SAN DIEGO, CA — For four weeks, Southern Californians have been dazzled with a killer sight at sea — a beautiful, breathtaking, and sometimes bloody display put on by the ocean’s top predator.
There has been a surge in sightings of orcas, better known as killer whales. It’s not uncommon to see orcas off the coast of California, but these killer whales are different.
This specific pod of killer whales migrated up the coast from Mexico and has been spotted in the coastal waters from San Diego to Ventura. They are Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas or ETPs.
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“It’s unprecedented — this long visit by these killer whales from southern waters,” marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger told Patch. “They’re extremely rarely seen.”
“It’s absolutely fascinating,” Schulman-Janiger added.
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There are different types of killer whales, and their diets and hunting habits are among the ways they differ. Although they are called “killer whales,” orcas are not whales but rather the largest member of the dolphin family.
ETPs like to eat other dolphins and whales.
“Killer whales don’t quite look like dolphins, but that’s what they are at their heart,” Schulman-Janiger said.
Schulman-Janiger has been photo-identifying California killer whales, recording sightings and studying their behavior since the late 1970s.
She is the lead research biologist for the California Killer Whale Project, a nonprofit organization with a longterm data set of the history of killer whales along the coast. She is also on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s stranding response team and large whale entanglement response team.
Marine biologists like Schulman-Janiger identify orcas by the shape of their dorsal fin, saddle patch — the gray area behind the dorsal fin — and eye patch. There are at least three different types of killer whales that are known to swim off the coast of state: transient, offshore and resident killer whales.
Transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales, are the most common type of orcas spotted along the coast of California, including sightings as recent as December in the Santa Barbara area, Schulman-Janiger said. These orcas hunt in small groups and eat all kinds of marine mammals.
Offshore killer whales are more rarely seen, but there were recent sightings in late December near the Channel Islands. These orcas are smaller and travel in larger groups. They eat large fish and sharks and have never been documented eating marine mammals, Schulman-Janiger said.
Southern resident killer whales spend several months of the summer and fall each year in Washington State’s Puget Sound. These orcas eat fish and are considered endangered because there are only about 75 of them.
“We’ve never seen them in Southern California, but they have gotten down to Monterey, so they count as whales you might see off California,” Schulman-Janiger explained.
The ETP orcas that have been spotted in recent weeks off the coast of Southern California are considered a subgroup.
“This is not a kind of killer whale,” Schulman-Janiger said. “This is an area where you can see killer whales. It’s a generalization. It’s all the whales south of San Diego down to the equator.”
There could be a population of several hundred of these orcas. Researchers don’t know for sure, she said. These orcas were documented off the coast of California for the first time in 2002.
There were also documented sightings of ETPs in 2009 and 2011. Sightings became a little more frequent a few years later.
Schulman-Janiger noted that the uptick in sightings coincided with the marine heat wave of 2014 to 2016, when ocean water temperatures were much warmer than normal in the north Pacific Ocean.
“We saw them very rarely until about 2014,” Schulman-Janiger said. “I can’t say they were at all common, but we were seeing more than one every several years.”
ETPs were again spotted in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021.
The pod of ETP orcas at the center of the recent surge in sightings were first seen off the coast of California in 2018. At the time, it was a group of eight killer whales. They spent about 10 days between San Diego and Long Beach.
They were spotted again in 2019 and 2021. Last year, they were spotted in July and October.
The now 10-member pod consists of two mothers and their offspring, as well as an older orca, possibly a grandmother.
“They may very well be all related,” Schulman-Janiger said.
The pod returned to Southern California in December. They were first spotted on Dec. 11, 2023, in the area around Palos Verdes.
Since then, there have been confirmed sightings on 15 different days. They have been seen in the waters off San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The pod was last spotted Tuesday off the coast of Dana Point.
“They were still headed up the coast, so I don’t think they’re quite done with us yet,” Schulman-Janiger said.
Although researchers don’t know what drew them to Southern California, they have a pretty good idea why they have stayed for weeks.
