A female killer whale and what appeared to be her calf were spotted off the South Bay coast last Saturday. Photo by She Nebrida
Voyager skipper Brad Sawyer was just pulling out of his vessel’s slip with a full load of 144 school kids Saturday afternoon when he received an ecstatic call. Some very rare visitors had shown up nearby – a pod of Orcas, or killer whales, had just been spotted only a half mile outside of King Harbor.
“The orcas were swimming in a circle,” Sawyer said. “When they do that, it generally means they are feeding on something.”
Sawyer hightailed it due west. Just as the Voyager caught up with the whales, they began heading further west. Sawyer followed for about four miles – off the Manhattan Beach/El Segundo coast – then saw a strange sight: a pod of about 300 common dolphins swimming toward his boat, followed by an alpha male Orca breaching and diving right behind the line of dolphins.
The dolphins, in an understandable state of panic, took off en masse in the opposite direction, towards Marina del Rey.
“Dolphins swim up to 30 miles per hour, and believe me, they were swimming 30 miles per hour – they wanted out of there,” Sawyer said. “We haven’t had Orcas around here in so many years, and they don’t have any predators, so [the dolphins] were like, ‘Holy shit, what is going on here?’ Those things were moving.”
A sheen of blood and dolphin oil came to the surface of the water. It appeared that there were four killer whales – the alpha male, two females, and a young calf. The male was leading the hunt and had captured its quarry.
“He is the one that actually did the killing,” Sawyer said. “The other ones just helped drown the dolphin. When they are swimming, they blow, but these guys were blowing like you have never seen, just taking big breaths and diving down, taking turns keeping that dolphin down ‘til he drowned…Then they started eating him.”
Click image for the Killer Whale Photo Gallery
Divers Phil Garner and Merry Passage were in a nearby skiff watching the scene unfold when they noticed something bobbing in the water. They scooped what appeared to be a ball into a net to see what it was. Passage, a former research biologist, realized immediately what they’d found.
“She said, ‘No, no, that’s a heart and lungs,’” Garner recalled. “It was a really large heart – the orcas had killed a common dolphin, and that was all that was left of it.”
As they dropped it back in the water, the baby whale – which Garner thought looked almost like a newborn, maybe 5 feet long – swam up alongside it.
Sawyer said the young whale seemed to be playing with it. “That little kid, or baby whale, started throwing it around like a basketball,” he said.
“I think it’s pretty much what they do at that age – play, eat, and sleep,” Garner said.
Male orcas typically range from 20 to 26 ft. and weight six tons; females range from 16 to 23 ft. and weigh three to four tons. Females are thought to breed roughly every five years until age 40 and on average raise five offspring. The lifespan of wild females averages 50 years, with a maximum of about 90 years. Males live around 29 years on average, with a maximum of about 60 years. Scientists believe both the male and females care for the young.
Sawyer said the older whales seemed to be teaching the young whale.
“Obviously, they have to eat, but I think this was more of a training mission – they were teaching the calf how to hunt,” he said. “Of course, then a bunch of seals swooped in to peck at parts and pieces here and there. It was funny, because we were just idling in neutral, and usually seals stay away from us, but we had a pod of eight sea lions just hugging the side of the boat, using the boat for cover. If I had the gate open, I think they would have jumped on.”
Orcas, who are actually a member of the dolphin family, are known for their cooperative hunting.
Alisa Shulman-Janiger, the director of the American Cetacean Society’s L.A. Chapter Gray Whale Census and Behavior project, has also co-authored a book on killer whales and has led the California Killer Whale Project for almost two decades. By looking at photos of the sighting, she was able to identify the pod of whales – one of the females, in particular, is known as CA-49 and is part of a transient killer whale population that specializes in hunting mammals.
CA-49, Schulman-Janiger said, was first spotted off of Monterey in 1992.
“This particular female, I saw her in 1999 when she had a new calf, and she had another calf in 2005, who I think is with her now,” Schulman-Janiger said. “That little tiny calf I think might be hers. So she has either two or three kids.”
Schulman-Janiger said that so-called “resident” populations of killer whales off British Columbia, Washington, and Mexico tend to mostly eat fish, squid, and sharks, whereas this transient population appears to range from Monterey to the Channel Islands and occasionally further south and targets dolphins, sea lions, and gray whale calves. They are known particularly for forming a gauntlet of sorts near Monterey every spring, when gray whale cow-calf pairs make their northern migration back towards the arctic from Mexico, where mothers birth and raise their young in safe lagoons. The orcas work together to separate calves from their mothers.
Schulman-Janiger said the whales seem to have a common culture of a sort. The resident whales, for example, tend to be loud and boisterous, but the transient whales are very quiet – in keeping with their hunting habits – until after a kill, when they tend to sing and celebrate loudly. The small pods are usually grouped around a mother, her oldest son, and her daughters. CA-49 appears to be hunting with her family, Shulman-Janiger said, and has previously been spotted off Monterey hunting gray whales.
“She is the matriarch,” she said. “They are just doing what they need to do – feeding their kids and taking care of them.”
Schulman-Janiger said CA-49 and her pod turned up near Long Beach about a month ago. Sawyer said he had not personally seen orcas in local waters since 1989. But he said lobster fisherman spotted a pod off Point Vicente – off Palos Verdes – also about a month ago.
It’s been an unusual whale watching year. Another rare visitor – blue whales – turned up in large numbers just outside Redondo Beach this fall. Sawyer said unusually large numbers of bottlenose dolphins and the very rare Risso’s dolphins have been seen frequently from the Voyager over the last month.
But nothing topped the show Sawyer witnessed last Saturday afternoon.
“I tell you, it was a sight to see,” he said. “Beats any National Geographic special you’ll ever see.”
The kids aboard the Voyager were likewise thrilled, if a little taken aback by the gore of the spectacle.
“It was ironic – of all days, we had 144 aboard, the maximum we can carry, and it was a school group,” Sawyer said. “The bad part was they were from Del Amo Elementary, and the name of their mascot is the Dolphins. So of all things….”