The call came in shortly before 10 a.m. on Jan. 4. “Orcas, orcas! We’ve got orcas!” the whale census counter at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center yelled into the phone. “And there’s a gray whale coming in too and it looks like they are on a collision path!”
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, Director and Coordinator of the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project and the California Killer Whale Project, hung up the phone at home and immediately called Craig Stanton, the Redondo Beach marina operations manager. Then she raced to the marina. The local whale watching boat, the Voyager, was already on its way, so Schulman-Janiger, Stanton, and photographer Sam Wickline took a small skiff and sped towards the whales.
Orcas aren’t often spotted locally, and they had arrived for a reason: killer whales have a strong appetite for young gray whale meat.
This time of year is typically when gray whales travel through the Santa Monica Bay on their annual 10,000-to- 14,000-mile migration from cold Alaskan feeding grounds down to the warm nursery lagoons of Baja California. They generally spend summer and early fall gorging in arctic waters on the muddy sea-bottom, primarily on amphipods – tiny shrimp-like creatures – often consuming a ton of food per day. After leaving the Artic waters, they won’t feed again until returning next spring.
But in their long journeys both north and south, the gray whales become food. Killer whales, also known as orcas, are famed for their cooperative hunting. And they love nothing more than to hunt, and feed, on young gray whales.
As everybody on the Voyager and an accompanying skiff was in route, people watching from the Interpretive Center got quite an eyeful. Five killer whales, a mom and her two juvenile calves along with another mom’s two juveniles she was apparently babysitting, rendezvoused with the lone adult gray whale for a lesson on marine life. To people on the shore, it looked more like an attack. The juveniles were learning from killer whale CA51 (the naming sequence given to orcas in the area) about the potentially 35-ton lone mammal.
“They were splashing and harassing the gray whale,” said Schulman-Janiger. “It seemed to go on forever for the poor observers [at the PVIC viewing platform].”
The interaction lasted three to five minutes, and afterwards the group of orcas continued on their northward path to Malibu, likely with more hunting lessons along the way. The gray whale appeared to be physically unscathed, but went closer to shore into a bed of kelp for about 20 minutes before continuing on its path south.
The whale-watching skiff stayed with the pod of orcas for about an hour until they met up with the other five members of the two families, including the matriarchs CA51 and CA140. Along the way they counted about three sea lion kills. “Nothing graphically violent,” saidStanton.
“In my opinion, it was a meet-and-greet, but the gray whale didn’t like the meeting,” said Schulman-Janiger. “It was probably the introduction of a gray whale to the juveniles. ‘This is a gray whale, we attack the calves, let’s take a look and let’s move on.’”
When orcas do attack gray whales, it’s generally done by multiple transient males and females, not by a female with four juveniles, and usually their target is not a fully grown adult. “They are not the type to be a predator,” said Schulman-Janiger. “They definitely did meet, and it’s the only time our census observers have witnessed that sort of interaction in 28 years.”
“It’s watching nature live, not like you’re watching it on National Geographic,” said Voyager captain Brad Sawyer. “I did forewarn everybody before we got out there because some people find it repulsive. It’s not like the orcas can just call up Dominos and order up a large anchovy pizza.”
The CA51 family is not new to the area, according to Schulman-Janiger. They have visited Santa Monica Bay frequently with different families in tow. “The CA51s are the most boat friendly transient killer whales in California,” said Schulman-Janiger. “We really like to see them because they choose to come up to the boat and sometimes even rub themselves on it.”