Photos and story by Chuck Graham

There was no mistaking what was plowing through the whitecaps and the deep, cobalt blue seas mid-morning last Oct. 10. On the immediate western horizon in the East Santa Barbara Channel, about 10 miles off the Ventura coastline, were two transient pods or matrilines (families) of orcas totaling 10 animals. Traveling together, they were swimming fast in hot pursuit of unknown prey.

Multiple spouts spewed skyward on the horizon and then a dramatic tail fluke of one orca, its white underside standing out in the turbulent ocean with the north side of Santa Cruz Island looming to the southwest.

Alex Brodie, Fleet Manager of Island Packers, told me that they spot orcas roughly 12 times a year, so it’s not every day that pods of orcas (also known as Bigg’s killer whales) are spotted in the Santa Barbara Channel from the Island Packers ferry. Sightings are sparse, and depending on what the orcas have in mind, they may be fleeting too. It’s a special moment when a pod is spotted, so when they reveal themselves it’s something you want to soak in and hope the moment lasts as long as they will allow. 

These animals are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, but they also have culture, lifetime friendships and mourn their dead. Each matriline is a very tight, close-knit family group composed of a mom and her kids.

“Many different matrilines have been documented there (Santa Barbara Channel) over the decades,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an independent whale researcher specializing in California killer whales and co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project. “There is no resident pod or pods in the channel. There’s not as many whale watch boats to report sightings and to send ID photos, as compared to Monterey, so we don’t have as much sighting coverage in the Santa Barbara Channel.”

Numbers, names and/or the notches

If orcas aren’t part of a resident pod then they’re known as transient pods. Most of the resident pods are found up north hanging out in front of river mouths waiting for salmon to run. Life in transient pods seems more appealing. They’re constantly traveling, wandering between Alaska and the Mexican border. Their prey is more diversified and these orcas know where to be when food is available to them.

The two pods spotted in early October are known as CA51s and CA216s. Schulman-Janiger said that they are not often seen traveling together, so the sighting on Oct. 10 was even more astounding.

The dominant female, CA51, was first spotted in September 1991. She and her offspring have been studied for 26 years. The two males are CA51’s two sons: CA51B Orion (19 years old) and CA51C Bumper (14 years old).

Of the CA216s, the dominant female was initially spotted in May 1997. She and her offspring have been studied for 20 years.

How do marine biologists and researchers go about identifying these complex marine mammals? Besides visitors on whale watching boats, they consistently rely on private boaters, fishermen, virtually anyone spending time in the open ocean extending up and down the coast. Identifying orcas isn’t an exact science but it’s pretty darn close.

Schulman-Janiger told me that the primary clue for individual ID is the overall size and shape of the dorsal fin. The dorsal on the large males is impressive. Shaped like a tall, black steeple, it can reach 6 feet in height, while the female’s dorsal is shorter. It’s not the size of the dorsal, however, but instead all the accompanying nicks, notches and scars collected over time.

The secondary clue is the grayish/white saddle situated at the base of the dorsal. It also collects markings and scars that assist in identifying individual orcas. The other telltale sign is the distinct white eye patch located above each eye.

“This actually is the most stable identifier,” said Schulman-Janiger. “It changes little over time.  In photo ID catalogs the dorsal fin and saddle is featured for each whale.”

Documenting these animals helps biologists and researchers like Shulman-Janiger chronicle the natural history and details of their family lives. Knowing where they are, tracking their comings and goings and searching for behavioral patterns is a big part of that.

“Photo identification efforts are noninvasive and can yield priceless data about their movements, foraging behavior and prey items, interrelationships within the matrilines and between matrilines, calving intervals, growth and development of calves, individual quirks and personalities, and on and on.”

Schulman-Janiger cited an example of Bigg’s killer whales photographed on Oct. 3 off San Diego. They were heading toward Mexican waters. Without that encounter, she said, they would never have been able to verify that Bigg’s killer whales do travel south of Oceanside — even San Diego — and possibly into Mexican waters.

“I collaborate with both Mexican colleagues and those from British Columbia,” she stated, “as the killer whales do not care about our artificial borders.”

Mom’s rule

The sighting Oct. 10 became even more impressive after learning where they finished their day, foraging in the Channel Islands National Park. Word got out that both pods were sighted at Point Bennett on the far western tip of San Miguel Island, where mostly tens of thousands of rotund northern elephant seals, bellowing California sea lions, northern fur seals and other pinnipeds congregate year-round on windswept beaches and wave-battered coves, a virtual smorgasbord for orcas.

On the morning of Oct. 10, the CA51 matriline and CA216 matriline were sighted between 9:30 and 10 a.m. By the late afternoon they’d made it to Point Bennett. That’s anywhere from 50 to 55 miles west from the north side of Santa Cruz Island. According to Schulman-Janiger, that distance is nothing for an orca to cover in a day.

