Anger spreads after photos reveal apparent harassment of orcas

A rare showing of orcas off Southern California last week still has people talking via social media – but anger is the prevailing sentiment.

That's because images appear to show two pilots of jet-powered personal watercraft speeding around orcas while seemingly trying to capture selfies and up-close footage.

Man on a personal watercraft trails orca mother and calf while apparently capturing footage with his cell phone. Photo: Courtesy of ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

The images were posted Friday night by Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a killer whale researcher who witnessed an intrusion that she described as harassment.

"Jet skiers repeatedly harassed killer whales today, nearly running them over twice in their quest for selfies, even after we nicely asked them to back off!" the researcher wrote on Facebook. "The whales got fed up and took off, after being on a very predictable path for hours. Anyone recognize these three fools – who launched from Cabrillo Marina at 12:45pm? Please share – and watch for their posts!"

Schulman-Janiger, of the California Killer Whale Project, emailed photos to a contact at NOAA Fisheries, but at the time of this post she had not heard whether an investigation had been or will be launched.

NOAA’s California guidelines suggest that boaters and personal watercraft pilots try to stay at least 100 yards from whales and 50 yards from dolphins (killer whales are the largest dolphin species) to avoid harassment. Harassment, which is against the law, is defined as any action that noticeably alters the natural behavior of marine mammals.

Schulman-Janiger's post is being widely shared, and comments reveal anger among marine mammal groups and enthusiasts.

"This makes me so mad!!! I hope they get caught, these animals have enough stress just trying to get enough food!" reads one of nearly 200 comments beneath Schulman-Janiger's post.

"These beautiful creatures aren't your selfie material," reads another. "They could have injured them. It's bad enough they harassed them so badly."

In all, 10 transient killer whales thrilled boaters from San Diego to Huntington Beach over a three-day period that ended Friday afternoon off Huntington Beach. (Transient orcas are rare visitors to Southern California, and spend most of their time further north.)

On Friday, the mammals were traveling north on a steady course at about 9 knots, Schulman-Janiger told GrindTV. They were tolerating boat presence, but became spooked when the men on personal watercraft "ran up on them," not once but twice.

"When this guy came up [the second time] they dove and were not seen again," Schulman-Janiger said. "They just took off. That was their reaction to all of this."

The researcher wanted it noted that she was using a 400-millimeter lens and that the main image showing the man holding out a cell phone was cropped, perhaps making the man appear closer than he actually was to the orcas. But still, she assured, he was dangerously close.

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