Identifying Species

Some species, such as the killer whale, are large, distinctive and easy to identify. Other species, however, are more difficult to distinguish, and observers should rely on clues such as body shape and colour, behaviours and group size to determine which species were seen. Here are some examples of the key things to look for when observing whales, dolphins and porpoise in the wild.

Click here for a printable Species ID Guide

Initial Cue
The first indication that you have spotted a cetacean is a blow, fluke or splash.

Common Blows

Humpback Whale Blow

Humpback whale

Grey Whale Blow

Grey whale

Killer Whale Blow

Killer whale

Common Dorsal Fins

Humpback Whale Fin

Humpback whale

Grey Whale Fin

Grey whale

Killer Whale Fin

Killer whale

Common Flukes

Humpback Whale Fluke

Humpback whale

Grey Whale Fluke

Grey whale

Killer Whale Fluke

Lance Barrett-Lennard

Killer whale

Note: minke whales and fin whales, in general, do not fluke

Common Splashes

Dall's Porpoise Splash

Dall's porpoise - rooster tail

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Splash

Lance Barrett-Lennard and Kathy Heise

Pacific white-sided dolphin - porpoising

Killer Whale Splash

Killer whale - breach


As you view each of the species, you will notice icons that correspond to the behaviours that these species exhibit. Below is a description and photo of each of these behaviours.


Graeme Ellis


SpyhoppingWhen a cetacean wants to take a look around, it exhibits a behaviour we can relate to: they stick their head up and out of the water. At least, this is what researchers presume these animals are doing when only their heads pop of the water, so that the eyes are clear of the water.


John Ford


FlukingWhen a large whale takes a deep dive, it often arches its body and move some of its mass above water to dive in a steeper angle. As you watch the whale proceed forward, the last thing visible before the whale is completely submerged is usually the underside of the tail flukes. This is called fluking. Although this is a common behaviour upon a deep dive, fluking does not always occur.


John Ford


BreachingSometimes whales and dolphins propel their bodies up and out of the water and land with a big splash. Small animals can leap high out of the water, often twisting their bodies as they do so. Larger whales usually get at least two thirds of their bodies out of the water, and will often end the breach in a belly-flop or will turn in the air and land on their backs.


Bow riding

BowridingSometimes, small cetaceans, such as this Pacific white-sided dolphin, 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 bow.



PorpoisingThis behaviour is seen when an animal leaps clear of the water while it is moving forward. Pacific white-sided dolphins usually porpoise when they are traveling at high speeds.

Pectoral and Tail Slaps

John Ford

Pectoral and tail slaps

Slapping Sometimes referred to as a pectoral fin slap, this behaviour is seen when the animal is at the surface. The animal lifts its pectoral fin or tail 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 slapping sound.

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