Rare pilot whale showing off SoCal

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Pilot whale surfaces and makes bubble off Dana Point; photo by ©Frank Brennan

The crew aboard the Manute'a was not sure what type of mammals it had spotted off Dana Point, California, on Saturday, until a closer look revealed cetaceans that had not been seen in the area in more than 20 years.

They were pilot whales, at least 50 of them, including mothers and babies, and their presence afforded a unique opportunity to capture rare footage of the mysterious mammals from beneath the surface.

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The Manute'a, which is run by Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari, features underwater viewing pods. After videotaping from the deck, and capturing the reactions of crew members and passengers, the camera was taken below.

Viewers can see pilot whales—which can measure to about 20 feet—swimming beneath and alongside the boat, at times turning upside down, the calves always sticking close to their moms.

The underwater GoPro footage in the second video was captured by Captain Frank Brennan of Dana Wharf Whale Watching.

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Captain Dave Anderson referred to pilot whales as “the holy grail" of local whale watching, which is saying something given that the region also features seasonal visits by blue whales, which can measure 100 feet and are among the largest creatures ever to have inhabited the planet.

But pilot whales, from a regional standpoint, are far more mysterious. They were common visitors to Southern California coastal waters in the 1970s and '80s, but slowly vanished in the years after a strong El Nino warm-water event in 1982 to 1983.

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Pilot whale image is a video screen grab; courtesy of Captain Dave Anderson

"I tried and tried to find some and I could not even find anyone who had seen any since the late '80s," Anderson said. "Every time someone called me with reports of pilot whales in the area I went after them, and they always turned out to be false killer whales or risso's dolphin. This is amazing and truly a rare sighting."

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who for 30-plus years has run the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, said the last sighting from that Los Angeles County promontory was in April, 1996.

Experts say that about 300 pilot whales are known to roam West Coast waters, including Baja California.

The mammals prey chiefly on squid, which is currently abundant in several areas off Southern California, including Orange County, which includes Dana Point.

But just as mysteriously as the pilot whales appeared on Saturday, they vanished overnight.

There was no trace of the mammals Sunday or Monday, but many are hoping that they're just out exploring, and that they’ll be soon be back.

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