The south coast of British Columbia is known for its damp and grey winters. But guess what? The whales and other marine wildlife around here don’t care. Rain or shine, they just go about their daily business of looking for food, rest, and some family or buddy time.
And they do it right on our doorstep.
In our winter season — from November to May 15 — there are amazing wildlife viewing opportunities in and around the waters off southern Vancouver Island. Every time we head out the harbour, we just never know what we’re going to see.
Here are our top seven winter wildlife wonders:
- Killer whales
Well yeah, who doesn’t get excited seeing these guys? We certainly do.
There are two types of killer whales we commonly see in this region. They don’t hang out together, they act and sound different, and most significantly, they eat from completely different menus.
Southern resident killer whales eat fish and travel in large family groups known as pods. There are 76 whales in this population, in three pods we call J, K and L. We usually see them from May to October as they follow the chinook salmon to the Fraser River near Vancouver. We see them in the winter, too, but their visits are sporadic.
Transient or Bigg’s killer whales chow down on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises. They travel in small family groups and can show up anywhere, at any time of year. We’ve had lots of transient encounters in recent winters.
- Other whales
The humpback whale is the size of a city bus. Just add a tail and flippers, and you get the picture. We see humpies on the BC coast throughout the year, but the peak season off Victoria is August through November. They come here for last-minute gulps of schooling fish and krill before heading to Mexico or Hawaii. Smart.
Slightly smaller and more demure is the grey whale. The best time to see them near Victoria is early spring. Famished after their mainly foodless winter vacation in Baja Mexico, they snuffle around in bays, sandy reefs and kelp beds for teeny-tiny critters called amphipods and mysids.
Sleek and speedy minke whales can be seen here in any month of the year, but not so much between December and February. We look for these shy whales above shallow banks and submarine slopes where small schooling fish tend to gather.
- Porpoises and dolphins
The teeny and bashful “now you see me, now you don’t” harbour porpoise is a year-round resident. The more extroverted Dall’s porpoise can also be seen any month of the year. If they’re feeling playful, these black and white speed demons will ride the bow waves of the boat.
Pacific white-sided dolphins, commonly known as Lags, are bow and stern wake addicts — surfing, leaping, cartwheeling and somersaulting with tireless exuberance. Whatever did they do to burn off that energy before boats came along, we often wonder.
- Sea lions
In winter and early spring, hundreds of male Steller and California sea lions gather at several haulout sites near Victoria. Where are the girls, you ask? There are a few young ones here, but most of them are stuck with last year’s kids back near the breeding grounds, which are north for Stellers and south for Californias. Meanwhile, the boys spend their days here dozing, getting fatter and bickering over rock space. Doesn’t sound fair at all.
Pudgy, doe-eyed harbour seals dot the rocks on many islands and reefs throughout this region. They’re here all year, much to our delight — and the transient killer whales who see them as very tasty rock sausages.
Goofy-looking elephant seals — the largest seal in the northern hemisphere — are seen here throughout the year, especially at Race Rocks. Sometimes we see ellies resting at sea where they look like deadhead logs. Logs that look back at you, that is.
- Bird, birds, birds…
With a wingspan of more than two metres, striking yellow beak and talons, and handsome black and white plumage, an adult bald eagle is a regal sight. When they’re not at the rivers ripping apart rotting salmon (yuck), we often see them in the winter months perched atop a tall tree or rock, or plucking a fish out of the water. Or terrorizing gulls, which don’t like getting eaten, understandably.
This region is a birder’s paradise, especially in winter when we get an A-Z assortment of feathered friends. Not literally, but you get the idea. Auklets, cormorants, geese, grebes, herons, loons, mergansers, murres, oystercatchers, phalaropes, peregrine falcons, pigeon guillemots, and gulls and ducks galore.
- The stunning view
Okay, so what’s this doing on a list of wildlife? Well, don’t get so wrapped up in gawking at the whales and seals and birds that you forget to savour the spectacular West Coast scenery surrounding you. Trust us, it’s the best soul therapy ever!