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 possible 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,” said Stanton.
“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.”
Although the family often interacts with humans, there are laws against humans interacting with them.
Alex Smith, a local boater from Hermosa Beach, watched in horror over the weekend as a boat with a group of people followed too closely to a whale and almost t-boned another boat. “There are a lot of [idiots] out there,” said Smith. “People drink and don’t pay attention to what they are doing. They are ignorant of the animals and disrespectful…. Two years ago I heard that a guy on a jet ski used a whale as a ramp and jumped off of it. Those are the kind of horror stories that are really tragic and people doing stuff like that ruin the experience for everybody. It’s going to hurt the animals and scare them away.”
He suggests that if you see a whale, put your engine in neutral if you are within 100 yards or 300 feet of the creature. He also reminded boaters that it is illegal to feed them and put chum in the water hoping they will come to your boat. “You could drive next to them and hit their head,” said Smith. “People don’t understand that that they aren’t just that little spot you see – they are huge.”
April O. House, a Cabrillo Whale watching naturalist and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society volunteer, also cautions that the plastic bags, packaging and other plastic items we purchase, use and toss out don’t always make it into recycling and whales and other marine life have been found with those types of things in their stomachs.
Although the recent interaction with the adult gray whale was unusual, it isn’t unheard of, and killer whales are not typically graphic creatures. In fact, “orca” is becoming more commonly used for this species than the traditional name, “killer whale.”
“People get the idea of killer whale as a people and whale killer,” Schulman-Janiger explained. “They don’t kill people and they don’t all kill whales… it’s an undeserved reputation. They are very good predators, but people see a killer whale and think, ‘It’s going to kill me!’ It’s never happened. They have never killed or harmed a person purposefully in the wild.” Although transient killer whales specialize in marine mammal prey, other types specialize in fish, and never harm marine mammals.
However, even though killer whales have never harmed a human in the wild, humans have seen killer whales do astonishing things to other animals, mainly and most frequently, the sea lion.
“Every day [when the orcas were seen in the Santa Monica Bay] they were documented eating sea lions,” said Schulman-Janiger. “They are the only predator besides the great white shark that eats them.”
Although killer whales don’t prey on adult whales, they do go after juvenile gray whales, especially when they make their way to the Arctic on their first trip north with their mothers.
Recently, local whale-watchers have spotted orcas playing with sea lions – batting them back and forth in the water and the air – after causing an apparently gruesome death. The truth, according to Schulman-Janiger, isn’t that they are torturing the sea lions (or dolphins, which have also been the object of such orca behavior); instead, they are teaching their juveniles hunting techniques in a controlled environment when the prey is unable to fight back. They often carry around the animal for long periods of time, encouraging the juveniles to practice the techniques that the adults use to hunt.
This season has already seen a record number of southbound gray whales, up to 308 from 154 last year. Daily there can be anywhere from 10 to 27 whales crossing the Redondo Canyon on their way to Baja California. Researchers estimate the high number of grays can be attributed to an earlier southbound migration season; some may also be migrating closer to shore. Researchers also think it will be a banner year for calves and suggest that quite a few of the whales are pregnant following two consecutive outstanding feeding seasons in the Arctic. This is good news for gray whale populations that have been both on and off the Endangered Species list in recent years.
But the occasional presence of calves on the southbound journey also is a somewhat troubling indicator on another front.
“It was originally thought that gray whales gave birth to their young only in the warm waters of Baja California, but [with global warming] in the last 15 years that has changed,” said Diane Alps, Cabrillo Whalewatch, President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society. According to Alps, because of the receding ice coverage, the whales are being forced further north during their feeding season. The whales head south at the same time they always have, but because they are forced to swim longer distances, they often give birth before reaching their destination.
Still, the species is at present bouncing back and moving through the Redondo Canyon in record numbers. People aboard the Voyager and other vessels have been lucky enough to spot the grays as well as smaller whales and dolphins almost every day in recent weeks and possibly until the end of May. Orcas continue to be seen in Santa Monica Bay, where a pod of seven was spotted earlier this week.
“I would think and hope we have not seen the last of them,” said Schulman-Janiger.
Taylor Hall, 5, and her grandparents Joyce and Steve Stepanek and brother Mason were on the Voyager and spotted their first gray whale last Friday. “It was cool,” said Hall. “I haven’t seen whales before.”
Added her grandmother Joyce, “I thought it would be a fun day-outing and a different experience. It’s been an adventure.”
The Voyager provides two whale watching trips daily at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., weather permitting. To book tickets, visit their website at voyagerexcursions.com/
Oringinal story can be found at- easyreadernews.com/43921/marine-migrants/
Loading more stuff…
Hmm…it looks like things are taking a while to load. Try again?