PICTURED: Bigg’s killer whales, CA51 pod, Santa Barbara Channel, September 2018. Photo by Chuck Graham

by Chuck Graham

There was no denying the black, six-foot-tall, steeple-like dorsal fin slicing a frothy swath through choppy seas in the Santa Barbara Channel. Like a periscope rising above a submarine, the triangular-shaped dorsal circled back time and again, the remnants of a California sea lion too much to resist.

His name was Liner, a 32-foot-long transient male orca, an alpha dog who gets his name from the line found within his white eye patch. He was spending time with the Bigg’s killer whale transient pod known as CA140. This group of apex predators had just finished off the unlucky pinniped. Transients pods prefer marine mammals over all other food sources off the California coast.

Spouting Off

We had just left Santa Cruz Island, bound for the Ventura Harbor, on the evening before Thanksgiving when Captain Luke of Island Packers made a hard left turn about six miles off the largest, most biodiverse isle off the coast. He was going way out of his way, so I knew it was something significant. 

Multiple spouts of golden ocean spray wafted skyward into a setting sun. Circling back and forth over the remaining sea lion carcass were western and Heermann’s gulls, which hovered above the opportunistic orcas in anticipation of any remaining scraps reaching the surface of the cobalt blue water.

“Transients specialize in marine mammal prey,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a long-time Southern California whale researcher and co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, “such as California and Steller sea lions, harbor and elephant seals, northern fur seals, Dall’s and harbor porpoise, common dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, gray whales and occasionally minkes, humpbacks, blues, fins and others — as well as seabirds (which are likely used for hunting training sessions with their juveniles and calves).”

Liner, a male Bigg’s killer whale, traveling with the CA140 pod in the Santa Barbara Channel, November 2020. Photo by Chuck Graham

While Liner and the CA140 pod finished up with their sea lion, a large pod of common dolphins had detected these apex predators nearby. Common dolphins are fast swimmers, but when this pod knew orcas were present, they fled westward at what seemed like warp speed, porpoising into the northwest winds and uneven seas: prey distancing themselves from predators.

The matriarch of the CA140 pod was Emma, and it appeared she was mothering a new calf that remained close to her side, barely a whitecap apart from each other. Emma was named for the noticeably shaped “E” etched on the backside of her dorsal fin. How she came by that indelible “E” is anyone’s guess.

Emma possesses a fierce reputation. Typically, it takes a transient orca two hours to kill a gray whale calf. Emma has been observed performing the task in a mere 20 minutes!

Orca on the brain

Every time I cross the Santa Barbara Channel, whether it be via Island Packers or in my kayak, spotting orcas is always at the top of the list — as it is, I think, for many folks. Sightings are rare, however, and do not happen every day, or every month, maybe only a couple times a year. It had been just over two years since the last time I saw a transient orca pod, and that was the CA51 pod in September 2018.

On that day, the CA51 pod was moving fast, faster than the Island Packers ferry. Sighted just 8 miles east of Prisoners Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, by the end of the day there was a report that the whales had parked themselves at the “smorgasbord” of pinniped rookeries off San Miguel Island.

Constantly moving up and down the California coast in search of their next meal, transient pods have been documented off every California Channel Island. San Miguel Island, in particular, possesses one of the largest seal and sea lion rookeries in the world, an obvious pitstop for hungry orcas.

Bigg’s killer whale Emma, matriarch of the CA140 pod, with her calf, near an Island Packers vessel, November 2020. Photo by Chuck Graham

“We have archived sightings of transients off every Channel Island, including San Miguel — abundant pinniped rookeries there,” Schulman-Janiger said.  “Pinnipeds are likely a major food source for many transients, but we have seen some that focus more on dolphin when available.”

Wave-battered and windswept Point Bennett is the most northwesterly fringe of the Channel Islands. It houses four species of seals and sea lions that breed and pup out there, including harbor and northern elephant seal, northern fur seal and California sea lion. Visitation by Guadalupe fur seals and Steller sea lions has also been documented there. 

While this area attracts orcas, in a lot of ways, they remain a mystery to researchers and whale experts like Schulman-Janiger.

“We do know a lot about some of the Bigg’s transient killer whale pods, the ones that are frequently encountered,” continued Schulman-Janiger. “We know about their foraging behaviors, prey taken, family structure and associations, and about at least some of their movements/distribution due to re-sightings. Others are rarely reported/photographed, so little known.”

Liner, for instance, is not part of the CA140 pod. He is part of the CA163 pod. He is frequently seen with them, however, either as a casual visitor . . . or maybe it’s something more. A new calf with Emma struck curiosity amongst some of the onlookers on all three Island Packers vessels viewing the impressive pod. Could it be Liner’s? Only an orca knows for certain.

“We have never encountered CA163 Liner on his own,” Schulman-Janiger said. “He is always with others, usually with the CA140s or CA140Bs. Close associates must be reconnecting through acoustical communication.”

High IQs

As far as intelligence goes, orcas are at or near the top when compared with other wildlife around the globe. Their social behaviors are complex amongst family members, with matriarchs mostly leading the way within each pod.

Schulman-Janiger would not go as far as to say orcas are the most intelligent animal on Earth, however.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “We do not have enough data on all creatures on this planet to answer that question. How can we judge sophistication? Many animals are incredibly smart. We learn more about them every day. We are biased; there is no hard and fast rule to judge ‘intelligence’ across species.”

Even so, there is no denying how smart orcas really are. When asked what is the most fascinating behavioral aspect of the transient pods off the California coast, Schulman-Janiger could not pinpoint a specific facet of these dynamic marine mammals.

“Everything,” she said. “They are endlessly fascinating! I love to observe their interactions, family structure and behavior within the pod, who their associates are, predatory and play behavior ― everything.” 

Schulman-Janiger described observing orcas that enjoyed playing with their food before devouring it. Seabirds have been smacked around by whales’ powerful tails, flung into the air and, if still alive, too exhausted to flee. 

Almost the same type of behavior applied to salmon, something Schulman-Janiger described as “kick the salmon.” It involved throwing fish high into the air with their tail flukes, but not killing them.

“I enjoy resighting whales that I have seen many times and know well,” she said. “I also love it when I encounter less-known whales and occasionally ones that we have never seen.”

Island Packers, 805-642-1393, islandpackers.com

Channel Islands National Park, 805-658-5730, www.nps.gov/chis

California Killer Whale Project, 831-901-3839, californiakillerwhaleproject.org