Monterey Bay Whale Watch - October 2002 Feature



Killer Whale Breaching, photo by Richard Ternullo

Click on small pictures
to see full-size photos.
      National Geographic Explorer
Television Program
focuses on
Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Marine Biologists
Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo

airing on MSNBC Sunday, Nov. 3
at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET
and 8 p.m. PT/11 p.m. ET

Repeats Saturday, Nov. 9
at 3 p.m. PT/6 p.m. ET

National Geographic EXPLORER premieres Secret Killers of Monterey on Sunday, November 3 on MSNBC. Produced by acclaimed natural history filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins, the compelling program focuses on killer whale research conducted by marine biologists Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo in Monterey Bay, California. Killer whales are highly intelligent mammals with complex social lives. The "transient" type of killer whale preys primarily on marine mammals. Hunting prey such as gray whales, dolphins and sea lions, transients truly exemplify the killer whale's role as one of the ocean's top predators. The film covers three years of research on killer whales in the Bay, and includes dramatic footage of killer whales as well as other whales, dolphins, and other marine life, illustrating the incredible diversity of animals inhabiting Monterey Bay.

Grace and Mark Atkins with male transient killer whale, photo by Peggy Stap Paul and Grace Atkins, along with associate producer Anne Marie Hammers, are award-winning natural history filmmakers. Previous films they produced for National Geographic Television include Great White Sharks and Dolphins. For the Monterey Bay project, the film team worked with Nancy and Richard over a three-year period to document their research on killer whales. They focused on the spring period when gray whales and their calves migrate through the Bay and killer whales are on the hunt for gray whales.

Killer whale fluke slapping blubber of gray whale, photo by Peggy Stap During the filming years of 1999, 2000, and 2001 the number of gray whale calves was greatly reduced compared to previous years; however the killer whales continued their search for the calves as they periodically showed up in Monterey Bay. The transient killer whales present during the filming period also hunted elephant seals, harbor seals, California sea lions, Dall's porpoise, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. In addition, they did attack several gray whales during the night and the team was able to document their feeding behavior.

The film also includes dramatic video footage, shot by Nancy during 1998, of killer whales working as a cooperative group with specific roles to pursue and attack a gray whale calf. For two months each spring season the researchers and filmmakers went out daily, working under permits on the 55' Pt Sur Clipper with a towed 22' inflatable. In addition, during 2000 the effort expanded to cover January through October, documenting seasonal patterns of animals in the Bay. As a National Geographic funded scientist during that period, Nancy received research grant money for this effort from both National Geographic Science Grants and National Geographic Television. This covered some of the research expenses of the project.

This intense effort produced critical information about the transient killer whales. Nancy and Richard presented two talks on their work at the Fourth International Orca Symposium in France during September 2002, in addition to giving research presentations at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Biannual Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia in November 2001. An upcoming poster and video presentation will be given at the Defenders of Wildlife Carnivore Conference November 17-20 in Monterey. The Conference will also include a presentation by a NOAA toxicologist on the high levels of PCBs found in killer whales off Monterey compared to levels found in those in Alaska.

There are at least three ecotypes of killer whales found in the eastern North Pacific: transients, residents and off-shore. Each type is a distinct population that differs from the others genetically, behaviorally, and physically, and all three have been observed in Monterey. They have overlapping ranges but do not interact or travel together.

Transient killer whales

Killer whale attacking gray whale calf, photo by Nancy BlackTransients generally range farther, prey only on marine mammals, live in smaller groups, and have more pointed fins and saddle patches that differ from the resident type of killer whale. Transients are the true predators of the ocean, preying upon seals, seal lions, dolphins, porpoise, and large whales. A tremendous amount of skill, force, learning, and cooperation among their group is needed for transient killers to attack these marine mammals, which are often much larger than themselves.

Black and Ternullo have identified 123 different transient killer whales in Monterey Bay by their natural markings and have followed their social and predatory behavior for 15 years. They continue to work with other killer whale researchers in southern California including

  • the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NMFS/NOAA), which conducts long-range transect surveys for marine mammals from California to Washington,
  • the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington,
  • Cascadia Research in Olympia, Washington,
  • the National Marine Mammal Laboratory/Alaska Fisheries Science Center/NOAA in Seattle, WA, which conducts surveys throughout Alaska.

