Orca - Merry Passage

December 10, 2011

Returning home after diving on the south side of Palos Verdes, we came up on two boats at idle.  They weren't fishing, so we knew they were "on" something.  To our amazement, they were stopped for a most uncommon sighting, a pod of killer whales, Orcinus orca.

Distinct populations (ecotypes) of killer whale occur off the west coast of Canada and the U.S.  They look different, vocalize differently and have different prey preferences.  Apparently they don't interact and don't interbreed. 

Different types of killer whale

We were incredibly lucky to encounter an expert who happened to be in the field at the time.  Alisa Schulman-Janiger and her husband were busy documenting this pod of 10 - 12 killer whales.  Project Coordinator for the American Cetacean Society, Alisa has been studying killer whales for 32 years; she knows them instantly by sight.

Bigg's / transient orca

Alisa identified this pod as members of the Bigg's or transient killer whale, which feed exclusively on marine mammals - dolphins, seals, sea lions and gray whales.This group comprised two families that travel together, the CA51's and the CA140's.   Alisa had previously identified the members of this group based on a distinctive white eye patch and the saddle behind their dorsal fin, which also varies in shape.  The dorsal fin may have a nick or notch that aids in identification. 

The matriarch of this group has been sighted in Southern California several times since she was first seen in Monterey in 2001.   As of December 2011, she had 4 kids and 2 grand kids.  We experienced the same thing that Alisa noted; this killer whale was super boat-friendly as was the rest of the pod.   The massive adults swam toward us, circling around or under the boat.  One orca turned on its side as if to look at us, and one male swam along side the boat, running his dorsal fin along our freeboard.

This stands out as one of our most memorable marine life encounters.

Our sincere thanks to Alisa and her husband for identifying the orcas and providing us with fascinating  information.  

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