Video showing an endangered killer whale pod in Monterey Bay — a place where they haven’t been seen in years — is making waves.
The last time those killer whales were spotted in Monterey Bay was 2011, according to Nancy Black, marine biologist and owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch. A Facebook post on the organization’s page called it a “very rare sighting!”
The orcas are part of “L pod,” a group of killer whales that typically resides in the Pacific Northwest and feeds in the Puget Sound area near Washington state and Vancouver, Canada. The first time they were spotted in the Monterey Bay area was in 2000, Black said.
Typically, the killer whales that come to Monterey Bay are known as transient killer whales, meaning they feast on marine mammals.
L pod — and two other pods, known as J pod and K pod — make up the Southern Resident killer whales, a group of orcas that eat primarily salmon.
“That was a big alarm,” Black said. “We normally see the transient type of killer whales; they don’t overlap (with Southern Resident orcas), but they’re in the same waters.”
A fight for food
Black said the orcas have been having a difficult time finding enough to eat.
“Unfortunately, they’re literally starving to death,” Black said. “A lot of the killer whales are skinny-looking, and several young ones have died.”
L pod coming this far south is “good and bad news,” Black said.
“They’re here, so they have to come so far to find fish, but hopefully, they’re getting some fish to feed on,” Black said. “We have indication that there is salmon around, so they seem to be in the right spot.”
Some more good news: Black and her organization sent photos of the spotting to Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research, who confirmed from the pictures that a calf born in December was still alive.
“That was big news for everybody,” Black said. “Everybody’s hoping the little ones will make it.”
A ‘Lucky’ calf
The calf, L124, has been nicknamed Lucky, and is currently the only living Southern Resident killer whale calf of all three pods in the group. Black said the calf appeared healthy.
Black said other babies born to Southern Resident killer whales in recent years have all died.
Last summer, J35, an orca in the J pod, gained international attention after she carried her dead calf for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles.
Whales on the move
If you’re hoping to catch sight of the rare killer whales in Monterey Bay, be warned: the orcas haven’t been seen in the area since Sunday, Black said.
“The salmon are moving, and the killer whales are moving with them,” Black said.
Black added that they were able to identify the orcas as belonging to the L pod of Southern Residents because of the distinct markings on their saddle patch and dorsal fins.
One of the whales, known as Ocean Sun, is about 90 years old and exhibited “spyhopping” behavior, which means she popped her head out of the water to look around, Black said.
Incidentally, Ocean Sun is the mother of Lolita, a captive killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium, Black said. Activists have been fighting for Lolita’s release for more than two decades, according to the Miami Herald.
There are 35 whales in L pod, and Black said it seemed like the whole pod was present, though she couldn’t confirm all 35 were there.
Southern Resident orcas are “more bubbly and active than the transient type of killer whales; there’s more spy hopping, more breaches,” Black said. “They’re very smart and curious.”