What Can You See?

There are several species of marine mammal that can be seen year-round in the Salish Sea region, as well as a few that can be observed at various points throughout the year.  The marine mammal species found in this part of the Pacific Northwest are:.

  • Orcas (killer whales)
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Harbor seals
  • Dall’s porpoises
  • Calilfornia sea lions
  • Gray whales (seasonal, Mar-May)
  • Humpback whales (seasonal, June-Oct)
  • Minke whales (seasonal, May-Sept)
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins (seasonal, May & Sept)
  • Fin whales (occasional sightings)
  • Stellar sea lions (occasional sightings)

Of these, the species we see most in Burrows Pass off Fidalgo Island are: harbor porpoises, harbor seals and California sea lions.  Although technically a terrestrial species, we also regularly see river otters swimming in the waters of our study site.  We are occasionally lucky enough to see orcas, Gray and humpback whales just outside the Burrows Pass study site, and have also seen a Stellar sea lion come through the Pass itself.

Log & Porpoise photo

Harbor porpoises are small and fast making it tricky to spot them in the field.

What To Look For?

One of the best ways to become educated about marine mammals is to observe them in their natural habitat, something we are fortunate enough to be able to do quite easily here on Fidalgo Island.  We’ve put together a list of some “tips and tricks” to help you spot, identify and safely observe marine mammals in the field.  Although these are useful for spotting any marine mammals, the tips below are specifically geared towards viewing those species that we frequently see in Burrows Pass, Washington Park.

1.  Scan:  When looking for marine mammals one of the main things to do is SCAN.  Visual scanning means doing continuous “sweeps” of an area with your eyes, looking for any movement or changes on the water.  This is one of the best ways to catch that first glimpse of an animal in the field.

2.  Bird Mills:  Foraging is one of the main activities that we observe marine mammals doing in Burrows Pass.  One of the first indicators that marine mammals might be in the area is the presence of sea birds (e.g. seagulls, cormorants, etc.) congregating on or over the water.  These characteristic “bird mills” form when the birds are feeding on a school of fish, which may mean animals such as harbor porpoises and harbor seals are also foraging in the same area.

bird mill over humpbackBird mills are a good indication that marine mammals might be foraging in an area. 

Harbor porpoise sun glint

This characteristic sun-glint is often our first sighting of a harbor porpoise in the field.

3.  Glints/flashes of sunlight:  A quick flash of sunlight on the surface might be a sign of the light reflecting off the back of a harbor porpoise or harbor seal, and is often one of the first ways that researchers can spot an animal in the study area.

4.  Listen:  Harbor porpoises are sometimes called “puffing pigs” due to the loud noise they make when they come to the surface to breathe.  On quiet days, noises such as loud exhales and/or splashing made by seals or porpoises surfacing or chasing fish can be heard easily, so listen out for these telltale sounds of movement in the water.

5.  Small, dark shapes:  Harbor porpoises are especially tricky to spot in the field as they are very quick and subtle at the surface.  A telltale sign of a porpoise is a small, dark triangular shape (their dorsal fin) breaking the surface before disappearing.  (It will likely be quick, so keep your eyes open!)

Harbor seals in contrast spend more time at the surface, and therefore are often easier to identify as they swim through the water with their heads up looking at their surroundings.  Harbor seals have a spaniel-like profile, and are gray in color which is quite different than the other pinniped species primarily observed in the Pass, the California sea lion.

The California sea lion male has a much larger, darker head with a large sagittal crest (bump in their forehead!).  Males are often observed doing their characteristic “open-mouth swimming” while moving through the Pass, during which they swim with their mouths wide open.  Female California sea lion lack the sagittal crest of the males but are still much larger and darker than harbor seals with a sleek, elongated profile.

HP surfacing example

An example of a typical harbor porpoise surfacing. They happen quickly, so keep your eyes open!

Harbor seals are grey with distinctive spotting patterns on their body.

Harbor seals are grey with distinctive spotting patterns on their body.

Male CA sea lion

Male California sea lions have a sagittal crest – bump on their forehead.

Female CA sea lion

Female California sea lions do not have the sagittal crest but are dark and sleek in the water.