Our top seven winter wildlife wonders

by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing marine naturalist

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.

Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife Tours has been taking guests out on the water to experience whale watching in Victoria for 20 years. In our winter wildlife viewing season—which runs now through  March 7—there are amazing wildlife viewing opportunities in and around the waters off southern Vancouver Island. Every time we head out the harbour, we never know what we’re going to see!

Here are our top seven winter wildlife wonders:

Transient (Bigg’s) killer whales / Photo by Selena Rhodes Scofield, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Killer whales

Well yeah, who doesn’t get excited seeing these guys? We certainly do. Roughly one in three of our winter wildlife tours encounter killer whales, also known as orcas.

There are two “ecotypes” of killer whale we see in the Salish Sea. 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 73 whales in this critically endangered population, in three pods we call J, K and L. We used to see them almost every day from May to October as they followed the chinook salmon to the Fraser River near Vancouver. But as chinook salmon stocks dwindle, we’re seeing them less often as they search other parts of the coast for the food they desperately need. We can see them in the winter, too, but their visits are infrequent.

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.

Humpback whale / Photo by Karac Lindsay, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Humpback whales

There’s a very good chance to see humpback whales in December, especially this year with a dozen or so feeding in an area just west of Victoria. In January, we typically see them on roughly one in four tours!

Humpbacks are awesome. They’re the size of a city bus—just add a tail and two very long pectoral flippers, and you get the picture. We see humpbacks in the Salish Sea most months of the year, but most of them head to places like Mexico or Hawaii for the winter. Smart. Except they don’t eat there. Which is why a few of them linger in the Salish Sea as long as they can, scooping up those last few fish and krill calories before journeying south.

Bow-riding Dall’s porpoise / Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Porpoises

We get two types of porpoise in this region. 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 our boat, just for fun. They’ll put a smile on your face, guaranteed!

Steller sea lions / / Photo by Brendon Bissonnette, Eagle Wing Tours

Elephant seals: male (big guy), females and nursing pup (lower right)/ / Photo by Brendon Bissonnette, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Sea lions and seals

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 here, but most of them remain with their kids (born in the summer) 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 delight of transient killer whales who see them as very tasty “rock sausages.”

Massive and goofy-looking elephant seals — the largest seal in the northern hemisphere — are seen in the Salish Sea, especially at Race Rocks. And especially in the winter, which is an important time for them. Breeding season runs from December to February and in the last few years we’ve had several squeaky pups born at Race Rocks!

Ollie the sea otter on the rocks with harbour seals / Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Sea otter

What has a whiskered beaver-like face, is wrapped in the thickest fur coat in the animal kingdom and uses his chest as a dinner plate? Oh, and he has his own Facebook page, too. It’s our local sea otter celebrity, Ollie, who has made Race Rocks Ecological Reserve his home for the last few years.

Although we don’t see Ollie on every tour, he always puts smiles on our faces when we do. And in the winter, we often see him do something sea otters rarely do—he climbs out onto the rocks to hang with the seals or sea lions. We’re always astonished at how big he is!

Bald eagles at Race Rocks / Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. Bird, birds, birds…

With a wingspan of more than two metres, striking yellow beak and talons, and dapper 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 know what we mean. Auklets, cormorants, geese, grebes, herons, loons, mergansers, murres, oystercatchers, phalaropes, peregrine falcons, pigeon guillemots, and gulls and ducks galore.

Sunset at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve / Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

  1. The stunning view

What’s this doing on a list of wildlife, you ask? Well, don’t get so wrapped up in gawking at the animals that you forget to savour the spectacular West Coast scenery surrounding you. Trust us, it’s the best therapy for your soul ever!

To book your winter wildlife tour, give us a call or book online!