Identification of British Columbia Whales and Dolphins

There have been a large number of unusual whale and dolphin sightings off of the British Columbia coastline in recent weeks, and this animal activity may be making people wonder how to identify whale and dolphin species. This article will explain how to recognize the most common species found in British Columbia, Canada.

Dolphins and Porpoises

Dolphins and porpoises that live in the waters of British Columbia, with the exception of Killer Whales, are less than 20 feet in length. The majority of dolphin and porpoise species are around 10 feet in length at maturity, making them stand out significantly from their larger relatives the whales.

There are several dolphin species found in northern Pacific waters, but two main ones are seen off the BC coast. The Pacific White-sided dolphin is quite distinct, measuring just under ten feet in length at maturity, and tends to be fairly fast moving and quite acrobatic. There is a light gray, often moon shaped patch near the top of their dorsal fin, the fin located part way down their back. There is also a thick black or dark gray stripe over the back and patches of the same colour along the sides on a background of light gray. The underbelly of these dolphins is white.

Killer Whales are the largest of the dolphins, not whales as their name suggests. When fully mature they can be around thirty feet in length, and are uniformly black all over except for some distinctive markings. There are white ovals near the eyes, and white along the lower jaw extending back to the side fins, known as pectoral fins, and across the stomach. Killer whales also have white or gray patches just behind the dorsal fin. Killer whales are easily distinguished from other dolphins and whales by the dorsal fins of the males. These fins can be up to five feet in height, with the fins of females and juveniles being significantly shorter.

There are two types of porpoise found in BC waters; The Dall's Porpoise and the Harbour Porpoise. The larger of the two species, the Dall's Porpoise, is just under ten feet in length when mature. They are uniformly black except for small white patches found on the dorsal fin, and white extending up both sides from the stomach, on the tips of the pectoral fins and along the edge of the tail.

At just over five feet in length the Harbour porpoise is the smallest of the whale and dolphins off the BC coast. The Harbour porpoise is dark in colour, with a lighter underbelly that extends part way up both sides. It also has a low, small dorsal fin.


There are many species of whale that call the North Pacific home, from the mighty blue whale to the false killer whale. While any of these species can potentially be seen in BC waters, three whale species are more commonly seen than any of the others. These are the Gray whale, Humpback whale and Minke whale.

Gray whales are most commonly seen on the Western side of Vancouver Island, but have recently been seen between the mainland and Vancouver Island, and one particularly adventurous whale travelled into Vancouver's False Creek. Gray whales are just over forty feet when mature, and as their name suggests, Gray whales are a mottled gray colour. They have a long narrow head, and there is no protruding dorsal fin, instead these whales have a series of humps on the lower back leading to the tail. This lack of a dorsal fin is the easiest identifier of Gray whales, as this characteristic is unique to Gray whales of all the large whales commonly seen in British Columbia.

Similar in size but quite different in appearance to the Gray Whale is the Humpback Whale. Reaching just over fifty feet in length, Humpbacks are the largest of the three most commonly seen whale species. Humpbacks are uniformly dark coloured, appearing gray or black. White markings occur on the underside of their pectoral fins, on the underside of the belly, and in unique patterns under the tail that differentiate individual whales. Bumps are visible on the front of the head, and the dorsal fin has a distinct shape and is quite short.

The smallest of the commonly seen whales is the Minke whale. These whales can reach just over thirty feet in length. They have a short, small dorsal fin located quite far down the back, and an overall gray colour, sometimes with bands of lighter colour near their pectoral flippers. The undersides of Minke whales are white, and white patches are located on the tops of their pectoral fins. Their small size and the white patches on the tops of their pectoral fins make these whales quite distinct from the other whale species.