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Tracking Local Killers--for Sake of Research

Rare Sighting by 2 Skippers Gives a Marine Biologist Hope of Finding the Elusive L.A. Pod She Has Followed for the Past 15 Years

January 04, 1999|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say you have tracked her forever, and 15 months ago, you see her on the TV news, this petite 18-foot killer whale. She is ripping apart a great white shark and swimming away with its liver in her mouth, like a sort of Hannibal Lecter by the sea, off the Farallon Islands near San Francisco.

If you're marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger, 43, you hop up and down, and then you get a VCR tape rolling, and then you call your friends to brag about the shark-killing whale. She's so cool, she's so buff! This killer whale, the one Schulman-Janiger knows better than anyone, is probably still in California waters with her L.A. pod, a tight group that sometimes hangs out at the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Now. Picture the first afternoon of the '98-99 whale-watching season, the day after Christmas. Schulman-Janiger was at home in San Pedro when a friend called. Turn on your scanner, you should hear this.

Two skippers: "Look at that big boy! . . . Look at him go! . . . They're gonna race to Alaska!"

Ten killer whales, spotted by a whale-watch boat a few miles off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Could it be? Did the L.A. pod come home?

Schulman-Janiger had not seen the L.A. pod in Palos Verdes since, oh, Feb. 13, 1988; other spotters last saw the killer whales in March 1990. Every season, she wondered how the pod was, especially her favorite, a perky male with a high-pitched whistle--he's best friends with the shark-killing whale, and snuggles up to boats and sea lions.

It wasn't just that Schulman-Janiger missed her buddies. Every sighting tells her something about the species and migration patterns, and adds to her killer research, which is known throughout the country. How far the pods travel. Why the whales are on the move--maybe the salmon run is down somewhere, or they're moving with the squid. Or maybe they are gulping so many mackerel that the scar on one orca's fin could be a bullet wound courtesy of a fisherman.

"It gives us a hint," she says, "of what's going in in the ecosystem."

Schulman-Janiger pursues the killer whales as an unpaid volunteer, when she's not teaching marine science at the San Pedro High School Marine Science Magnet. How human the orcas are! They're smart, with quirky personalities and long-term relationships. In the ocean, she can watch two of the whales she knows, gal pals, who have surfaced and swum together the same way for decades.

But first they must come.

An Absence of Gray Whales

This season began with news service reports so discouraging that tourists were asking if the whale-watching boats would be going out at all.

According to the early reports, 24,000 gray whales were missing--by mid-December, not one had been spotted along the Oregon coast on their annual migration from Alaska to the warm waters of Mexico. The whales had never been this late before.

Schulman-Janiger wondered how accurate the reports were. By Christmas, spotters for the American Cetacean Society's Los Angeles chapter had counted more than 60 gray whales, on track with last year's numbers. (She directs the group's annual gray whale census at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Palos Verdes and studies killer whales on the side.)

Census volunteers also watch to see who else comes along for the cruise--maybe the huge, mottled blue whales or the sperm whales that look like they're doing headstands in the water. But a killer-whale sighting beats all. Local whale-watch skippers and cliff-top observers never count on seeing orcas within a few miles of shore. The orcas turn up irregularly, sometimes dozens in a season, sometimes none.

Now this. Two breathless skippers on a scanner, and Schulman-Janiger was sitting at home.

Oh, how could she have missed this sighting! That morning, on a boat, Schulman-Janiger had spotted a bunch of gray whales and dolphins but no killer whales, her passion for 15 years.

She knows the L.A. pod as if they were old friends. She knows that the TV reporters in San Francisco got it wrong initially when they said that a momma killer whale had sliced open the great white shark as food for her baby. She knows that this killer whale, with its unmistakable markings, is a shark killer period and probably has never been a mother. (It's not unusual for a killer whale to eat a shark, but for the first time, a naturalist had caught it on video.)

On that hazy afternoon, Schulman-Janiger jiggled her scanner, but the batteries were low. She couldn't radio the skippers or hear the names of their boats. About 4:30 p.m., she jumped in her Ford Escort and raced a mile to the coast with her husband, David Janiger, a marine scientist.

Could they spot the whales from shore? Probably not. Best bet was to find the boats and buttonhole the passengers. Maybe someone with a telephoto lens caught close-up features of the whales--one old guy in the L.A. pod, for instance, is missing the top foot of his dorsal fin. Please, please, not just blurry 'I saw Shamu frolicking in the ocean' shots.

Seeking Identify of Big Visitors

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