The Orca Hunt: A mysterious pod of killer whales feeds off the PV Coast 

An orca, called Luna, hunts a dolphin off Point Vicente in Palos Verdes. Photo by Patricia VanOver Indictor. (#patriciavanoverindictor)

by Mark McDermott 

The word spread frantically among whale watchers on the afternoon of January 2. The orcas were back. 

A pod of 10 orcas had first appeared off the Palos Verdes coast on December 11. They were not usual visitors. The pod, which included two mothers who appeared to be leading the group, and two babies young enough to still be learning how to hunt, were what is known among biologists as Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas. These whales are typically found in waters off Mexico and Central America, although this particular pod has been observed sporadically off the California coast over the last decade. 

But not like this. Off PV alone, the ETP pod had been spotted a half dozen times in less than a month. Further south, whale watchers had already witnessed the rare spectacle of orcas training their young to hunt dolphins. It was also suspected that a critically injured 52 ft. fin whale that had washed up in San Diego with large bite marks had encountered the pod, a particularly unusual occurrence. Orcas do not usually attack such large whales. 

Two whale watching boats sped north from Long Beach. Marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who heads both the Gray Whale Census Project at Point Vicente and is a co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, a non-profit dedicated to the study of these apex predators of the ocean, raced to the coast. She was too late to get out on a boat, but her extended team included several drone operators who’d responded when sent out “an orca alert.” One of those, Gavriel Berghouse, was the first to get an up close look at what the orca pod was up to. His drone showed that not only were the orcas near a gray whale, but that the gray was accompanied by a newborn calf. 


Top Notch, one of the matriarchs of the Eastern Tropic Pacific orca pod, hunts a dolphin. Photo by Patricia VanOver Indictor. For more of her photos, see #patriciavanoverindictor)

“The calf was no more than a day or two old,” said Schulman-Janiger. “Its flukes were still a bit floppy, and it still had very deep fetal folds from being in the mom. Very fragile, very weak….That was our first baby of the season. We didn’t even know the mom had a baby.” 

Very little is known about the ETP orcas. As Schulman-Janiger noted, an NOAA Fisheries study in 2008 identified 187 ETP orcas. 

“There’s more than that now, but most have only been documented once,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They’re not well studied. They don’t necessarily have a specific diet. They seem more generalists. Different families might prefer different food, and we’ve seen multiple matrilines [matrilineal families], multiple groups, come into California starting in 2002. In general, when we see them in California, they’re definitely mammal specialists. But they’re more than that — they seem to be dolphin specialists. They passed up sea lions, including on January 2 off my area at Point Vicente…From 2002 until this year, the only thing we’ve ever documented them eating was common dolphin and, very rarely, bottlenose dolphin.” 

That was about to change. 

In the footage captured by Berghouse’s drone, five orcas dart around the mother gray whale, which is roughly 50 feet long. The calf, maybe 13 feet long, keeps trying to climb atop its mother. At one point, you can see the flash of an orca’s teeth. 

The calf keeps slipping, and eventually disappears into the water. 


A family of ETP orcas swims together off the coast of Palos Verdes. Photo by Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Orca history 

Though they have only been known as “killer whales” since 1841, the species name, Orcinus orca, has an etymology that goes back thousands of years and has always been inextricably linked with death. “Orcinus” translates from Latin to “belonging to Orcus,” who in ancient Roman mythology was the god of the underworld. So the translation likewise can be read as “from the kingdom of the dead.” Orca has a few derivations, one being Old English “orc,” meaning ogre, or devouring monster. In Latin, orca simply means “in the shape of a barrel or cask,” which would describe the shape of an orca whale. 

For most of recorded human history, this naming reflected the utter terror with which we regarded orcas. The oldest surviving description of the orca was by Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, scholar, and military commander who lived in the first century A.D. “A killer whale cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth,” Pliny wrote, detailing how orcas hunted other whales and would “bite and mangle the females and their calves … and charge and pierce them like warships ramming.”

