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Southern California boaters on Wednesday enjoyed an extremely rare sighting of false killer whales, and one whale-watching operator captured amazing underwater video footage that shows one of the mammals vocalizing in front of the camera (posted above).
Between 50 and 70 of the sleek mammals, which are smaller than but share certain characteristics with killer whales, were spotted through the course of the day. The first sighting, of a smaller group, was spotted off Orange County by Captain Mike Bursk of the Sea Explorer at about 11 a.m.
Soon several boats were on or en route to the scene and the false killer whales were swimming among some of the boats as if curious about the people.
The underwater footage was captured by David Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, which operates out of Dana Point Harbor.
"I've never seen anything like it," Anderson said. "I was sitting there for about five minutes and the whales came over and surrounded me. Their whistles were so loud I could hear them above the surface. I grabbed my GoPro and wasn't even sure it was on and stuck in the water. I was tempted to touch them but I didn't want to disturb them. It was one of the most amazing encounters I've ever had with wild cetaceans."
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Bursk, whose vessel runs from the Ocean Institute in Dana Point Harbor, was treating 35 fifth-graders from low-income families to a whale-watching experience. “Many of them could not afford this kind of trip, and for them to see something this unusual really is a gift,” the captain said.
False killer whales, which reside in temperate waters around the world, are more commonly seen off locations such as Australia, Hawaii, and to a lesser extent, Mexico. The last confirmed sighting of false killer whales off Southern California was by Tony Nichols on March 27, 2001, a mile off Newport Beach.
Unseasonably warm water temperatures might have attracted thepod this far north.
On Monday morning, a pod of similar size was spotted off Ensenada, Mexico, by a group aboard the San Diego-based Searcher.
That could have been the same pod as the one spotted Wednesday because during each sighting, one animal stood out because of the peculiar shape of its spine.
Bursk was off Dana Point when he spotted the pod. He said the false killer whales came to him and were riding in his wake. When he stopped, some of the mammals rubbed their heads against the vessel.
Bursk first radioed Larry Hartmann of Captain Larry Adventures, and eventually several boats were on the scene. Hartmann, however, spent about 45 minutes alone with a small pod, and said they were breaching, as if “performing for me.” (Hartmann provided the footage for Dana Wharf Whale Watch, posted above. See more on Hartmann’s Facebook page.)
The last commercial whale watching boat to be among the false killer whales was the Christopher, out of Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach. The mammals were last seen off Huntington Beach in early evening, traveling west-northwest.
False killer whales, which like killer whales are members of the dolphin family, reach about 16 feet in length. The largest killer whales are nearly twice that size.
False killer whales resemble killer whales in that they’re both highly social, they sometimes prey on the same items, including other marine mammals, and their teeth are similar. False kiler whales, however, are all black, whereas killer whales have a white eyepatch and a whitish-gray saddle.
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