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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Killer Whale a Curious Specimen

April 06, 2001|PETE THOMAS

People have been watching whales all season, but in the last couple of weeks--a wild and spectacular couple of weeks-- the tide has turned.

Whales, killer whales in particular, have graced Southland shores once again, and they've been as curious about whale watchers as whale watchers have been about them.

They've swum up to boats, looked people in the eye. They've brought their children. They've breached free of the water, slapped it with their flukes and, in at least one instance, loitered in prop wash as if enjoying a Jacuzzi.

"They were the most boat-friendly killer whales that I can remember since 1998 with the L.A. pod," Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher with the American Cetacean Society, said of her encounter Sunday off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The killer whales she came across Sunday belong to the "offshore pod," a mysterious group of perhaps 300 orcas whose range extends at least from northern British Columbia to Orange County.

It should be pointed out that, like the L.A. pod, the offshore pod consists of orcas that are predominantly fish- and squid-eaters. They travel in groups of 25-75. They tend to disappear--perhaps traveling far offshore--for long periods of time and surface close to shore only occasionally.

They were last seen off Orange County in December 1999, off Los Angeles in March 1996.

They resurfaced locally two weeks ago, a mile off Newport Beach, sending wide-eyed whale gazers scrambling to locate them. Those aboard the Sum Fun found them off Dana Point. On March 28, at least 30 killer whales surfaced off San Clemente Island, spotted by fishermen, and last Saturday they were seen by passengers aboard a Catalina Express ferry boat, eight miles east of the island's isthmus.

On Sunday, they were back in coastal waters, foraging on fish and squid off the peninsula's Point Vicente. The Van Tuna pulled up alongside them first, followed by the Voyager, First String and a few private vessels.

Schulman-Janiger, aboard a 20-foot boat run by Eric Martin of El Segundo, arrived at 5 p.m. and found the killer whales in small groups spread out over a square mile or so, "just milling around and heading slowly in a west-northwesterly direction," she said.

One lingered in bubbles caused by the boat's prop, while another "turned on her side and looked at us." Two cow-calf pairs were the most intriguing, stopping for a visit and refusing to leave.

"Every time we wanted to move to another group, they would cut us off," Schulman-Janiger said. "They'd lob-tail [slapping the water with their flukes] to get us to stop, and then they'd approach the boat. When we'd reach certain speeds the calves were playing and porpoising in our wake."

Schulman-Janiger, Martin and a passenger, Diane Hustad, eventually were able to ditch this group and move on to another, but dusk soon turned to darkness and the jamboree was over.

On Tuesday, about 25 killer whales were seen in the Goleta area, indicating a northbound exodus of the offshore-pod members.

Then on Tuesday, from her perch atop the bluff at Point Vicente, a volunteer for the ACS gray whale census project spotted seven more killer whales. They appeared to be transients from the pod of the same name. Transients are mammal eaters, notorious ambushers of migrating gray whales and fond of other cetaceans as well as pinnipeds.

Joan Venette, a Torrance volunteer, was watching through her binoculars while a humpback whale was lunge-feeding on the surface when she saw orca dorsal fins.

There were seven, swimming swiftly toward shore. There also were dozens of common dolphins, which, when caught in the orcas' path, sped off in opposite directions.

"Their behavior changed from just milling around to what we call fleeing behavior," Schulman-Janiger said. "They were traveling at very high speeds in opposite directions, leaping high out of the water and using all of their muscle [to get out of the killer whales' path]."

Killer whales aren't the only cetaceans making a splash. A day earlier, Venette watched in awe as two humpback whales breached simultaneously 18 consecutive times.

Schulman-Janiger laughed, but was adamant about the accuracy of the reports when a reporter joked that Venette, having put in 18 years and 11,000 hours at the cliffside vantage point, might have spent too much time in the sun.

*

Anyone with quality photographs of the killer whales, particularly side views of their dorsal fins, is asked to contact Schulman-Janiger at (310) 519-8963, or at janiger@bcf.usc.edu.

She and other researchers, trying to learn more about the movements of the various pods, are involved in an ongoing photo-identification project.

*

Tony Nichols, 41, of Costa Mesa, a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the ACS, made eight trips aboard Orange County vessels in a six-day period in March and recorded nine species of cetaceans.

"It was like a museum out there," he said.

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