“They can easily cover 100 miles in one day,” she continued. “Few have been satellite-tagged, so there isn’t long-term data from a lot of different whales. The best data comes from continued resightings and photo documentation of the same individuals. It depends if they are only traveling, stopping to forage, resting and socializing. I’ve traveled with killer whales when they were going over 15 or 18 mph for extended time periods!”

Schulman-Janiger said the CA51 matriline is her favorite. Time spent in the field seems to have cultivation of a very special bond.

“I have likely seen the CA51s more often than any other family, so I know them the best,” she said. “They have very interesting personalities.”

The mom is known as CA51 Star, and her three youngest offspring as CA51B Orion, CA51C Bumper and CA51 Comet. CA51 Star’s eldest daughter, CA51A Aurora, has split from her mother’s group to form her own family — the CA51As. 

“This splitting off of reproductive daughters with their offspring is normal, typical behavior for Bigg’s killer whales,” Schulman-Janiger continued, “while sons nearly always stay with their moms.”

Small groups of Bigg’s killer whales will sometimes come together to increase success when hunting larger prey such as seasonally northbound gray whale calves.

Diversified menu

Gauging the level of anticipation on the bow of the Island Packers ferry was difficult. Back in the spring of 2013, there were at least 20 of us standing and straining to see how this sea hunt would unfold. There were five orcas in the pod with two large males out front swimming with purpose toward the west. They were headed straight for a massive pod of common dolphins feeding on a bait ball at least a mile away and unaware that the apex predator of the ocean blue was bearing down on them.

Were they simply going to charge right into the middle of the feeding fray and hope to snatch an unsuspecting dolphin? Orcas are too strategic and wouldn’t act so hasty. They had a plan. As they continued to dolphin toward the expanse of the pod beneath gray, overcast skies in equally gray-colored water anticipation mounted on the bow. Then, without any warning, the orca pod vanished. For several minutes it grew very silent on the ocean and the crowded bow.

“Some whales just appear to be passing through, while others are seen actively foraging,” explained Schulman-Janiger. “I believe that there are more whales that spend time here, but they are not documented, reported or photographed to verify which ones were encountered.”

In the meantime the common dolphins were oblivious as to what was approaching them. The knowledgeable Island Packers’ naturalists always tell visitors that for each dolphin you see on the surface there are roughly seven more dolphins beneath it. So this giant common dolphin pod was around several thousand strong.

As we continued to wait for a dramatic outcome, everyone was looking around the boat hoping for a glimpse of the orcas’ whereabouts. Suddenly though, we realized what they had done. The two large males had dived deep, deep enough to get completely beneath the entire pod of common dolphin. What ensued resembled lions in hot pursuit of herds of wildebeest and zebra on the Serengeti Plain in East Africa. The orcas ascended straight up into the middle of the pod of dolphins. The common dolphins went instantly from predator to prey with dolphins suddenly fleeing the scene in every possible direction.

“The Santa Barbara Channel has a very diverse array of marine mammals that either live there or transit through these waters,” said Schulman-Janiger, who has been a naturalist on boats from Alaska to Mexico. “California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals, various dolphin species, gray whales (seasonally) and others are all on the menu.”

During all the commotion it was difficult to discern if the orcas had actually caught a single dolphin. There were a lot of baby dolphins in the pod, and the orcas could’ve just gulped one down and we wouldn’t have known it. After the dolphins scattered and the ocean calmed the orca pod hung out, sort of dawdling on the surface of the water. That lasted all of 30 seconds. About another mile west of the orca pod, two spouts sent plumes of saltwater into the air as sunset quickly approached. Two migrating gray whales heading back to Alaska for the summer had no idea what they were in for. The orcas were on the move again, picking up speed for potentially larger prey.

“The CA51s are very fond of California sea lions, common dolphins and gray whale calves,” continued Schulman-Janiger. “The CA216s used to be especially fond of harbor seals, focusing on them during much of their time in Monterey Bay. We have seen both matrilines attack and kill gray whale calves. They are very efficient hunters.”

Gray whale migration

Pacific gray whales will soon be migrating south through the Santa Barbara Channel in December, hugging Santa Cruz Island before making a hard right in the Anacapa Passage and eventually heading to the warm-water lagoons of Baja California. It’s here that the mothers give birth to their calves before heading back north to Alaska.

When the mothers make the long journey back to Alaska with their calves they typically hug the coastline. Because of this the migration north is slower than their southbound route. They hug the coastline to avoid encounters with orcas.

Schulman-Janiger said that families of orcas with a preference for gray whales gather seasonally in areas where they are most likely to intercept migrating cow/calf pairs.

“Not all transient killer whales have been seen attacking or feeding on gray whales, even when the opportunity has arisen,” she explained. “Individual whales appear to have their own prey favorites just like humans.”

According to Schulman-Janiger, killer whales cannot successfully attack a gray whale calf that is in shallow water, or one that is in a kelp bed. These predators need to maneuver to drown a gray whale calf. 

“We believe that the experienced gray whale moms likely hug the coast,” she said, “while the less experienced moms may cut across open water between landfalls, perhaps to shorten travel distance, which will make them more vulnerable to attack.”