Orcas spotted hunting gray whale, dolphins off California coast — seventh sighting since December

Kristy Hutchings

Some lucky whale watchers were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle — courtesy of Mother Nature — off the Palos Verdes coast on Tuesday, Jan. 2.

A pod of Eastern Tropical Pacific orca whales, otherwise known as killer whales, made a surprise appearance off Point Vincente — where onlookers watched as a few orcas hunted a southbound gray whale.

It was an incredibly rare sighting, according to Sarah Lesser, the Aquarium of the Pacific’s whale watch naturalist program supervisor.

In fact, the occurrence marked just the second time that orcas have been seen hunting a southbound gray whale in the last 40 years, Lesser said in a Wednesday interview.

The last time an orca was spotted hunting a southbound gray was in 2012.

But it isn’t the first time orcas have been spotted on the Southern California coast in recent weeks. Tuesday’s sighting was the seventh observed by Long Beach-based whale watching company Harbor Breeze Cruises since just Dec. 11.

“Orcas are always a rare sight wherever you see them,  even in like places that they’re common,” said Capt. Tyler Askari of Harbor Breeze Cruises on Wednesday. “Here in Southern California, it’s super rare for us because they come through maybe once a year (or) every two years — it’s definitely a special treat.”

The same pod of Eastern Tropical Pacific Orcas have been making their way up and down the California coast — from Palos Verdes to Newport to San Diego — over the past few weeks. There are ten whales in total, including two calves.

Askari and Harbor Breeze Cruises have been lucky enough to observe the orcas six times since Dec. 11, and when they got the call that the pod was once again spotted on Tuesday — they immediately went out looking for them.

By 3 p.m., with dozens aboard their vessel, the crew and whale watchers alike made it to Point Vicente just in time to watch as the orcas engaged in a thirty minute battle with the gray whale and its own baby.

Gray whales, currently making their annual migration from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their breeding habitat in Mexico, use California’s coast to navigate — and are usually aplenty along the coastline from January through mid-March, according to Lesser.

The orcas, meanwhile, were successful in killing the gray whale calve — and in injuring its mother, said Askari, who watched the encounter.

The struggle continued even after the orcas killed the gray whale calve, Askari said. One female orca took its time biting at the gray whale over the thirty minutes, until eventually — they both wore out.

“It (the gray whale) trying to get away from those orcas there, but kind of failed,” Askari said, “and the orcas also seemed a little sluggish, a little tired, so they gave up the fight.”

The gray whale survived — albeit with a chunk or two missing from its fluke, and other injuries.

“They (orcas) usually go for the fluke,” Lesser said, “they pull on the tail, they pull on the flippers, they kind of flip the whale.”

And though it is typical for orcas to hunt gray whales, they don’t typically go for the largest, healthiest ones — and yesterday’s gray was quite a bit larger than the average orca, Lesser said.

“They go for either the ones who are heading back up North after they haven’t eaten for a month, or they go for the calves,” Lesser said, “There was a thought — which still could be true even after they took down the calf —that they were teaching their young how to hunt.”

Orca pods are typically matrilineal — meaning the females are in charge of the social order and structure. Mother, grandmothers, and even great-grandmother orcas are responsible for teaching calves how to fend for themselves once they’re of age.

Kristy Hutchings www.mercurynews.com California News,Environment,Latest Headlines,News,Pets and Animals,Things To Do,Animals,Morning Wire,Photos and Videos,Whales,Wildlife

2024-01-04 12:39:59 , The Mercury News

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