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 ID Guide

Cetaceans and Sea Turtles Found in BC

Click on the buttons below for more information on the different species of baleen whales, toothed whales, and sea turtles found in our waters.

Key Identifying Features

There are key features to look for when trying to identify cetaceans in the wild. Click on the tabs below to learn how to identify common cetaceans found in BC.

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 even none at all!

Low and knubby

Humpback whale

Tall and distinctive

Killer whale

Curved on a broad back

Minke whale, fin whale.

Offshore: blue whale

Small and triangular

Harbour porpoise, Dall’s porpoise

Curved and bi-coloured

Pacific white-sided dolphin

No dorsal fin

Grey whale


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

Humpback whale, fin whale

Offshore: blue whale

Low, bushy 

Killer whale, minke whale

Offshore: sperm whale

Heart or mushroom-shaped

Grey whale

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 porpoiseDall’s porpoise

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

Spy hopping      

Spy hopping occurs when cetaceans position themselves vertically in the water, using the tail fluke to keep its head above the surface.


Fluking occurs when cetaceans raise their tails high above the water before a deep dive.


Breaching involves lifting the entire body out of the water and lunging across the surface.

Killer whales, humpback whale Humpback whale, blue whale, killer whalegrey whale, Pacific white-sided dolphin Humpback whale, killer whale

Bow riding

Bow-riding occurs when cetaceans (usually those smaller in size) ride the wake from the bow of a boat.


Porpoising occurs when cetaceans, often dolphins, break the waters surface during high-speed travel.

Pectoral fin slapping

Otherwise known as “pec slapping”, this involves the repeated slapping of pectoral fins against the water’s surface.

Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise Pacific white-sided dolphin, killer whale Humpback whale, killer whale


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

Rooster tail

Dall’s porpoise


Pacific white-sided dolphin, killer whale


Humpback whale, killer whale

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