6 critters rarely seen off Southern California

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Critters rarely seen off Southern California include pilot whales. This calf was spotted with about 200 other pilot whales Thursday off San Diego; photo courtesy of San Diego Whale Watch

Winter is fast approaching, but off Southern California the ocean is still unusually warm and attracting exotic visitors that in past years were far more likely to be encountered in tropical or subtropical waters.

To be sure, the appearance Sunday of more than 200 short-finned pilot whales off San Diego seemed to serve as an exclamation point as to how whacky and unprecedented this summer-fall season has been, and continues to be.

We've already covered some of the early arrivals, such as yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, Bryde's whales, and false killer whales, etc. But the list keeps growing–thanks to the continued absence of cooling westerly winds–so we've added a few new entries, and updated a few previous entries.


Pilot whales off San Diego; photo courtesy of San Diego Whale Watch

6 rare visitors to Southern California waters

1) Pilot whales. About 200 of these sleek mammals were spotted Thursday afternoon off San Diego. San Diego Whale Watch described the voyage as "one for the record books," and Capt. Steve Kugler added: "I've been out here for 20 years and have never seen anything like this." Super rare indeed, but the second sighting of the summer/fall season, as pilot whales appeared off Orange County in early June. On Friday, about 20 pilot whales–most likely from the same large group–were spotted off Dana Point.

Short-finned pilot whales, which are incredibly social and often found in large groups, typically prefer warmer climates, such as southern Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. Fun fact: Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family, like killer whales, and as dolphins they are second only to the killer whale in size.


Blue marlin caught near Catalina Island by Anthony Hsieh; photo courtesy of Anthony Hseih/Bad Company Sportfishing

2) Blue marlin. These prized billfish are targeted by anglers largely in tropical and subtropical waters–not off California. But that changed this summer/fall as blue marlin were spotted and even battled, but not landed until Anthony Hsieh caught a 462-pound blue marlin this past Monday near Catalina Island. "Strange fishing blue marlin in long pants," Hsieh wrote on Facebook, referring to the location of the catch: about 1,000 miles north of typical blue marlin range. Hsieh, owner of the yacht Bad Company, also caught a swordfish. Click here to hear a radio interview with Hsieh about the catch. Blue marlin catches off Southern California are so rare that only a few have been made over the past several decades.

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Red-billed tropicbird off Dana Point; photo by David Beeninga for Dana Wharf Whale Watch

3) Red-billed tropicbird. Spotted in mid-September off Dana Point and photographed by David Beeninga for Dana Wharf Whale Watch. Beeninga wrote on Facebook: "I was totally shocked. I could not believe my eyes. Luckily, as soon as I saw it I knew what it was. A Tropic Bird. I have not seen one since the 1980’s. They inhabit the tropical Atlantic, the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean and nest on tropical islands. They feed on fish and squid. They are known for their long tails which almost doubles the length of their bodies. Must be another warm-water species attracted here. The list is growing."

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4) Sperm Whales. On October 6 more than 60 sperm whales were spotted in several small groups only a few miles off Orange County. It might have been an unprecedented sighting because sperm whales, while perhaps 800 or so are believed to reside off California, Oregon and Washington, are usually so far offshore that they’re not seen. When rare sightings have occurred close to shore off Southern California, they typically have involved one or two males feeding together. The large group spotted on October 6 seemed mostly to have been enjoying the warm water, and were doing more socializing than feeding. (See video posted above.)


Jake Graff poses with wahoo; photo by Dana Wharf Sportfishing

5) Wahoo. Eric Kim's catch in late August of a 50-pound wahoo 10 miles off Orange County was thought to be the first catch of the species in U.S. Pacific waters. Since then, several of the pelagic predators have been caught in local waters, adding to the Mexican flavor of the summer/fall bite. AMong the most recent catches was a 36-pound wahoo caught Thursday only 14 miles offshore, by Jake Graff aboard the San Mateo out of Dana Wharf Sportfishing.

These slender speedsters–wahoo are the fastest fish in the sea–are commonly caught off Mexico, Hawaii, and Florida. The wahoo is prized as table fare and anyone who has tasted ono, as it’s commonly called, knows why.


Slender sunfish, or mola; photo via Phil Friedman Outdoors Radio

6) Slender sunfish. Also called slender molas. Unlike much larger Mola molas, which have become mainstays off California, the slender mola (Ranzania laevis) is found in tropical and subtropical seas. It’s so rare in Southern California that seasoned fishermen didn't know what they were seeing when the odd-shaped fish started showing up in the stomachs of large tuna and marlin that were being caught. In Hawaii, slender sunfish are preyed upon regularly by large tuna.

Capt. Dave Hansen of Dave Hansen's Guide Service, when asked about his first sighting of these fish in late summer, told Phil Friedman Outdoors Radio: "I was not sure what the heck it was. I mean it looked like a sunfish but I wasn't sure since I had never seen anything like it."

Milton Love, author of a very dense and informative book titled, "Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast," described the influx of slender sunfish as "an extraordinary event."

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