Nearly 1800 years later, Captain Charles Scammon, famed  as a whaler and a naturalist (Scammon’s Bay in Baja, Mexico, the safe waters where hundreds of gray whales raise their young each winter, is named after him), likened orcas attacks upon other whales to “a pack of hounds” attacking a deer. “They cluster about the animal’s head, some of their number breaching over it, while others seize it by the lips and haul the bleeding monster underwater,” he wrote. Oddly, for a man who was himself a hunter of whales, Scammon seemed almost offended by orcas. “In whatever quarter of the world Killer Whales are found, they seem always intent upon seeking something to destroy or devour,” Scammon wrote. 

Interestingly, the people who spent the most time among orcas, Native Americans, took an almost opposite view. The Thaua people of Australia hunted cooperatively with orcas on the southern coast of New South Wales. Killer whales, according to historic accounts, herded larger whales into the shallower waters where human hunters would spear them, and give the orcas what was apparently a delicacy, whale tongues, for their help.  The tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska placed orcas at the center of their own mythologies. Orcas, known as “the lords of the ocean,” were admired for their strength, intelligence, and skill as hunters and voyagers. Among the Haida and Tlingit, the orca was believed to help those in need. In an ultimate sign of respect, entire clans were named after killer whales. 

In the industrialized world, Orcas remained more shrouded in mystery than most other whales because they were not large enough to be targeted by the whaling industry and thus were less directly encountered. Gray whales average 40 to 50 ft. in length and weigh between 30 and 40 tons, for example, while blue whales are 80 to 90 ft. long and weigh up to 200 tons. Orcas range from 23 to 32 ft. and weigh 4 to 8 tons, and because of this relative lack of blubber, it wasn’t until partway through the last century —  when the numbers of larger whales were declining due to whaling —  that Russian and Japanese whalers began targeting Orcas. 

What seemed to particularly horrify those who observed orcas over the centuries was their manner of killing, which we now understand is remarkable beyond its toothful gore —  orcas are among a handful of species who hunt cooperatively, and who pass along their knowledge of often intricate hunting methods to their young. 

Orcas, in other words, have culture. Schulman-Janiger, who has been observing orcas for almost 40 years up and down the California coast, recalled watching one mother, named Aurora, work with her daughter on her hunting methods. 

“They’re passing on their knowledge, their techniques of hunting,” she said. “There is something seriously purposeful going on. I think, for example, of Aurora. She has two little kids, a son and a daughter. She was hitting seabirds, using her flukes to try to stun them. Her kids imitated her exactly, slapping the water with their flukes —  techniques they would need later to use on seals and sea lions.  She’s showing them all the things you need to do to be an orca, just like we do with our children, and a lot of mammals do —  chimpanzees, apes, elephants, they pass on culture. It’s extremely complex, and some of these behaviors take years to learn how to do.” 

Somewhat ironically, human’s perceptions of orcas changed in a large part due to something that didn’t start occurring until the 1960s, when orcas were captured and held in captivity for a viewing public. 

One of the first marine parks to attempt to capture orcas was Marineland, in Palos Verdes. Its first two attempts were unsuccessful. In 1961, Marineland’s head collector, Frank Brocato, and his assistant, Boots Calandrino, captured a lone male near Newport Harbor, but the orca died after battering its head against its small tank after only a single day in captivity. The following year, the pair from Marineland led an expedition that attempted to  capture a male and a female orca in British Columbia. According to an account in the book Orca: The Whale Called Killer, by Erich Hoyt, the mission went terribly awry. Brocato was able to lasso a female, but the orca took the rope and dove under the vessel, tangling the line around its propeller and then running its remaining 250 ft. length away from the boat.  

“Then Brocato heard screaming — high-pitched piercing cries — coming from the female,” Hoyt wrote. “On reflection, Brocato realized that it was probably a distress call because the big male appeared out of the mist a few minutes later, and together, the two animals started swimming at great speed toward the boat. They charged several times, turning away only at the last instant but thumping the boat with a sound thwack of the flukes as they passed.” 

