Monterey Bay Whale Watch - February 2000 Feature


See ID photos which were used to identify these Killer Whales.

Click on small pictures below to see full-size photos (size 27K - 41K).

Killer Whales from Puget Sound Observed in Monterey Bay!

By Nancy Black

Orcas Entertaining Whale Watchers (16K) Marine biologists from Monterey Bay Whale Watch documented an incredible sighting on Saturday, Jan 29, 2000. "Resident" killer whales from Washington state and British Columbia were sighted in Monterey Bay! The much beloved K and L pods traveled nearly 1000 miles away from their normal range and fed on salmon in Monterey Bay. This is an unprecedented sighting according to biologists who study these whales in Washington and B.C.

During the summer months these pods inhabit the inland waters of Haro Strait between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, Canada where they feed on runs of salmon. These whales are known by name and number by thousands of people and are the most well known whale population in the world, studied for close to 30 years. All pod members are closely related, and even the adult males remain with their family group for life. Over 50 members comprise these two pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research knows these whales best; he has dedicated his life to the study of these pods. Ken's house overlooks the ocean where these whales pass almost daily during the summer months and his team of researchers volunteer their time during the summer to photo-identify the pods, documenting new individuals, noting missing whales, and following their behavior patterns. They have found some serious problems with these pods, such as increased mortality. In their home waters, the populations of salmon, once abundant, have dwindled due to habitat destruction, damming, and overfishing. In addition these whales carry high toxic loads as they accumulate toxins from their food and some countries still use PCBs that may enter the whale population from fish migrations across the Pacific. They are also the most heavily watched group of whales in the world. No one knows for sure what threatens these whales most, but it might be a combination of many factors.

Killer Whale Spy-Hopping (16K) Robin Baird, a scientist from Canada, was instrumental in getting these whales listed as threatened in Canada. The United States is considering listed them as an endangered species. In April 2000, many scientists who study these whales will meet in Seattle to discuss these issues and determine measures to save these whales from the increased mortality and low birth rate that scientists have documented over the last several years.

So the question everyone is asking is "Why did the whales travel so far from Washington/B.C. to Monterey Bay, California?" This is still a mystery! During the winter months these whales leave their summer feeding areas in Haro Strait and no one really knows where they go. However, the farthest south they have ever been sighted is Grays Harbor, Washington, on the outer coast. It's possible they are having difficulty finding food off that coast and needed to travel farther for salmon.

Killer whale populations are not all the same. In the eastern North Pacific there are three distinct types, "residents", "transients", and "offshores". Each population is genetically distinct, specializes on different prey, exhibits different social and association patterns, has different vocal dialects, and frequents or travels different areas, some overlapping.

  • The "residents" usually are found over a limited area and have the tightest social structure of any marine mammal, living in close-knit family groups. These whales feed mainly on fish and can be very vocal. This whale type was thought to reside only in the Pacific Northwest from Washington to Alaska.

  • The "transient" type of killer whale is truly a top predator, consuming mostly marine mammals, from seals to large baleen whales. This type covers long distances, often travels in small groups, and is relatively quiet vocally.

  • The "offshores" are a lesser-known group, traveling long distances in large groups (often 50 or more) and probably feeding on fish and squid.

The trained observer at sea can distinguish all these types by size, markings, and behavior.

Killer Whale Spy-Hopping (16K) For over thirteen years, Richard Ternullo and I have studied the killer whales off California. Along with Alisa Schulman-Janiger of Los Angeles and Mercedes Guerrero of Mexico, we have published a catalog of identified killer whales. The "transient" type of killer whale is most often sighted in Monterey Bay; during the spring groups of transients gather in Monterey Bay to hunt gray whale calves. At other times they may feed on seals, sea lions, porpoise, and dolphins. "Offshore" killer whales, sometimes over in groups of 100, are occasionally seen here in winter.

On January 29, 2000, Richard, marine naturalist Katherine Whitaker and I were conducting a whale watch aboard the Pt. Sur Clipper, to look at gray whales and search for dolphins. Before we left port, Jerry Wettle aboard the sport fishing boat Reelin sent a report of killer whales in the Bay. Since killer whales are an infrequent sighting and this was apparently a large group, numbering about 40, whale watchers aboard the Pt. Sur Clipper and Star of Monterey departed quickly and raced to the area where the killer whales were reported. We encountered the pod, along with other whale watch boats, just north of Cypress Point (Carmel Bay). As we approached we heard excitement on the VHF radio about breaches, leaps and spyhops by these whales. Once we reached the group we began photo-identifying the pod members. These were whales we did not recognize. However, we have not photographed all the "offshore" killer whales and thought they were part of this larger group.

Our boats, along with a team working with us on a film for National Geographic, continued to follow these whales in our 22' research inflatable. After forming a tight group near Carmel Bay, the whales turned back north and headed into the Bay where they spread out over more than two miles while feeding on salmon. We continued to follow the killer whales in our inflatable and watched as they foraged for several hours. By dusk they had crossed the bay, grouped up again and headed northwest near the canyon edge out of the Bay.

Orcas Entertaining Whale Watchers (16K) After returning to port, we began to wonder about these "unknown whales". Many whales had open saddles (black intruding into their white saddle patch behind the dorsal fin), they traveled in a large tight group of over 50 individuals and they were very active, with lots of breaches and spyhops. This is uncharacteristic for both California transients and offshore types. I alerted Alisa Schulman-Janiger, our southern California co-researcher, to the day's sighting. She also noted that most of the California whales have closed saddles and opens are a rarity. Along with this, I thought about the "resident" like behavior we observed and opened a killer whale catalog from the Pacific Northwest, and found a whale I was sure we had seen that day. Katherine had her film developed the next morning and we confirmed 7 whales immediately! We then contacted the people who study these residents to report our news. Everyone was amazed and couldn't believe it until they saw our ID photos posted on the Web. Now, we wonder if they will return and is it possible they may frequent our area more often in search of food?

Follow-up News:
March 13, 2003: Southern Resident Killer Whales were seen again in Monterey Bay. See the March 2003 feature for details.
June 15, 2000: K and L pods have returned to Puget Sound, as reported by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington.


. Home page
. Back to Features
U R Here Features -- Feb 2000

Monterey Bay Whale Watch logo (2K)
Monterey Bay Whale Watch, LLC
84 Fisherman's Wharf
Monterey, CA 93940
Phone 831-375-4658  

Copyright © 2000 Monterey Bay Whale Watch. All rights reserved.
Photos by Nancy Black, Richard Ternullo and Katherine Whitaker.

Last updated June 6, 2003