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
  • California sea lions
  • Steller sea lions
  • Dall’s porpoises (occasional sightings)
  • Gray whales (seasonal, Mar-May)
  • Minke whales (seasonal, May-Sept)
  • Humpback whales (mostly seasonal, Mar-Sept)
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins (seasonal, May & Sept)
  • Fin whales (occasional sightings)

[You can even hear what some of these species sound like – check it out on this page!]

Of these, the species we see most in Burrows Pass (off Fidalgo Island) are harbor porpoises, harbor seals, California sea lions and Steller sea lions. Although technically a terrestrial species, we also see river otters swimming in the waters of our study site on occasion! Every once and a while we are lucky enough to see orcas, gray whales, minke whales, and even humpback whales in Burrows Pass or just outside it in Rosario Strait.

What To Look For?

One of the best ways to become educated about marine mammals is to observe them in their natural habitat. 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 typically see in Burrows Pass, Washington Park.

1. Scan

When looking for marine mammals, one of the main things to do is SCAN the area with your eyes or binoculars. Visual scanning means doing continuous sweeps of an area, 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 we observe marine mammals engaged in in Burrows Pass. One of the first indicators that marine mammals might be in the area is the presence of sea birds (e.g. gulls, 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.

Birds flocking over a specific spot can indicate there are fish below, and there may also be a marine mammal down there foraging!

3. Glints or Flashes of Sunlight

A quick flash of sunlight on the surface might be the first indication you have that an animal is in your line of sight! It’s caused by light reflecting off the back of a harbor porpoise or harbor seal as it surfaces, and is often one of the first ways that researchers can spot an animal in the study area.

The sun glinting off a harbor porpoises as it rolls at the surface is often your first indication that something is there.

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!)

A typical harbor porpoise surfacing sequence…it’s easy to miss!

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.

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

California (CA) sea lion males have a large, 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 CA sea lions lack the sagittal crest of the males but are still much larger and darker than harbor seals with a sleek, elongated profile.

Male CA sea lion
Here you can compare a male CA sea lion (left) with a female (right). Look at the different shapes of their foreheads for comparison.

Steller sea lions are also large, but can be distinguished from CA sea lions by their color (they are more of a honey-gold to light brown, vs. dark brown of the CA sea lion) and size, as both male and female Stellers are typically larger than the CA sea lions.

Notice how different the Steller sea lion looks compared to the California sea lions: it’s color and size both give it away.