A terrified Brocato began firing on the orcas with a 375 Magnum rifle, Hoyt wrote, taking a single shot to kill the male and 10 to kill the female. Not until the end of the decade would Marineland successfully land, and exhibit, killer whales. Orky and Corky resided at Marineland from the late ‘60s until the park’s closure in 1987, when they were controversially transferred to SeaWorld in San Diego, and became among the most famous captive orcas in the world. 

Captivity, in addition to introducing humans to orcas in a less threatening way than had been previously possible —  thus allowing us to see their playfulness, intelligence, and beauty —  also allowed them to be studied more closely, albeit in an unnatural environment. As Hoyt notes in his book, orcas in captivity have been found to consume at least 3 percent of their body weight in fish each day, and sometimes as much as 5 percent. A male named Namu at the Seattle Public Aquarium ate 375 pounds of fish daily. 

But captivity for orcas is also torturous. These are intensely social animals who in the wild have lifelong familial ties, eating, sleeping, playing, and traveling the world together in clans that often include three or even four generations, with grandmothers who continue to help raise the young. They are also among the most athletic beings on the planet, with their array of jumps, spins, and spyhops. Studies of orcas in captivity found that most engage in self-harming behaviors, such as grinding their teeth down to nubs. 

“Every place that I have seen orcas in captivity around the world, and every single orca that I have seen in captivity shows some signs of self mutilation,” said Ingrid Vesser, a renowned marine biologist, in a TedTalk last year. “And it’s not just the teeth, it’s also the collapsed dorsal fins that you see on 100% of the adult male orcas in captivity, wherever you go in the world. And also other injuries that are attributed to other orcas and to the tank structures themselves —  they’re so prevalent that the captivity industry now calls these sorts of injuries normal.” 

The practice of holding orcas captive is slowly disappearing. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, only 58 orcas are currently held in captivity, 34 who were born in captivity. Since 1961, 166 orcas have been taken into captivity, 33 of whom are still alive. 

If you want to see an orca truly being an orca, you need to go into the wild. The dorsal fins that cruised through the water off Palos Verdes in January were not drooping. This family of orcas was ranging as much as a hundred miles a day, but now they were moving swiftly, together, in small circles, around the gray whale mother, inexorably towards her calf. 


An orca named Baja Nicki surfaces, much to the delight of Roundhouse Aquarium biologist Eric Martin. Also in the boat are Michelle Koran, Tony Warfield, Bill Denney, and Grenda Denney. Photo by Alisa Schulman-Janiger

The kill 

When the newborn gray whale slipped off its mother’s back and dove below the surface of the water, the mother followed. 

“There were numerous bubbles at the surface,” wrote Berghouse, the photographer who filmed the encounter, on social media. “The only gray to emerge later was the mom.” 

Berghouse was the only one who captured the entire kill, but three other drone operators also documented what occurred afterwards. Schulman-Janiger was on-shore so did not see the predation close up, but did see all the footage. She said some “milky poop” surfaced on the water, because the calf had been nursing. But the calf itself was never seen again. 

Eric Martin, a biologist who is the aquarist director at the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach, also had a drone up, though he arrived just after the kill. He also saw the other footage, and said it looked like a few of the orcas took the baby down and drowned it while others continued to fend off the mother. 

“The orcas were not physically going after the female, the mom, to attack and eat her,” he said. “But they were harassing the heck out of her.” 

“They were biting her flippers and biting her flukes because she didn’t want to go,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They drowned the calf fairly quickly. The mom did not want to leave. Her fins were bleeding, her pectoral flippers were bleeding. Two killer whales were focused on biting her, basically trying to get her to go, while the other ones kept diving under the whale watch boat. Most likely the calf’s carcass was somewhere under the boat…The mother stayed right there for quite a long time.” 

The mother stayed in the area even after the orcas left. She may have simply been exhausted from her injuries and the trauma she’d just experienced.  She was in the midst of a roughly 7,000 mile journey from her feeding grounds in Alaska to nursing grounds in Baja, Mexico. Most gray whales give birth in lagoons off the Baja Coast, where they are safe from predation. In the spring, the mothers head back north with their calves in tow. Only occasionally does a birth occur in the midst of this epic migration. 

