The Pacific Ocean is full of unique sea creatures that many people may never get the opportunity to see firsthand.
Not only are the waters around Vancouver Island home to majestic marine mammals, but also other species that might not be as social or aren’t as easy to spot.
"We are very, very lucky we’ve got one of the highest densities of marine mammals anywhere in the world and there’s a lot of work here to protect these animals,” says marine mammal zoologist Dr. Anna Hall.
Hall, who spends most of her days out at sea, owns an environmental monitoring team of biologists, captains and technicians at Sea View Marine Sciences.
The Juan de Fuca Strait is known for its incredibly cold waters, but also has a great diversity of plants and animals just mere metres from the shore.
“As everybody who lives here knows, our waters are incredibly cold but it's because of these cold waters and where we are situated geographically that we have this abundance of life,” says Hall.
Under the tutelage of Hall, Glacier Media set out to discover some of the more unique creatures that live in the Pacific Ocean.
There are only seven species of harbour porpoises on the entire planet and British Columbia is home to two of them.
“They’ve got a bright spark in their eyes if you ever do get to see them up close or a photograph of them,” says Hall.
Harbour porpoises have a blunt face instead of the long beak that dolphins have. It looks as if they're smiling.
"They’re one of the smallest marine mammals that live in the cold waters of British Columbia, if not the smallest, and most certainly one of the smallest in the northern hemisphere,” explains Hall.
Their small stature makes them very difficult to see in real life.
"They are one of the most intelligent marine mammals. Their level of brain development exceeds that of the killer whale or the bottlenose dolphin and yet they are still so very mysterious and it is one of the things that attracts me to them. They are our intelligent neighbours and, in some cases, they are seen just mere metres from the shoreline and yet we still know very little of them,” says Hall.
On top of being very smart, they haven’t received as much attention as Hall thinks they deserve.
"I think one of the most interesting things is that they have a much more complex social life than what we have previously given them credit [for]. The more we learn about these animals, we learn they are using cooperative foraging and hunting to capture fish. Their group dynamics are probably a lot more complicated than we thought,” she tells Glacier Media.
“They do in fact display behaviours we previously didn’t attribute to them such as jumping out of the water, aerial displays.”
According to Hall, harbour porpoises are very susceptible to human activity and ocean noise, even more so than killer whales.
Sea otters are known to lay on their backs at the surface and spend a lot of time grooming and eating. Here on Vancouver Island, one has been frequently spotted near Race Rocks Lighthouse, lounging on kelp.
"Biologically, they are amazing. They’ve got the densest fur of any mammal on the planet — up to a million hairs per square inch on their body, just beautiful fur,” says Hall.
The history of sea otters in B.C. is what makes them so remarkable, according to Hall.
“Twenty years ago, we would not have seen sea otters here,” she says. “Tens of thousands of animals were killed during the fur trade in the late 1800s, early 1900s.”
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the animals slowly started to make a recovery on the west and north coast of Vancouver Island.
“Given enough time, the animals slowly but surely recovered in numbers.”
It might not be a scene out of Jaws, with a great white shark, but B.C. is home to 13 species of sharks.
Number three in our list of unique creatures is the blue shark.
"Not only is it beautiful, very sleek, very graceful moving through the water, we have an opportunity to sight it on a much more regular basis,” says Hall.
These species swim in surface waters, which allow them to be spotted more easily. But because of the blue sky, it makes it challenging to see their blue skin.
"Sharks are mysterious. Sometimes, very deep water and fisherman may see them but for the general boating public it’s not something in B.C. that we would see,” she says. “The blue shark is one that we do have a chance to see.”
These animals also live long, most surviving for 20 years.
"They will eat fish, squid; they will also feed on deceased marine mammals and turtles, so they will be carnivorous and also scavengers of deceased animals,” says Hall.
Often called sea slugs, these bright colourful creatures don’t live very long but have a big role to play in the ocean.
“They’re also called sea butterflies because of the incredible brilliant colours that these animals have,” says Hall.
B.C. is considered a hot spot for nudibranch diversity and the creatures are often found in tropical and cold waters.
"They are relatively short-lived animals; in fact, in some cases, they only live as long as a week and some of the longest-lived nudibranchs live about a year,” she says.
Nudibranchs are considered to be an indicator of ocean health but are often only seen by divers.
Another unique fact about these creatures is each individual is both a male and a female.
“Which makes it really easy to find a mate,” says Hall.
The animal will also take on colouration or use toxins to ward off predators.
Nudibranchs are currently being studied to see if one of the compounds within their body can be used for cancer treatment or neurodegenerative diseases, according to Hall.
Purple sea stars can often be spotted on Vancouver Island docks or BC Ferries vessels, but what you might not know about them is they are ancient creatures.
“They have been in our oceans for the past 450 million years,” says Hall, noting British Columbia has about 82 different species of sea star. "They have certainly withstood the test of time.”
In 2013, Hall says the sea star population diminished.
“We don’t have an explanation for it yet, but it’s called sea star wasting disease,” she says. "It was probably the largest die-off ever recorded in history and it occurred along the west coast of North America and sea stars were dying.”
Some regions in B.C. have shown signs of recovery, but other regions have not.