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Rare sight: Killer whales show up 4 miles off Orange County coast

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the water

At first glance, Dana Wharf captain Tommy White thought the marine mammals in the distance were dolphins, a regular sight off Orange County’s coastline.

But he soon realized it was a much rarer sight: A pod of black-and-white orcas were hanging out just a few miles from Laguna Beach’s coastline.

“That’s something different,” he recalled thinking. “We don’t see them very often.”

And in a way, even his first guess as to what he was seeing was right. Orcas are actually a type of dolphin, the largest member of the Delphinidae family, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

They are found in every ocean in the world, and are the most widely distributed of all cetaceans, according to NOAA.

But when they’ll show up is anyone’s guess.

Killer whales, as they are commonly called, are an uncommon sight in local waters. The last documentation of killer whales this close to the coast was in 2019 when a pod of Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas hunted dolphins for days, putting on a National Geographic-like display just off the shoreline.

This was a different ecotype of orcas spotted on Thursday, Dec. 2. They were first noticed about 1:30 p.m. about four miles off Laguna Beach’s Abalone Point by White and his crew, who alerted other whale watching companies about the appearance.

The four killer whales were identified as offshore orcas, rarely encountered off Orange County, according to California Killer Whale Project lead research biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

The “shark specialists” were first spotted off of Laguna Beach by Dana Wharf Whale Watch and last seen near sunset off Newport Beach by Newport Coastal Adventure, she said.

They were displaying foraging behavior, but no predations were documented,” Schulman-Janiger noted.

These “mystery” whales looked like offshore killer whales because of their rounded tipped dorsal fins and open saddles, which are occasionally seen in the species.

Schulman-Janiger consulted with offshore killer whale expert Graeme Ellis, who confirmed the ecotype and IDs.  The large male O362, the adult female with open saddle is O104, and two of her offspring (not yet named).

Ellis said they last spotted the group in 2015 and a smaller juvenile was since born.

The last time any offshore killer whales were seen off the local coast was December 2016, she noted.

Word spread fast among orca enthusiasts who rushed to see the apex predators off the coast.

“They are the most amazing animal we have out here,” said Donna Kalez, manager for Dana Wharf. “There’s nothing more awesome than to see orcas in the wild.

“People love killer whales, and if they can get a chance to see them in the wild, that’s something on people’s bucket list,” she said.

But if you miss them, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick around, she said. “They are always elusive.”

Featured in the Orange County Register