Schulman-Janiger, as the co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project and director of the American Cetacean Society’s Los Angeles chapter’s Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, was both thrilled and slightly dismayed at what she’d witnessed. All of it —  the predation, the new pod of orcas, all the activity over the course of three weeks —  represented something extremely rare. And the fact that this largely unknown Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) pod of orcas was making itself so observable over such an extended period of time was an incredible scientific opportunity. Several weeks later, she had barely begun organizing all the data she’d collected. 

“Absolutely unprecedented, not only to have the ETPs stick around as long as they did …the previous record, they were here 10 days, and were seen six or seven of those days. And this was the same group of killer whales, minus the babies that were not born yet, back in September 2018,” she said. “It was all over the news, these eight killer whales, including a male, that were attacking common dolphins up and down the coast. They also killed a few bottlenose dolphins. And this time, it’s the same exact killer whales plus a couple of new babies, minus the male. We don’t know if he’s gone or if he just didn’t come up with them.” 

As a biologist, Schulman-Janiger doesn’t sentimentalize the predation she witnessed with the baby gray whale. But she also knows the larger context. In her work with the Gray Whale Census Project, she’s seen a huge decline in counts over the last eight years, and even from last year to this year. By mid-January last year, the census had spotted 125 gray whales heading south, compared to only 70 so far this year. This represents a 40-year low, and part of a devastating larger trend —  NOAA estimated last year that the overall population of migrating gray whales was down to 14,550, compared to a high of 27,000 in 2016. 

“They’re gone,” Schulman-Janiger said. “There’s been evidence, strandings, skinny whales, not many calves born —  all the signs for a massive mortality event. They’ve lost about 50 percent of their population.” 

And so watching the loss of the gray whale calf on January 2 may have been thrilling, from an orca behavioral study standpoint, it was tough, from a gray whale census perspective. 

“It was,” she said, “kind of a slap in the face.” 

But the killing of the calf, along with hundreds of hours of other observations obtained in the last month, was also a window into the unique dynamics of this ETP orca family. 

As the photographer, Berghouse said, “Nature as it happens.” 

A baby gray whale tries to evade the pod of ETP killer whales by crawling atop its mothers back in what eventually was a predation off the Palos Verdes coast on January 2. Photo by Bavriel Berghouse

The baby gray whale loses its perch on its mother.


As the baby gray whale goes under, the orcas hold its mother back.

Martin, from the Roundhouse Aquarium, has worked closely with Schulman-Janiger for decades. Together, they’ve spent thousands of hours among a different group of orcas, the so-called CA-51 transient pod that travels to California mostly from the north. They’ve seen multiple generations of those whales —  mother’s giving birth to daughters, then daughters growing up to lead pods of their own. 

“The kids stay with their mom, kind of like the elephant,” Schulman-Janiger said. “Even though the males are bigger and more powerful, the moms rule the roost. The mothers are the queens and the kids basically follow her.”

The complexity of their social interactions is striking. 

“There are so many parallels between us and them,” Schulman-Janiger said, in a past interview regarding the CA-51 group of orcas. “They can start having kids as early as 10 or 11 but usually they don’t have them until about 15, and then they have them into their late 40s. Their lives are so similar to ours…The females go through menopause yet continue to take care of the family. They’re the wise givers of knowledge. Daughters stay with their moms, generally, while they have their first kid [and] by the time she has her second kid, she’s head of her own unit.” 

“The kid rubbing against the mother and making noises, happy squeals of delight – they really feel, when you get to know them, like people. They’re people of the seas. They have super rich lives, and for us to get to share in that, for them to draw us into that, is such a pleasure and a treat and a gift.”

But Martin said he’s never seen any whales quite like this ETP pod. 

“These ETPs, they’re the one of the most boat-friendly groups I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Just after they eat, they love to go right off a boat and get the reaction out of people. They bow-ride and jump. They look like they are going to jump directly into your boat, which they don’t, but they are very inquisitive about people. They know exactly what they are doing with a boat. They know where the propellers are. Every family of orcas —  I am not going to say every culture, but every culture is different, too —  but every family group is also different. But it’s crazy with these guys.” 


