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In the Company of Killers : Orcas Give Whale Watchers, the Adventurous a Rare Thrill

February 14, 1996|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By now most of the thousands of gray whales that passed through Southland waters this winter are calving and cavorting in the warm-water lagoons of Baja California.

A few stragglers are still headed south, just as a few front-runners are probably leaving the lagoons early to begin their 6,000-mile journey back to their spring and summer home off Alaska.

In two weeks, they'll all be northbound and back off our coast in full force.

But one question in the minds of many is whether the other whales will be back: The killer whales that dazzled hundreds of whale-watchers and a couple of fun-loving (read foolhardy) skin divers earlier this winter.

The sleek and powerful cousins of the larger whales, more closely related to dolphins, have stolen the spotlight from the grays on several occasions, breezing in and out of Southland waters by the dozens, in some instances riding the wakes of the boats pursuing them and sneaking peeks of the passengers gawking at them.

"They've been a bonus, that's for sure," said Adam Barry, who skippers the Voyager out of Redondo Sportfishing.

Bonus?

The killer whales have added an element of intrigue to this year's whale-watch scene. Nobody knows if or when they will surface again. Nobody is absolutely sure where they come from and nobody has a clue where they are today.

Unlike the grays, they have played the role of the mysterious interloper, peaking the interest of scientists and spectators.

There are two distinct classifications for killer whale pods: resident and transient.

Resident pods are relatively small groups that rarely venture far from their respective regions, and they feed largely on fish and squid. Transient pods pass through specific areas from time to time and tend to prey upon other mammals, including gray whale calves and even full-grown whales.

Transient pods have made several "raids" locally over the years, and in some instances they have been quite dramatic.

In 1992, a group of schoolchildren, on a field trip aboard Santa Barbara-based Truth, watched in awe as an adult gray whale emerged just off the bow of the vessel.

They then watched in horror as a killer whale charged from the depths and sunk its teeth into the flesh of the larger mammal, not 30 feet away.

The crew aboard the nearby Condor had contacted the Truth earlier that afternoon, reporting a sighting of a small pod of killer whales moving swiftly across the water.

That same season passengers aboard the Truth witnessed another incident involving a transient pod of killer whales. The black and white mammals were tossing a small harbor seal across the water as if they were playing a game.

The frightened seal somehow managed to swim aboard the swim-step behind the stern of the vessel. But as the passengers leaned over, trying to figure a way to assist the animal, a killer whale bellied up onto the swim-step and grabbed the seal in its mouth and flung it again, splattering the passengers with water and blood.

David O. Brown of the Santa Barbara-based Passage Productions, who has traveled the world working on various projects, many as part of the Cousteau research and documentary team, filmed a pod of killer whales off New Guinea in 1988 that seemed to be toying with a group of large sharks.

"They'd show up with sharks sticking out of the sides of their mouths," Brown said. "I saw one literally tear up an 11-foot shark."

What's interesting about the pod of killer whales making a splash locally this season is that it doesn't appear to be resident or transient.

Experts believe this "super-pod," as it has been called because of its size--it consists of between 60 and 100 mammals--is associated with a mysterious "offshore" pod of whales that has been seen only 25 times since 1979--22 times off the west coast of Canada and three times off California.

The first California sighting was in 1994 off the Farallon Islands outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Scientists identified some of the same whales belonging to the offshore group using a photo-catalogue of animals with distinct markings on their dorsal fins.

Last year, a pod of between 40 and 80 killer whales showed off Southern California periodically during a three-week period. A few of the killer whales matched up with the offshore group as well.

And this winter's visitors seem to include some of the offshore group, and at least one killer whale from the pod that showed last season off Southern California too.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an official with the American Cetacean Society working on a project to learn more about the mysterious pod, matched some of the dorsal fins using pictures she received last weekend.

Schulman-Janiger said the pod, because of its size and feeding habits--it seems to have been gorging mostly on fish and an unusual abundance of squid in local waters--does not possess any of the characteristics of a transient pod.

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