Boat captain Erica Page scanned the ocean’s surface, searching for any signs that killer whales were near.
At times, the ocean was calm, the only sound coming from salt water rhythmically slapping the sides of the small Newport Coastal Adventure inflatable boat.
But when the black-and-white beauties emerge, the orca’s sleek, shiny dorsal fins slicing the sea with a “whoooosh,” the excitement takes over.
“OH MY GOD!” screamed Dawn Casillas, who traveled from San Diego to Newport Beach on Tuesday, Jan. 9, for her third outing hanging out with this pod of orcas. “Come here babies, come to momma!”
Excitement on the water off Southern California is at an all-time high with this pod of killer whales hanging around for a month now. The Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas would typically be found off Central America and Mexico.
The pod was first spotted in Palos Verdes by whale watching boats on Dec. 11, and since have been bouncing between the South Bay and Orange County and San Diego, making their way back up to Oxnard and Central California and back down again.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Page, who has seen the orcas about nine times in the past month. “It’s so rare to see in this area.
“People just go absolutely nuts about orcas.”
Longtime captains and ocean experts say this is the longest this species of orcas have hung around local waters, an extended stay that has them wondering if the killer whales have found a source of plentiful food that will keep them around even longer.
The snack they seek: the beloved dolphin, a cousin of sorts, with the orcas themselves also a member of the dolphin family.
“Which is kind of weird,” said Jen Roop, from Laguna Beach, about the quasi-carnivorous nature of the hunt.
The predatory nature of these killer whales has ocean enthusiasts like Roop torn – sad to see the dolphins slaughtered but glad the orcas are hanging around for up-close, intimate encounters.
“I understand why they have to do it, but I have a really heavy heart about it,” Roop said before getting on the boat, calling the orca encounter a “life bucket list,” her hands shaking with excitement. “I really don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see dolphins being eaten. I hope they get away. But it’s also why we get to see them. That’s why they are here.”
Page, a nine-year boat captain, said the pod’s extended vacation here is “totally unprecedented.”
“They may have just discovered there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet here, so maybe they will stick around,” she said. “There’s definitely a lot of food here for them.”
When they showed up again this week, spotted first by Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari near Dana Point, it was a welcomed surprise. They had not been seen for five days, possibly due to the stormy weather that had moved into the region.
Once they were spotted Tuesday morning, the tight-knit group of ocean captains started quickly buzzing, sending word of their location, the time spotted, the pod’s speed and direction.
At least one boat tries to stay with them, so they don’t lose track of the marine mammals, which at any time can slip away under the sea’s surface without detection.
“We couldn’t do it without the help of everyone involved,” said Page. “We communicate with boats from Dana Point, Long Beach, everyone in between, the Catalina Flyer, lobster boats, fishing boats. It is a big whole network we use.”
These ETP orcas have only been seen off Southern California a handful of times – the last time off Orange County was in 2019.
Their appearance allows biologists like Mike Couffer a rare opportunity to see the orcas in the wild, to document and observe their behavior. He’s been on five boats in recent weeks, three times with orca encounters.
“These whales, this pod, are mammal eaters so they create a lot of commotion on the surface when they chase dolphins around. And they also come up to the boat, swim upside down under the boat and check everyone out,” he said. “It’s really amazing.”
When it was time for Page’s boat to depart from Newport Harbor for the afternoon trip, the orcas were hanging out just south off Laguna Beach. The 36-foot inflatable boat darted down the coast, passengers’ hair whipping in the wind as if on an amusement ride on the water.
A key clue of where to look for the orcas – the cluster of boats in one spot.
“There’s the orcas!” Page called out, as the massive mammals saunter in front of a nearby boat.
Photographer Justin Crapps, who traveled from Malibu where he was filming dolphins for the trip and got a speeding ticket on his way, launched a drone for an overview look, guiding the group on where to look.
“On the right of the boat behind us,” he called out. “They are coming up. Here they come … they are behind us, to the left!”
Cameras and cell phones whipped around into position, the boat tipping as the dozen or so passengers darted to the side to get the best shot. One orca came up so close to the boat, it startled passengers into nervous screams and laughter.
“That was insane,” exclaimed photographer Patrick Coyne, who came from Torrance to document the orcas.
On a previous trip, Crapps got so close to one of the orcas, it spouted salt water right on his face, he said.
“He was on his side looking at me and then he sprayed me,” Crapps said with a smile. “He blew me a kiss, I’ll take that.”
The elementary school teacher takes the footage back to his classroom to teach the young kids about nature. “It’s incredible to see what’s going on, how their calves are learning from this…The fact that they can teach their young, just like we teach our kids, it’s important.”
Page has spent so much time with the pod in recent weeks, she’s getting to know some of them.
“Hi Cookie,” she called out as a small calf popped up next to the bigger orcas.
On her Tuesday afternoon trip, the orcas seem already satisfied with their morning feast. They bounced from boat to boat, sometimes riding in the wakes, other times on the side or in front of the vessels.
At times, they disappeared, leaving boat captains searching around until they a fin or spout was spotted in the distance. The boats – some big charters with dozens of people, others personal crafts with just a family aboard – dart to catch up.
On this trip, the pod split into smaller groups, some closer to shore, just swimming distance from the Crystal Cove cottages, while others were farther out toward Catalina Island.
Approaching a group of boats watching about five orcas further offshore, Page sniffed the air.
“You can smell blubber,” she said of the lingering earthy smell, watching as dolphins quickly split from the area. “They probably already got one.”
Roop was glad she didn’t witness any dolphin eating on this trip. Seeing the orcas up close was enough, a once-in-a- lifetime experience.
“My heart is so happy,” she said.
It’s a rare opportunity she thought she would have to go to Seattle or Orcas Island to experience, she said. “I got to see them today, right in our front yard.”
The excursion lasted until the sun dipped down behind Catalina Island, the sky and ocean turning cotton candy pink as the orcas cruised along the coast, heading north.
“I wish we could stay out there forever, but at some point it’s dark,” Page said.
For Page, who gets to call the ocean her office, the orcas add to the rich biodiversity found off the coast: gray whales during winter and spring, humpbacks during spring and fall, blue whales – the world’s largest mammal – during summer.
And it’s a water world many people don’t know is just a boat ride away.
“I would say a huge majority of people who grew up in Southern California have no idea we have one of the best, most biodiverse spots in the world to see whales out here, and dolphins,” she said, noting there are an estimated 1 million dolphins that live here.
Orange County Outdoor photographer Mark Girardeau said he suspects that since the orcas were seen traveling north, they will hopefully head southbound by the end of the week, possibly hanging out in the area again.
Ultimately, it’s anyone’s guess how long the orcas will stay, their elusiveness adding to their mystic and lure.
“Every time we see them, we think it’s going to be the last time,” Page said. “But then, they keep coming back.”
Laylan Connelly www.ocregister.com News,beaches,Top Stories Breeze,Top Stories LBPT,Top Stories OCR,Whales
2024-01-11 18:11:47 , Huntington Beach News: The Orange County Register