One of the Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas approaches a boat of curious onlookers. Photo by Eric Martin

Orca culture 

 An ocean and a continent away, about 6,000 miles from the Palos Verdes peninsula, another mysterious, small subgroup of orcas has been creating a startling spectacle off another peninsula. Like the Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas, this family of killer whales has been observed working cooperatively towards a single objective. But these orcas have a different target than baby gray whales. They’ve been sinking boats. 

Over the past few years, off the Iberian Peninsula, a group of 15 orcas, including four adults and 11 juveniles, has sunk five boats and harassed over 500 others in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Last May they took down a 51 foot Swiss sailing yacht called the Champagne, using what appeared to be a strategy they’d been perfecting in their many encounters with other boats: the largest of the orcas rammed the yacht from the side while two smaller ones battered the vessel’s rudder until it fell apart. The Champagne began taking on water and sank. Its crew was rescued, but the yacht’s skipper was unequivocal in believing that they’d been hunted down purposefully.

“At first I thought we had hit something. But then I quickly realized that it was orcas attacking the ship,” skipper Werner Schaufelberger told the German publication Yacht. “The attacks were brutal…The two little ones shook the rudder while the big one kept running and then rammed the ship from the side with full force.”

Another skipper, Dan Kriz, has captained two different vessels that were attacked by the same whales, first in 2020, then in 2023. He told Newsweek that they’d refined their methodology.

“First time, we could hear them communicating under the boat,” Kriz said. “This time, they were quiet, and it didn’t take them that long to destroy both rudders…Looks like they knew exactly what they are doing. They didn’t touch anything else.”

The orcas, in other words, had learned, and had shared their new knowledge with each other. News accounts have routinely described the orcas as “attacking” the boats. It has frequently been reported that they are doing so at the behest of their matriarch, Gladis Blanca, or White Gladis (gladis refers to gladiator). The speculation is that she had a traumatic experience with a boat and is now waging war. “Is the Orca Uprising Upon Us?” was the title of one YouTube video about the phenomenon.

Scientists urge against such speculation. An open letter signed by 15 prominent marine biologists from around the world sought to dispel the notion that these were attacks. They noted that each population of orcas has its own culture, and different learned behaviors come and go within orca cultures. In 1987 an orca group in the Pacific Northwest took to wearing dead salmon atop their heads, something which came and went. 

“Orcas elsewhere have been known to develop cultural ‘fads’ (novel behavior that briefly persists and expands within a population — an analogy might be fashion trends in people), such as carrying dead fish on their heads,” the scientists wrote. “While these vessel interactions may be a similar phenomenon, they are persisting longer than typical fad behavior, expanding within the population and escalating in impact. Nevertheless, it is possible the behavior, as previous fads have, will disappear as suddenly as it appeared.”

“The orca is an intelligent, socially complex species, and each population has its own culture — different vocalizations (known as dialects), prey preferences, hunting techniques, even different social structures and migratory behaviors…Science cannot yet explain why the Iberian orcas are doing this, although we repeat that it is more likely related to play/socializing than aggression. However, it is unfounded and potentially harmful to the animals to claim it is for revenge for past wrongs or to promote some other melodramatic storyline.”

Schulman-Janiger likewise believes the Iberian orcas – a subgroup of only 39 animals who are considered critically endangered – are simply playing.

“It sounds like a play behavior that started with juveniles focused on the rudders,” she said. “There isn’t any attack component to it…Researchers are basically in agreement that it’s a play behavior gone in a way that is a big interaction with people. And now people are considering carrying guns and actually shooting them. That’s not a good thing.”

Killer whales are classified as part of the dolphin family under the larger order of marine mammals known as cetaceans. Like dolphins, orcas are known for their high play drive, their intense sociability, and the complexity of their social hierarchies. Within the species, there are believed to be at least 10 “ecotypes,” and likely more. ETPs, for example, have thus far been so little studied that they remain a proposed ecotype among scientists. All the data collected in recent months will help biologists better understand the ETPs.

