 years

Status: Protected

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are a species of baleen whale. Their heads are knobby, they have long pectoral fins and a torpedo-shaped body that is narrow and tapered at both ends. Male humpbacks can produce a song that can last anywhere from 4 to 33 minutes.

Average Length: 46 to 56 feet

Life Span: 45 to 50 years

Status: Endangered

Blue WhaleBlue Whale

The blue whale is a species of baleen whale and is the largest mammal to have ever lived. Featuring a torpedo-shaped body, they are blue-gray in colour, with two pectoral fins, a small dorsal fin and a broad tail.

Average Length: 70 to 90 feet

Life Span: 80 to 90 years

Status: Endangered

Minke Whale

The smallest of the baleen whales, the minke resembles a miniature humpback whale, except that their sickle-shaped dorsal fin is much more pronounced.

Average Length: 35 feet

Life Span: up to 50 years

Status: Stable

Sperm Whale

The sperm whale is a species of toothed whale, meaning simply that they have teeth instead of a baleen plate. The most notable features of the sperm whale are the huge, blocky head and the narrow lower jaw. They are generally dark blue-gray or brown in colour, with short pectoral fins and a stubby dorsal fin.

Average Length: up to 79 feet

Life Span: 60 to 80 years

Status: Vulnerable

Short-Finned Pilot Whale

The short-finned pilot whale is one of two species of Cetacean in the genus Globicephala, together with the long-finned pilot whale. It features a bulbous, melon-like head, a body that more closely resembles that of a dolphin, and a uniform dark gray colour.

Average Length: 12 to 24 feet

Life Span: 35 to 60 years

Status: Least Concern

North Pacific Right Whale

A species of baleen whale, the North-Pacific Right Whale resembles a shorter version of the humpback whale. It is predominantly dark gray in colour, with some white on its underside. It features two short, rounded pectoral fins and no dorsal fin.

Average Length: 45 to 64 feet

Life Span: up to 70 years

Status: Endangered (under Endangered Species Act), Depleted (under the Marine Mammal Protection Act)

Fin Whale

The fin whale is a species of baleen whale and is known to be the second-largest species of whale. It has a long, sleek torpedo-shaped body, with a small dorsal fin set close to the tail. Its body is tapered at both ends, with slender pectoral fins.

Average Length: 75 to 85 feet

Life Span: 80 to 90 years

Status: Endangered (under Endangered Species Act), Depleted (under the Marine Mammal Protection Act)

For more information and images see this guide to whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Pacific Ocean from thewhaletrail.org

What to do When You Sight a WhaleWhat to do when you sight a whale

  • Put your engine in neutral idle. Whales are sensitive to acoustic disturbances, such as from boat motors, echo sounders, and fish finders
  • Stay 100 meters away. By remaining at least 100m away from the whale, you keep yourself and the whale out of harm.
  • Report violations. If you see another boater who is not following the rules, report them to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
  • Photograph the whale. Use your phone or camera to capture the memory. Whale-watching trips, such as those offered by the Pacific Whale Foundation, offer a fantastic opportunity to photograph whales.
  • Report the sighting. The WhaleReport app, from the BC Cetacean Sightings Network, generates a report that informs shipmasters and pilots of whale sightings in their vicinity.

What Not to do When You Spot a Whale

Well-intentioned boaters can often disturb whales and other marine life without even thinking about it. The best way to observe whales is by standing onshore and using binoculars, but if you happen to come across whales while you are out on your boat, there are a few things you should never do.

Here’s a quick list of what not to do when whales are nearby:

  • Do not swim among them. You can easily get pinned and drown.
  • Do not encircle them or goad them into moving with your boat. Whales are capable of causing significant damage if they feel threatened.
  • Do not park your boat in their path. If a whale is preparing to surface when you block its path, you can end up being thrown from your boat.
  • Do not photograph the whale with a drone. Aside from the whale’s sensitivity to acoustic disturbances, they may feel threatened and may react accordingly.

For more information on safe whale watching, read this guidance on watching marine wildlife from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Catch sight of a Pacific Whale from the Comfort of Your Own Yacht

Do you want to experience the beauty of the whales of the Pacific on your own terms? It could be time to invest in a yacht to explore the waters around Vancouver Island.

At Van Isle Marina, our yacht sales team is ready to help you find the best recreational boat for your needs. Talk to our crew about your next boat purchase today.

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