Experts stunned by Southern California’s new killer whales

In mid-December, whale-watching tour operators in Long Beach and Newport Beach flooded social media with footage of a pod of Eastern Tropical Pacific orcas that migrated up the coast from Mexico and were spotted in the waters off Orange County and Los Angeles County.

Experts assumed the rare visit would be short since no killer whales are known to live permanently in Southern California. Four weeks later, however, they are still being spotted almost daily and appear to be thriving here.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going on,” Sarah Lesser, the Whale Watch naturalist coordinator at Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, told KTLA on Tuesday. “They are here feeding. Why they have decided to come up here to feed is the bigger question and more research is needed.”

Orca vs. Dolphin
A killer whale chases a dolphin off Laguna Beach, California on Dec. 24, 2023. (Newport Coastal Adventures)

Drone footage recorded Wednesday by Mauricio Tassara (IG: @empty_drone) shows two adult orcas and two calves in the waters off Dana Point. The pod of ten is feasting on dolphins and gray whales, sometimes right in front of tourists.

It’s not for the squeamish.

Some tours have witnessed the majestic mammals catching and consuming their fresh kill in a scene quite different than the Shamu show at SeaWorld.

On several occasions over the past month, the killer whales have been spotted by whale-watching tours in San Diego and were assumed to be headed home to Mexico, only to swim back north again.

“They’re basically going where the food is. Whether they’ve just become wise to the fact that we have a lot of their food here all of a sudden might be a reason we’re seeing them,” said Lesser.

While they are often called “killer whales,” orcas are not whales but rather the largest member of the dolphin family. The Eastern Tropical Pacific, or ETP, orcas’ choice of prey, being fellow dolphins and whales, Lesser says, makes them unique from other ecotypes sometimes spotted along SoCal’s coast.

“One of the ways we differentiate killer whales is by what they eat. Orcas we typically see in our waters are transient orcas, or Bigg’s orcas, that feed mainly on seals or sea lions. There’s another type, Resident orcas, that are found in the Pacific Northwest and are mainly fish eaters. Another ecotype, Offshore orcas, eat rays and sharks.”

ETPs were last seen in California in 2021 and, before that, in 2018, Lesser says.

No one knows how long this unprecedented visit will last. For now, marine biologists and tour guides are simply enjoying their presence.

“If you can get on a boat, I highly recommend it. These are amazing creatures to see in person in their natural habitat. They’re beautiful and powerful animals,” said Lesser.

For tours: Harbor Breeze (Long Beach), Newport Landing (Newport Beach)

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