A day after a migrating gray whale appeared off Dana Point, heralding the start of another whale-watching season in Orange County, a killer whale megapod stole the spotlight.
The rare showing Wednesday of more than 50 offshore killer whales marked the first known appearance of this ecotype in Southern California since last January.
The timing coincides with the anticipated arrival of thousands of gray whales, sporadically over the next several weeks, as they migrate from Arctic feeding grounds to nursing grounds in Mexico.
The early arrival of a single gray whale on Tuesday was an exciting development. A few more gray whales were spotted Wednesday morning. But the presence of dozens of offshore killer whales, mysterious shark-eating mammals most commonly encountered off British Columbia, represented an extraordinary development.
“WOW, what a day! I was lucky enough to be on the water this morning to encounter these VERY RARE Offshore Orcas,” Jessica Roame, of Newport Landing Whale Watching, wrote on Facebook. “A pod of 8 killer whales stayed with us and cruised up the beach.
“Of course I immediately jumped onto the Ocean Explorer in the afternoon to get a double dose of these absolutely breathtaking animals, and I was treated to over 30+ whales, with spouts in every direction!”
Transient killer whales are the most common ecotype to visit Southern California. They’re larger and typically travel in small family groups. They prey on marine mammals, including gray whale calves.
On Wednesday, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a prominent killer whale researcher, identified the offshore killer whales after inspecting a photo of a male orca nicknamed Scoopfin, which she first saw in 1995.
“I was thrilled out of my mind,” she told GrindTV. “We don’t see them very often, and not a lot is known about them. We’ll sometimes go 8 or 10 years without a sighting of various individuals. So it was a very exciting opportunity to go out and try to get IDs.”
Offshore killer whales, which prey largely on sleeper sharks in deep northern waters, were first documented off California in 1992, when they were spotted in Monterey Bay. They’ve since been documented as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Mexico.
Because they typically remain far offshore, little is known about their social structure and habits. Other prey items include tuna, opah, and other pelagic fishes.
Scoopfin, now an adult, has been documented off British Columbia, Washington, and Southern California.
The first sighting on Wednesday, by the crew of the Dana Pride out of Dana Wharf Sportfishing, alerted whale-watching operators to the presence of seven killer whales.
Capt. Frank Brennan of the Ocean Adventure delivered the first whale watchers to the orcas.
Dale Frink, a photographer aboard Newport Landing’s Ocean Explorer, told GrindTV that the vessel had been following two gray whales when its crew heard about the killer whales.
“There were 7-8 individuals moving up the coast,” Frink said. “The majority of our time with them was spent off of Laguna Beach as they traveled northbound along the incline of the [underwater] canyon.”
It soon became apparent, however, that many more orcas were in the vicinity, as sightings began to spread over a vast area. The killer whales were last seen at sunset, heading west toward Santa Catalina Island.
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