A pod of 10 orcas recently and unexpectedly took up residence in the coastal waters of southern California, treating marine biologists and whale watchers to quite the show.
The apex predators were spotted between Oxnard and San Diego for two weeks and amazed spectators with close-up encounters and aerial displays.
Eastern tropical Pacific orcas typically live in the waters off the coast of Mexico and Central America but go as far west as Hawai’i, making their appearance further north all the more special.
“Being able to see them off the coast of Orange County even just one time is rare, but multiple consecutive sightings over the course of two weeks is extremely rare,” Jessica Rodriguez, the education and communications manager at Newport Landing & Davey’s Locker Whale Watching, said per the Guardian.
While it’s unclear why the orcas felt compelled to make SoCal their temporary home, Rodriguez theorized that the warm waters brought on by this year’s El Niño could be a reason.
“They’re normally warm water killer whales, and they like to hang out in those warmer waters off the coast of Baja,” she said.
Meanwhile, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the lead research biologist with the California Killer Whale Project, noted that the orcas’ migration may have been food motivated. The whales love to feast on bottlenose and common dolphins, and megapods of the marine mammals near the shores of California likely made hunting much easier than usual.
Fortunately, there have been no reports of boat ramming, as has been observed from orcas off the coast of Spain and Portugal.
But unusual orca activity is still a cause for attention and examination as to whether changes in pollution, weather, or climate are a factor. While pollution from humans may not be a factor in these migrations, orcas in the western North Atlantic have been found to have elevated pollutants in their bodies, showing the unexpected ripple effects from modern consumer behavior in recent decades.
Regardless of the cause, whale enthusiasts and researchers alike benefitted from the orcas’ appearances, with the former getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap a picture and the latter getting an equally valuable chance to collect data on the creature.
“This is an unparalleled opportunity for us to document these whales, which includes two little calves,” Schulman-Janiger said.
The relationship was mutually beneficial, as the orcas used the whale-watching boats to block the echolocation from dolphins and subsequently launch their prey skyward in a surprise attack.
“Seeing these creatures really excites a lot of people, and at the end of the day, we want to instill that sense of wonder and appreciation for the ocean to promote conservation and wild observations with the whales,” Rodriguez said.
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