California dazzled by ‘extremely rare’ killer whale sightings off southern coast


Experts and whale watchers have been dazzled by a series of orca sightings off the southern California coast that are being described as “extremely rare”.

A group of 10 whales – including a calf just a few months old – has been spotted for the past two weeks off the coast of southern California, between Oxnard and San Diego. Images from social media show the giant creatures leaping into the air to catch dolphins and coming within feet of boats full of eager viewers.

The whales are part of the population of the eastern tropical Pacific orcas that reside off the waters of Mexico and Central America, but can also venture as far west as Hawaii. Whale watching boats typically go on high alert in the months of December and January, says Jessica Rodriguez, the education and communications manager at Newport Landing & Davey’s Locker Whale Watching, but she says that catching a glimpse of so many orcas in this location is highly unusual.

“You’re normally going to see these types of killer whales in Mexico and South America,” she says. “Being able to see them off the coast of Orange county even just one time is rare, but multiple consecutive sightings over the course of two weeks is extremely rare.”

In fall 2018, a group of whales from the eastern tropical Pacific spent 10 days in the area, but this year has already been longer and there have been more encounters with the whales.

It’s not known why the whales are spending so much time here this year, but there are theories. Rodriguez says they could be hanging around because of the warmer water conditions in this year’s El Niño.

“They’re normally warm water killer whales, and they like to hang out in those warmer waters off the coast of Baja,” she says.

You’re normally going to see these types of killer whales in Mexico and South America
Jessica Rodriguez

The abundance of their main prey – bottlenose and common dolphin – may also be keeping them in the area, says Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the lead research biologist with the California Killer Whale Project. There are also dolphins in Mexico, but she thinks the megapods of dolphins in California – which sometimes number in the thousands – are more naive about recognizing threats from killer whales, making them easier to catch.

Very little is known about orcas in this region, partly because cross-border science is challenging. They mostly eat marine mammals such as dolphins – but can also prey on fish and sharks. In 2008, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) put together a catalog of the known individual killer whales in this area – it amounted to 192 from 52 different groups living in the region. There are probably many more today, as many of the whales are juveniles.

That makes this a golden chance for researchers as well as whale enthusiasts. “This is an unparalleled opportunity for us to document these whales, which includes two little calves,” says Schulman-Janiger. She adds that scientists hope to document their feeding behavior, prey sharing and interactions with each other and boats.

There are other killer whales living in California waters – about 105 mammal-eating whales make the area their home year-round, according to the Alaska department of fish and game. Other ecotypes also travel through: the offshore killer whales that focus on eating sharks and rays, and even the famous Southern Residents from the Pacific north-west sometimes arrive in northern California. The groups are unlikely to interact, Schulman-Janiger says.

An orca mother and calf in Canada. Photograph: slowmotiongli/Getty Images/iStockphoto
An orca mother and calf in Canada. Photograph: slowmotiongli/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Seeing the orcas from the eastern tropical Pacific has been something special. They are social, intelligent, family-oriented and an apex predator – the largest species of dolphin. Rodriguez says she has seen the 20-ft long orcas leap 10 ft out of the air to catch prey, and then share the feast among the entire group. Sometimes they also wound a dolphin to let the juveniles practice making the final kill.

Many of the whale watching captains have also observed this group being particularly friendly to boats – they appear unconcerned with humans watching them while actively hunting, which is rare. Schulman-Janiger said the whales may see the wake of the boats as a fun surfing opportunity. The whales almost seem as social-media-happy as teenagers, mugging for the camera, Rodriguez said, adding, “they come right up to the boat and just stop to look at the people”.

The whales even use the boats as a tool to hunt: they position themselves next to boats to block echolocation from approaching dolphins and then dive under the boat and push the dolphin to the sky. That makes for spectacular scenes for whale-peeping humans on board.

“Seeing these creatures really excites a lot of people,” says Rodriguez, “and at the end of the day we want to instill that sense of wonder and appreciation for the ocean to promote conservation and wild observations with the whales.”

This article by Katharine Gammon was first published by The Guardian on 30 December 2023. Lead Image: An orca leaps out of the ocean. A group of 10 whales has been seen for the past two weeks off the southern California between Oxnard and San Diego. Photograph: Martin Ruegner/Getty Images.

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