Orcas spotted attacking gray whales near Morro Rock

In a rare event for Central Coast waters, orcas go on a feeding frenzy

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 9, 2014 

If something interesting or unusual happens in Morro Bay, Mike Jones is usually there with his cameras to document the occasion.

But Jones, who owns the Azhiaziam surf and clothing store, had never seen anything like the wildlife show he witnessed Thursday.

“Someone came in and said, ‘There’s a bunch of killer whales feeding off a dead gray whale,’” Jones recalled.

After finding an available friend with a boat, they were soon out to sea, where roughly a mile from Morro Rock, Jones saw a pack of orcas and two whales — a mother and a calf.

The orcas appeared to be herding the baby away from the mother.

“It was a pretty sad story,” he said.

Jones quickly began shooting the scene, capturing breathtaking images of orcas breaking the surface and leaping into the air.

“They breached about five times,” he said.

Howard Garrett, founder and president of Orca Network, which collects information about killer whales from Whidbey Island, Wash., said he’d heard about the drama in Morro Bay.

“It was long and drawn out,” he said.

The orcas were on the attack over a period of seven hours, he said. “They play with their prey.”

It’s typical of orcas to get between a mother and its calf, he said. Sometimes, the orcas will even lie on a calf, pushing it under water while covering its blow hole.

“They’re very methodical about it,” Garrett said.

Kevin Winfield, a captain with Sub Sea Tours out of Morro Bay, had taken a group of whale watchers and photographers out earlier in the day. Then Dane Jacobs, another captain with Sub Sea Tours, took out a second group, who found the orcas still active.

“In between that time, they had actually killed the juvenile gray whale,” Jacobs said.

The show afforded anyone on a boat excellent opportunities to capture amazing photos. Jones, who had multiple big-wave surfing photos nominated at the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards this month, began posting photos on his business and Facebook page Thursday night.

While sightings in San Luis Obispo County are rare, Garrett said the orcas are seen in Monterey quite often.

Along the Pacific coast, there are generally two types of orcas, he added: mammal eaters, called transients — which the Morro Bay orcas were — and fish eaters, called residents.

Orcas have more difficulty detecting whales in shallow water, Garrett said, so whales might seek protection closer to shore.

“When they go in deep water, the orcas are lying in wait,” he said.

As the orcas were killing the calf, Jacobs said, he saw other whales were hiding out in shallow water.

Once the orcas kill a calf, Garrett said, the whale quickly begins to sink. “So they really can’t eat a lot of it.”

As a result, the orcas quickly eat what’s most available — usually tender parts of the whale, including the lips and tongue. As the Morro Bay attack continued, Jacobs said, he could see the bones in the 18-foot juvenile’s face as the orcas attempted to keep it afloat.

“They were continuously playing with the carcass,” Jacobs said.

The orcas did not kill the mother.

Friday morning, Jacobs said, there were reports of the orcas still around. But Jones, who went on another boat, said he didn’t see them.

Orcas cover a wide territory in a short time, Garrett said, so those orcas could be long gone.

“They may not be back for 10 years,” he said.

Since orca sightings are rare, those on the water Thursday were among the few lucky ones.

“It’s basically like watching ‘National Geographic’ in real time,” said Jacobs, who watched them for several hours. “It’s one of those memories you’ll keep the rest of your life.”

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