Wildlife on the Move
Vancouver Island's Major Marine Migrations

Story and Photos by Mark Corbett


Whether it’s diminutive butterflies fluttering on the wind, or colossal sized whales rising out of the sea, bearing witness to a major wildlife migration can be a rush like no other.
Lucky for us wildlife watchers, Vancouver Island is a major stop-over for some of the world’s most amazing marine migrations. Whales, sea lions, porpoises, salmon, herring and a large assortment of sea birds are just some of the animal species that use our island as a transient port of call.
Animals migrate for a number of reasons: to find more or better food at certain times of the year, to escape harsh weather or to bear young in a place with fewer predators. Whether the island is their ultimate destination, or they’re here to exploit our resource rich environments on their way somewhere else, our coastal region appears to be a hit with critters on the go.

A remarkable example of animals in action are gray and humpback whales as they move past the western shore of Vancouver Island en route to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Both species are baleen whales that filter food such as krill and small fish from the water rather than having teeth.
At approximately 10,000 kms, the annual migration of the entire population of 22,000 Pacific gray whales is considered to be the longest of any mammal on the planet. Although an estimated 40-50 of them are known to hang around Pacific Rim National Park Preserve for the summer, they usually travel independently over a two month period in the spring and then again in the fall.

While it’s possible to spot whales from the shore in the national park, Jamie’s Whaling Station can help you get a closer look at these magnificent creatures with excursions in two different kinds of vessels in both Tofino and Ucluelet. The best time to see gray whales on our coast is from February to June.
There’s also some good news for those who take their wildlife watching holidays during the summer months; humpback whales, Orcas (killer whales) and porpoises are frequently spotted in the Johnstone Strait near Telegraph Cove. And the calmer waters between the Island and the Mainland can be a bit more stable for wildlife photographers looking for that amazing money shot.

Although humpback whales were nearly hunted to extinction by the 1960s, a recent study suggests that there are now approximately 20,000 of them in the North Pacific, with 200-400 of them spotted in the Southern Vancouver Island region during the summer months.

Affectionately referred to as “Humpies”, humpbacks are considered an highly acrobatic animal that breaches repeatedly and likes to slap its’ flippers, which happen to be the largest in the world. While similar in size to a gray whale, Humpies are black with white patches on the flippers, bottom surface of the tail flukes and on the body. They are also famous for their songs, which they sing primarily during the breeding season.

Vancouver Island is also home to a variety of toothed whales such as dolphins, porpoises and killer whales. Instead of filtering small food, toothed whales are active hunters feeding on larger fish, squid, and in some cases marine mammals.

There are two resident pods of killer whales around Vancouver Island; one in the south and one near the top of the island. Both pods eat primarily salmon, however small groups called “transients” forego the fish and indulge their taste for marine mammals instead. The ocean’s top predator is a definite favourite with west coast wildlife watchers.


Sea Lions
Another exciting marine mammal on the move is the indomitable sea lion. Both California and Stellar sea lions are known to frequent the coastal waters of Vancouver Island.
There is an estimated population of 200,000 California sea lions, which can be found from northern BC to the southern tip of Baja, Mexico. They are known for their intelligence, playfulness and noisy barking, and can be differentiated from Stellar sea lions by their darker pelage (which looks black when wet) and by their ridged foreheads.
After the breeding season, which takes place to the south of us, the bulls disperse and head north. Many of them end up around Vancouver Island feeding on squid, octopus, herring, rockfish, mackerel and small sharks. In turn, they’re preyed upon by transient Orcas and great white sharks.

In the 1990s, the log booms at the Harmac Pulp Mill in Nanaimo were a favoured winter haul out for up to 1,700 male California sea lions. Their presence was celebrated each January with Tourism Nanaimo’s annual Sea Lion Festival. It was believed this critter jamboree constituted the largest natural gathering of marine mammals in North America. Many of them arrived in anticipation of the annual herring spawn in the late winter.

Stellars, also known as Northern sea lions, are less plentiful than their California cousins, but are no less impressive. With males weighing up to 1,000 kilograms and sporting thick golden manes around their enormous necks, they are a sight to behold.

According to the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, there are three rookeries of Stellar sea lions in northern British Columbia and a number of large colonies off northern Vancouver Island. Since the early 1970’s, their population has increased two fold to an estimated 18,800 animals, including 2,300 pups recorded in 2002.
For those who want to see more of these entertaining and exciting marine mammals, California sea lions are found all along our coastlines, however the best viewing of Stellar sea lions happens on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

When it comes to impressive marine migrations, it’s hard to top that of Pacific herring. Millions of these small silvery fish feed on the west coast of the island and then flow into the Georgia Strait to spawn in early spring. It is an unbelievable spectacle. Thousands of predatory seabirds, sea lions, dolphins, salmon and of course fishing boats gorge on the herring as the males lay trails of white milt that can stretch for kilometers, and females drop an average of 20,000 eggs each. Research suggests that spawning can somehow be triggered in all the fish at once thereby producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. That’s a lot of caviar!

Pacific herring move in giant schools called herring balls that can be found from Baja California to the Siberian Arctic. Their presence has such an impact on the marine environment and other animals that herring are considered a keystone species.

Traditionally, March is when the herring enter the Georgia Strait to spawn with the French Creek area being one of the best spots for watching all the action.
Long-distance migrations are among the most dramatic displays of the animal kingdom with Vancouver Island having more than its fair share. So grab your camera or binoculars and head out the door for some awesome animal adventures.

Annual events on Vancouver Island related to wildlife viewing include:

• The Trumpeter Swan Festival in the Comox Valley in February
• The Pacific Rim Whale Festival in March
• The Brant Festival in the Parksville/Qualicum Beach area in April
• Tofino’s annual Shorebird Festival in May