“Basically, off of California, we have three different kinds of killer whales that belong to an official ecotype, which is just this side of a subspecies,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They have separate genetics, they have distinctive and separate vocalizations, feeding habits, and appearance. They look different, they don’t interact with each other, and they don’t interbreed. They have different cultures. They are not separate species yet, but we believe that they are going to be eventually…And now, off California, we also have the ETPs.”

Prior to the arrival of the ETPs, nearly all orca sightings in Southern California were of an ecotype known as Bigg’s killer whales. They are a transient group that range up to British Columbia and possibly as far south as Mexico. There are about 400 of them, including the CA51 pod that Schulman-Janiger has studied closely.

“Those are the ones I know – the different families, their kids, their personalities,” she said. “Bigg’s are the mammal eaters and travel in small groups and focus on seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and whales.”

A second ecotype that can sometimes be seen in Northern California are the so-called “southern resident” killer whales, a small population who tend to stay close to the Pacific Northwest, but occasionally range as far south as Monterey and north to Alaska.

“They travel in big groups, and they’re very chatty, like the opposite of Bigg’s,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They focus on salmon, particularly Chinook salmon which is 85% of their diet. They hang out in the Pacific Northwest, but they can go northward. There are three different pods of them…and they could be in groups of 50 or more, but there’s only 75 of them in total.”

The third ecotype rarely but occasionally seen in California are the offshore killer whales, a population of between 300 and 360 orcas who range from Southern California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and travel in groups of 60 to 100.

“They’re smaller. They’re very chatty,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They focus on sharks primarily, and also large fish.”

Marine biologists based in Mexico have been proposing the ETPs as a new ecotype. Although relatively little is known about them, these orcas seem to be generalists – that is, they eat a large variety of prey, including sea lions, whales, sea birds, fish, and, perhaps most avidly, dolphins. Southern California’s robust population of common dolphins may be part of the reason they have begun ranging this far north.

“What we are seeing is two nursing moms with young kids, and it could be that this is a place of lots of dolphins and it’s easy for them to catch a dolphin here,” Schulman-Janiger said. “I think it’s easier perhaps than in Mexico where there might be different groups of killer whales regularly attacking dolphins. We don’t see Bigg’s killer whales down in Southern California all that often, so it could also be that these dolphins are more naïve because they are not used to being attacked and don’t react as quickly.”

When ETPs were first spotted locally, in 2018, they were only here for 10 days. They were observed on six of those days. This time, they first arrived on December 11 and have been seen as recently as early February. They’ve been sighted 20 different days.

Another possibility is that this voyage is essentially a training exercise for the youngest members of the family.

“It could be that they’ve had some success here and that they want to train their young ones,” Schulman-Janiger said. “You know, ‘This is how you do it. This is where to go.’ Just kind of showing them the ropes.”

Orcas are often compared to elephants for their immense intelligence, long lives, their matrilineal, multigenerational family groupings and passing on of knowledge. Schulman-Janiger said elephants are known to keep mental maps of places to go in case of hard times, feeding-wise. As such, this sojourn, for this family of orcas, may also be about memory.

“It’s like what an elephant does. She brings her herd to an area where there’s a watering hole in a drought,” she said. “A four-year-old female elephant has that experience of going to the special place they don’t visit except during droughts, and 50 years later, she’s leading her herd to the same watering hole because there’s a very bad drought. We believe killer whales pass on that knowledge of important foraging areas that they don’t go to very often, but where they will periodically go.”

The ETP orcas were observed, and filmed, hunting dolphins cooperatively near San Diego, appearing to use the opportunity to teach their young. The group has three adult females – Anna and Topnotch, who are both nursing calves. Each leads smaller family subgroups, and Luna, who goes back and forth between the two subgroups and does not appear to have any children. The pod had found a large group of common dolphins (who travel in groups ranging from 50 to 1,000). Their method is to knock the dolphins violently into the air, which sometimes immediately kills their prey, and sometimes stuns it. Luna and Topnotch were doing most of the attacking and had already killed four dolphins, but then seemed to shift gears – stunning or wounding the dolphins rather than quickly killing them.

