Killer whale greets Southern California boaters with a belly-bump

A killer whale researcher and two companions were visited Sunday by four killer whales that swam up to their 19-foot boat and seemed to offer a greeting, with the large male in the group turning on its side and gently belly-bumping the vessel. This extremely rare behavior was captured by Roger Ayala from aboard the passenger vessel, Christopher. (The belly-bump occurs at the 22-second mark of the accompanying video).

“We were all beside ourselves; the guys on the boat were yelling. We couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an American Cetacean Society researcher who is involved in a photo-identification project called the California Killer Whale Project, and has studied these same individuals numerous times.

The killer whales, or orcas, were also seen preying on a common dolphin and a California sea lion.

Male orca chases California sea lion off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California. Below image shows common dolphin fleeing orcas. Credit: Alisa Schulman-Janiger

This occurred during a drizzly afternoon off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, north of Long Beach, California. Volunteer spotters from the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, on a peninsula bluff, were the first to spot the killer whales. The Christopher, a high-speed catamaran that runs out of Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach, was first to arrive on the scene.

Schulman-Janiger, who was with Eric Martin and his son Cody, said the four mammals are part of the CA51 matriline and included a mother (cataloged as CA51), her two sons and a female calf nicknamed “Comet.” All four killer whales swam to the boat as if curious about its inhabitants, and the CA51 group is famous for being boat friendly.

The belly-bumper is a 14-year-old male who approached the boat, turned on its side, and slid gently into the vessel, which was motionless during the encounter.

“We were not moving one iota,” Schulman-Janiger said. “And this killer whale was not angry and did not smack us or anything like that. He just slid up and gently nudged the boat with his belly. I could swear they knew who we were.”

Earlier the researcher posted this description on her Facebook page: “When we arrived on scene in the light rain, the whales appeared to ‘greet’ us: all of them came over to our boat, and under us. The large male actually rushed to our boat, suddenly stopped (put the brakes on), turned on his side, and lightly contacted the boat–with his [pectoral] fin partly inside the boat!”

Photos and comments also appear on the Harbor Breeze Cruises Facebook page.

Last season this matriline of seven whales (another daughter of CA51 and her two offspring were not visible Sunday) visited the L.A./Orange County area in September and December 2011, and in January and May of 2012.

They often brought other matrilines with them.

“Hopefully these mammal-eating specialists will be around for a few more days before heading back up north,” Schulman-Janiger’s Facebook post continued. “Watch out, all you seals, sea lions, and dolphins between Los Angeles and Dana Point!!”

–Image of CA51, captured Sunday afternoon aboard the Christopher, is courtesy of Harbor Breeze Cruises