Photo-identification, biopsy samples and sightings

Killer whale darted for skin blubber sample, photo by Peggy Stap With funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)/ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Black and Ternullo worked with Alisa Schulman-Janiger of Los Angeles and Mercedes Guerrero of Mexico to publish a catalog of photo-identified killer whales for California and Mexico. They work with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory to collect small biopsy samples from the whales to analyze DNA for genetic histories and accumulations of toxic chemicals. Black and Ternullo also collect sighting information and opportunistic identification whale photos on the daily whale watching trips they conduct for Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

The biopsy samples collected by Black and co-researchers have revealed startling results: the real killers of Monterey Bay may not be the killer whales but the high amounts of toxins found in the blubber. This compelling research revealed that the transient whales traveling through and feeding in Monterey Bay contain the highest levels of PCBs known for any marine mammal worldwide. These persistent chemical compounds are still circulating through the ocean's food chain and as apex predators, the killer whales are key indicators of this problem.

Killer whales are found worldwide with a wider distribution than any other whale or dolphin species, and can be found from the tropics to the polar regions. Different populations specialize on fish or marine mammals. Scientists study these whales by first photo-identifying individual whales by nicks in their dorsal fins and marks in their saddle patches. Association patterns among the killer whales can be determined from repeated sightings of whale groups. Killer whales are long-lived animals with males reaching at least 50 years and females 80 years of age; therefore long-term studies are critical in determining population sizes, reproductive patterns, social structure and behavioral patterns. Scientists working in different regions compare photographs of killer whales in their studies and look for matches between areas, determining home ranges and movement patterns. This works particularly well in the eastern Pacific from Mexico to Alaska, and Nancy and Richard work with other scientists who study groups of killer whales in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California; Los Angeles, California; Puget Sound, Washington and inland waters of Vancouver Island, Canada; outer waters of British Columbia and Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada; Southeast Alaska, Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. Collaboration among scientists in these regions has produced valuable information that could not be gathered in any other way.

Resident killer whales

Resident Killer whale photo ID, photo by Nancy Black The most well-known killer whales are the salmon-eating residents of the Pacific Northwest. Researchers in Friday Harbor, Washington have studied them for over 25 years and found they live in family groups; even the males stay with their mothers for life. The three well-known pods called the southern residents are found around Washington State and Vancouver Island during the summer months, feeding primarily on Chinook salmon. Less is known about their winter movements and they appear to range farther during this period. During January of 2000, marine biologists Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo identified a group of these resident whales in Monterey Bay, California. This record is the longest distance documented for these particular whales. (See February 2000 feature.) The National Geographic filmmakers working with Black and Ternullo captured this rare event in their film. Astrid Van Ginniken of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor sorted through all the photos to identify individual whales. She found that K and L pods were present in this extraordinary sighting. The population of southern residents is in decline, which could be attributed to the high levels of toxic chemicals found in their blubber, possibly in combination with decreasing salmon numbers. Their travels to Monterey Bay could be attributed to their search for salmon.

Offshore killer whales

The third ecotype of killer whale studied by Black and Ternullo is the offshore type. These whales look different than residents and transients, probably prey on fish, squid, and sharks and have the longest range movements known for any type of killer whale worldwide, ranging over 3600 km. (2200 miles). Little is known about this population which has been sighted during winter months in Monterey Bay in groups of 100-200 whales spread out over several miles.

Ongoing Research

Nancy Black tracking Killer Whales, photo by Grace AtkinsBlack and Ternullo continue to follow the complex social lives, behavior, movements, genetics and toxic accumulations of chemicals in these nomadic predators. Their on-going and long-term study of these well-known whales and their calves is beginning to solve some of the mysteries of one of nature's most majestic mammals and reveal secrets that could threaten their survival. Updated reports of their work will be posted periodically on this website. Nancy is the lead biologist for Monterey Bay Whale Watch and Richard is the primary captain. You can join them on one of their whale watching trips, which run nearly year-round.

National Geographic EXPLORER presents Secret Killers of Monterey on MSNBC on Sunday, November 3, at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Pacific Time (8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Time). Repeat showing is Saturday, November 9, at 3 p.m. PT (6 p.m. ET). For programming information and updates for National Geographic EXPLORER, please see

Summary research reports of talks presented by Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo at Fourth International Orca Symposium in France during Sept 2002:
   Behavior and Ecology of Killer Whales in Monterey Bay, California
   Predation Behavior of Transient Killer Whales in Monterey Bay, California


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Last updated October 28, 2002