It was an overcast day off the coast of Morro Bay when one group of whale watchers spotted a surprising sight: a group of about a half-dozen killer whales having a grisly feast.
The orcas were likely feeding on a gray whale calf, according to Kevin Winfield, owner of Morro Bay Whale Watching.
Winfield, who was captaining the tour boat, caught video of the killer whales Saturday in the waters south of Morro Bay, near Hazard Canyon in Montaña de Oro State Park.
Orcas tend to show up along the San Luis Obispo County coastline in the spring because they’re hunting gray whale calves, Winfield said.
Gray whales migrate north to the Arctic for the summer. Males and juveniles are often spotted earlier in the year, while mother and calf pairs are most often seen along the San Luis Obispo County coastline in April and May.
The type of orcas that generally show up on the Central Coast are known as transients, which means they feast on marine mammals.
“This is a typical time to see the transient killer whales that travel the coast,” Winfield said. “They ambush the mother and calf as they come around the point — here, it’s Point Buchon — and they gobble them up.”
Transient killer whales are different from the endangered pod of orcas spotted in Monterey Bay a few weeks ago. Those are Southern Resident orcas, and they typically feed on salmon and reside in the Pacific Northwest.
By the time Winfield’s group saw the killer whales, the animal they were eating was no longer visible, though Winfield said the whale watchers saw an orca swim by “with a chunk of meat hanging out of its mouth.”
“That’s how we knew,” Winfield said, noting that orcas eat the fatty parts of the gray whale first and once those are gone, the gray whale starts to sink into the water.
“We were at the stage where the whale was underwater. We never saw the whale, but they were hanging out at the same spot, breathing,” Winfield said. “We watched for about 25 minutes and they were orbiting around the area, going back and forth.”
The orca sighting was the second one in two weeks, according to Adam Ortiz, office manager at Morro Bay Whale Watching.
Killer whale sightings in the area are hit-or-miss, Winfield said. They’re not as consistent as gray whales, who are passing through right now on their northward migration, or humpback whales, who tend to stay in the Morro Bay area during the summer.
“It’s always exciting when you see orcas,” Ortiz said.