“I’m sure what’s keeping them sticking around is the plentitude of dolphins here,” Schulman-Janiger said.
The orcas are mostly feasting on common dolphins. In some cases, whale watchers have seen the bloody hunts up close.
“Common dolphin is our most abundant dolphin here,” she said. “We have several hundred thousand common dolphin. They are not going to eat all the common dolphin, so that’s not a danger.”
The orcas, however, have also targeted bottlenose dolphins. And the pod’s first stateside kill may have been an endangered fin whale that washed ashore on Dec. 10 in San Diego’s Pacific Beach. The female juvenile’s body was covered in bite marks from orcas.
The next day, the pod was spotted hunting about 100 miles north, Schulman-Janiger said.
“Chances are extremely good that it was this group of orcas that attacked the fin whale,” she said. “We can’t prove it because nobody was there, but if you are doing one of those mystery stories on TV, fingers are pointing at these whales.”
The pod has also killed a newborn gray whale.
As the director and coordinator of the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, which she founded in 1984, Schulman-Janiger also spots, tracks, and records gray whales and other cetaceans with citizen scientists.
“The whales from Mexico came, and they ate one of our first southbound gray whale calves,” Schulman-Janiger said. “My worlds collided and exploded there last week.”
ETPs have never been documented killing a whale in California, she said.
In 40 years of running the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, Schulman-Janiger said they have also never documented a southbound calf being killed. Plus, it’s only the second calf they have ever seen killed in 40 years.
“It’s an extremely rare event,” she said.
“It was a big shock and honestly made me sick on an emotional level,” she added. “The mom had her calf for two days and then it was gone.”
Despite the tragic loss, the pod’s weeks-long visit to Southern California has been a treat for Schulman-Janiger, who dreamed of studying orcas as a child.
“It’s such a joy, to me, to get to see these sentient, long-lived, charismatic megafauna who have these tight family lives and long-term relationships,” she said.
She and other marine biologists have learned a lot about this particular pod. They determined the gender of the orcas from the pigment pattern on their undersides. They know much more about their personalities and relationships.
They have even given the orcas nicknames. One of the female adult killer whales was named “Top Notch” because she has a nick near the top. The orca’s youngest daughter was named “Cookie” because she has a cookie-cutter-shaped shark bite on her left side.
“There’s a lot more information about the dynamic of this particular group of whales cooperating together and their great hunting abilities,” she said.
Marine biologists aren’t the only people interested in this orca pod. Business has been busy for local whale watching companies.
It’s a rare sight to see killer whales from whale watching boats, according to Donna Kalez, chief operating officer of Oceanside Adventures. Kalez told Patch the dolphin and whale watching company usually only spots orcas about once a year.
“It’s increased business in all ports so much because people are excited and looking to see rare orcas off our coast,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime treat and people are ready! Orcas, in my opinion, are the most thrilling whales to see, and you never know what they will do.”
Chris Fairbanks, a captain at Oceanside Adventures, agreed that the increased sightings has raised interest in whale watching.
“I have met a few passengers who have been frequenting various whale watching companies up and down the coast for their chance at spotting orcas,” he told Patch.
“Having an encounter with orcas in our area is an awe-inspiring experience for anyone,” he added. “The power, intelligence and grace of these animals is hard to dismiss.”
The recent surge in orca sightings has also prompted private boat owners to go out on the water in search of the pod.
Schulman-Janiger encouraged people wanting to catch a glimpse of the pod or other marine animals to travel with a local whale watching company.
She’s fearful of boaters either disturbing or hitting the killer whales. More boats on the water means more noise, which could disrupt the pod’s ability to coordinate and go after its prey.
In one instance, she said people aboard a private boat on Tuesday were drinking alcohol and racing toward the orcas, nearly running over a baby killer whale.
“We really want people to be on good behavior because this is their world and we are getting to share part of that, but we need to be respectful,” Schulman-Janiger said.
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