“Then the adults appeared to back off and the juveniles came in,” Schulman-Janiger said. “The dolphin couldn’t really get away because it was wounded.”

Ten predations occurred during the episode. Common dolphins weigh up to 300 pounds each, meaning there was plenty of food that day for the entire family of ten ETP orcas.

One of the matriarchs of the ETP pod with her calf. Photo by Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Schulman-Janiger did not observe these predations firsthand, but on another day witnessed predations that were impressive but also slightly troubling insofar as they involved bottlenose dolphins, who are two to three times as large as common dolphins but whose population in California is believed to only number about 600.

“I saw, right next to us, a great big bottlenose dolphin,” she said. “They were approaching our boat fairly quickly but not racing, and suddenly, there were killer whales. Two different killer whales hit two different dolphins into the air at the same time. It was a coordinated attack. We didn’t even know — we were watching one of them, and someone from another boat happened to use a cell phone and got a video and you could see two different dolphins were hit at the same instance. One was knocked way in the air and had a hole in its side and its intestines were coming out…The other one, I don’t think they killed, but when they hit, all the others took off at a high speed.”

The bottlenose dolphins have taken to hiding in kelp beds, but multiple predations have occurred regardless. The ETPs are very intent. They’ve been observed on a few occasions cruising right by large gatherings of sea lions, because they are on the hunt for dolphins.

“It’s a complicated feeling,” Schulman-Janiger said. “Somebody said ‘Why didn’t you guys just interfere, stop them from killing bottlenose dolphins?’ Well, you can’t do that. Everybody’s got to eat, and they can’t really say the killer whale babies don’t deserve to be fed. But we do hope they leave the bottlenose dolphins alone.”  

This may be something more than just a hope. Eric Martin noted that one difference between orcas and humans is that killer whales seem to never exploit the natural resources of an area beyond its limits.

“Orcas, even though people think they are just killing machines, especially with how devastating they’ve been out there lately – they have to survive, but they don’t overkill,” Martin said. “I learned this from bottlenose dolphins, who have all this food all around for days and they don’t destroy it all. They go feeding on it a couple times and then move on. Orcas do the same thing. Even with the bottlenose dolphins, they’ll hit one or two and they’ll keep moving until they find another group. They don’t just keep attacking the same group like these murderous killers. They just know how to work their home. And that’s something humans have never figured out how to do.”

It’s safe to say that over these two months, more data has been obtained regarding Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas than ever before. This is both because they are so near a heavily populated coast and due to expanding technologies, particularly drone cameras.

“We have gotten to see so much,” Schulman-Janiger said. “We’ve figured out what the subgroups are, the likely relationships, and some different personalities, like Diego, a young male who often will separate from the group and come and check out the boats. There’s an incredible amount of information we’ve gotten, even on just what they are eating.”

But the visit of this unique and mysterious group of whales is about more than data. We tend to believe that we’ve figured out most of what there is to know about the world we live upon, yet the persistence of mystery is larger than our body of knowledge. Observing first hand a kind of killer whale who heretofore has been so rarely seen is a reminder of the wild vastness our planet yet contains. Even the biologists who spend nearly every day of their lives watching the ocean are awestruck.

“For me, they are the top predators in the whole food chain,” Martin said. “They can basically do anything that they want to do. Anything. I love the family structures. Each one of them has something to do in the family group. It’s a matriarchal society in which all the decisions are by the oldest. It could be the great grandmother, it could be the grandmother. Males are mama’s boys, and never really leave the group. Something has to happen that you are going to get a lonely male.”

If something bad does happen, the orca is likely to be taken in by another group, Martin said.

“The cool thing I’ve noticed about orcas is if something happens, an animal gets orphaned, I have never known of the baby not getting picked up by another member in the family or other members outside the family,” he said. “If the mom dies, and there is suddenly a solo male, it’ll go to another family group, and it’ll be totally accepted. How often does that happen in human societies?”

Lessons abound. Nobody knows why the Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas came to California, or why or when they will depart. A new area of study has emerged in recent years in which marine biologists are trying to learn how to communicate with orcas. But until then, biologists are left to learn what they can from these brief glimpses.

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