The Salish Sea

What is theSalish Sea?

The Salish Sea includes the marine waters surrounding southern Vancouver Island and is home to the southern resident killer whales, transient (also called Bigg’s) killer whales, migratory humpback & gray whales, harbour porpoise, Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbour and northern elephant seals, Steller and California sea lions, as well as a diversity of marine birds and other marine fish and invertebrate species.

European settlers established port cities at Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, because these sites offer protected harbours from the open Pacific Ocean storms. The name Salish Sea is officially recognized in both Canada and the United States, and it was approved by the USA in 2009 and by Canada in 2010.

The name ‘Salish’ refers to the Coast Salish indigenous peoples (First Nations) who live in southwest British Columbia, and northwest Washington state and share a common linguistic and cultural origin. Their history dates back to 8,000 BC. Today the Coast Salish are seen as one of the main cultural and linguistic branches of a larger group known as Salishan or Salish. 


Distribution of Coast Salish languages in the early 19th century – By Noahedits – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Importance of the Salish Sea

The Salish Sea is home to one of the most diverse assemblages of marine species in the world. This abundant marine life is made possible by the direct connection to the nutrient rich waters of the open Pacific Ocean which supply the ‘life-blood’ for all living things at and beneath the ocean’s surface.

One of many marine mammals that rely on these rich ecosystem is the killer whale – an ultimate apex predator. The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) are one group of killer whales found in the Salish Sea, and has been listed as Endangered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States. They have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2005. They are frequently referred to as the “killer whales of the Salish Sea”, “the fish-eating orcas”, and also the “SRKW” population. There are approximately over 80 individuals that make up this small population. Unlike other resident orca communities, these Salish Sea orcas are only one clan (J) that consists of 3 pods (J, K, L) with several matrilines within
each pod.

Researchers at the Center for Whale Research in Washington, USA, have been tracking the southern resident killer whale population for over 30 years using photo identification of individual whales. As a result of this work, the southern residents have been documented to travel as far south as central California, and as far north as the coast of Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands).




Historically, many species of whales came to the Salish Sea, including the mega blue whales and charismatic sperm whales. Recently, these magnificent animals are making a comeback from the historical exploitation of the whaling industry. The humpback whales are a tremendous conservation success story – we managed to extirpate an entire population of humpback whales that came to the Salish Sea for their winter feeding grounds, and for many years there weren’t any sightings. Now humpback whales are regular visitors to the Salish Sea!


Over 300+ humpbacks returned to the Salish Sea in the summer of 2017. You can go to some parts of the Juan de Fuca Strait and be surrounded by 80+ feeding and fluking humpback whales. We have “resident” or commonly seen humpback whales that return every year for their summer feeding grounds. One particular humpback whale, known as Big Momma, or BCY0324, has been bringing her calves to the Salish Sea for over 7 years now. We have now confirmed three generations of humpbacks returning every year to feed.


In the past couple of years, we have had sightings of fin whales! This is the 4th sighting of a fin whale in the Salish Sea in approximately 80 years.


In February 2018, a sperm whale was found in Johnstone Strait!


We are optimistic that the whales are returning and successfully recovering from the whaling era. With the return of the humpback whales and others, this is a good sign the marine ecosystem may be moving in a more healthy direction.

Marine Wildlife

All marine wildlife play an important role in the Salish Sea ecosystem. From marine invertebrates, such as barnacles and sea stars, marine birds, marine fish and of course marine mammals.