While out on our whale watching trips in Victoria BC, we encounter so much more than whales. The Salish Sea is home to the most diverse marine life in the world, thanks to its constant flow of nutrient-rich waters. With so many creatures to be on the lookout for, it can be difficult for passengers to know what’s what!

Our passionate on-board marine naturalists are always eager to tell you exactly what you’re looking at, but just in case you want a head start, or are unable to join us here in Victoria, here’s a quick rundown of a few commonly confused critters.

What’s the difference between porpoises and dolphins?

Dolphins and porpoises have three main differences: their faces, fins and body shapes.

Faces: Dolphins have longer snouts and larger mouths than porpoises. As well, dolphins tend to have rounded teeth, while porpoises have sharper, spade-like teeth.

Fins: Dolphins have a hooked or curved dorsal fin, while porpoises have a more triangular dorsal fin, much like a shark’s.

Body shape: Dolphins tend to have longer, leaner bodies than porpoises, who are often shorter and more compact

Here in Victoria, we often encounter Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises, and Dall’s porpoises.

River otters and sea otters

Just like their name suggests, sea otters are found only in the ocean and are rarely seen on land. River otters, on the other hand, are equally at home in the water and on land. They make their burrows near the water’s edge and are often spotted on shore, as well as in rivers, streams, and the ocean.

Physically, the easiest difference to spot between the two is their tail. A sea otter’s tail is short and flattened, while a river otter’s tail is long and pointed. Sea otters are also much larger than river otters and have webbed feet, not swift little paws.

Sea otters were once hunted to near extinction for their exceptionally dense fur. By the early 1900s, less than 2000 sea otters remained worldwide. But thanks to breeding programs and conservations efforts, we occasionally spot one of these rare and beautiful creatures. River otters are much more common, and are often spotted in the Inner Harbour and foraging along the shorelines of Vancouver Island.

Steller’s sea lions and California sea lions

Both species of sea lion are frequently spotted in the waters around Victoria and Vancouver Island. They even coexist in certain locations, particularly at the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, just a quick boat ride from downtown Victoria. But that doesn’t mean these creatures are one and the same.

First of all, Steller’s sea lions are huge. They’re the largest of all sea lions, with adult males weighing up to 2500 lbs. They have light blonde to reddish brown fur that’s slightly darker on the chest and abdomen. Males have a thick mane of coarse hair that gives them a majestic, (and slightly lion-like!) appearance.

California sea lions, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller (males only weigh up to 770 lbs). They have chocolate brown fur, a dog-like face, and a smaller mane than Steller’s sea lions. California sea lions are probably what first come to mind when you think of sea lions because sadly, they are commonly seen doing acrobatic tricks in shows at zoos and aquariums. But the good news is that while on a whale watching tour in Victoria BC, you can see them the way they are meant to be seen—in their natural habitat!