Species Identification

What is that whale?

Learning to identify cetaceans and sea turtles can take time and practice.  While it may be easy to find sharp, focused images of these species, identifying them in certain ocean conditions or from a distance is more challenging!  If you would like to improve your cetacean and sea turtle identification skills, check out the resources below, then head out on or near the water and practice looking for cues like blows, splashes, or dorsal fins.

Download our Printable ID Guide!

Cetaceans and Sea Turtles Found in BC

Click on the buttons below to learn how to identify the different species of baleen whales, toothed whales, and sea turtles found in our waters.

Common Dorsal Fins

An easy way to identify cetaceans to species is by looking at the shape of their dorsal fin. Porpoises have triangular dorsal fins, dolphins have curved fins, and large whales dorsal fins in all shapes and sizes (or none at all!).

Low and Knubby

Humpback whale

Tall and Distinctive

Killer whale

Curved on a Broad Back

Minke whale, blue whale, and fin whale

Small and Triangular

Harbour porpoise, Dall’s porpoise

Curved and Bi-Coloured

Pacific white-sided dolphin

No Dorsal Fin

Grey whale

Common Blows

As a whale’s exhalations from their blowhole condense in the air, they create shapes that are unique to each species and are helpful for identification.  Some blows can be seen from far away, and aid in discerning species from a distance.

Tall, Column-Like Blow

Humpback whale, blue whale, fin whale

Low, Bushy Blow

Killer whale, Minke whale, Sperm whale (angled to the left)

Heart or Mushroom-Shaped Blow

Grey whale

Common Flukes

When whales take a deep dive, they often display their tail flukes.  This can be a useful tool for species identification.

Large and Lobed

Humpback whale, blue whale

Small and Paddle-Like

Killer whale, Grey whale

No Fluke Typically Seen

Minke whale, Fin whale, harbour porpoise, Dall’s porpoise

Common Behaviours

Many cetaceans display unique behaviours on the surface of the water, which can help to identify different species. 

Spyhopping

Killer whale, Humpback whale

When a cetacean wants to take a look around, they will stick their head out of the water.

Fluking

Humpback whale, Blue Whale, Killer whale, grey whale, Pacific white-sided dolphin

When a whale takes a deep dive, it often arches its body to dive at a steeper angle, often exposing its tail flukes.  Fluking does not always occur; Fin and minke whales rarely expose their tail flukes upon diving.

Breaching

Humpback whale, Killer whale

Sometimes larger whales will propel themselves up and out of the water, either landing on their bellies or turning on their backs and creating a huge splash that can be seen-and heard!-from quite a distance.

Bow Riding

Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise

Sometimes small cetaceans will swim in the front bow wake of a boat.  They can be seen criss-crossing back and forth in front of the ship’s bow.  At other times they will swim alongside the boat.  Dall’s porpoises and Pacific white-sided dolphins frequently bow ride, whereas harbour porpoisees are shy and tend to avoid boats.

Porpoising

Pacific white-sided dolphin, Killer whale

This behaviour is seen when an animal leaps clear of the water when it is moving forward.  Suprisingly, despite the name, harbour porpoises rarely porpoise!

Pectoral and Tail Slaps

Humpback whale, killer whale

This behaviour is seen when the animal lifts its pectoral or tail fin up and out of the water and then smacks it against the surface.  When the fin hits the water, it causes a big splash and a loud slapping sound.

Common Splashes

Some species of cetacean create unique splashes as they propel themselves through the water.

Rooster Tail

Dall’s porpoise

Porpoising

Pacific white-sided dolphin

Breaching

Humpback whale, killer whale