by Eric Austin Yee
The whale watching industry in Southern California has had some pretty amazing and rare sightings in recent days! Our lucky Dana Wharf Whale Watching guest had the pleasure of seeing a large pod of killer whales head up our coast on November 30th. Killer whales are not a common occurrence off the Orange County coastline so each sighting gets plenty of attention.
At first glance, all killer whales might look and act the same to the untrained eye but, researchers have determined that killer whales have different ecotypes. These ecotypes look different, have different diets and even have distinctive vocalizations. The last few years Dana Wharf Whale Watching has been fortunate enough to show our guest two of these ecotypes.
The latest killer whale sighting on November 30th at Dana Wharf Watching was a large pod of approximately 40 offshore killer whales. Large pods that can number from 20 to 100 individuals is not uncommon for offshores. Latest studies show there might be approximately 250-300 offshore killer whales off the coastline of California, Oregon and Washington. Offshores have been to known to be one of the most well traveled killer whales. One individual was seen in Dutch Harbor, Alaska and then here in Dana Point, that is a 2756 mile journey! Their dorsal fins tend to have a rounded tip and tend to have a closed saddle patch (the white patch located behind the dorsal fin). The diet of offshores consist of large fish and sharks. Offshores have been seen eating blue sharks and sleeper sharks. The rough skin of these sharks causes another unique feature of offshores, worn down teeth. Bodies of mature offshores recovered have shown teeth that are almost worn down to the gums.
The transient killer whales range covers pretty much the entire West Coast of North America. A transient killer whale that has been seen by Dana Wharf Whale Watching has been seen as far North as British Columbia, Canada. Pods of transients can number to about 10 individuals. Estimates of California transients have not been recently determined but, guesses by biologist range from 105 to possibly 180 individuals. Transients are known to be one of the larger, more heavy bodied ecotypes of killer whales. They tend to have a pointed dorsal fin and closed saddle patch. Marine mammals make up the diet of transient killer whales. Common dolphin, sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals have been seen being consumed by transients off the coast of California. Gray whale calves are also a frequent prey item for these killer whales.
Eastern Tropical Pacific’s (ETPs)
The Eastern Tropical Pacific killer whales spotted by Dana Wharf Whale Watching have not been placed into a ecotype by researchers at this time, there is still much to learn about the ETPs. The term ETP is used to describe the area these whales are seen, as far South as Peru and as far East towards the Hawaiian Islands. About 195 ETPs have been identified in a catalog published in 2008. A faint to almost non-existent saddle patch is common on these killer whales. They are known to eat marine mammals and have been witnessed preying on bottlenose and common dolphins off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. There is also a case of ETPs preying on mammals as large as a blue whale.