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Pete Thomas / ON THE OUTDOORS

Up-close education on killer whales

June 29, 2007|Pete Thomas

The dolphin didn't stand a chance once it had been separated from its pod.

The killer whales overwhelmed the smaller mammal. They hurled their massive bodies out of the water and splashed down on top of it, grabbing it with their teeth and tossing it through the air.

"They were playing with it just like a cat plays with a mouse," Tyler Elzig, captain of the fishing boat Sea Horse, said of what he witnessed Sunday. "It was the most intense thing I've seen in my entire life on the water."

Suddenly, Elzig added, it did not matter to passengers that only one albacore had been landed.

The Dana Wharf Sportfishing boat was alone near the 60-mile bank southwest of San Clemente Island when Elzig, peering through binoculars, spotted what he thought was a breeching whale.

It was five killer whales -- three females, a male and a calf. They had gleaned a common dolphin from a pod of hundreds, which could still be seen to the west.

The passengers watched in awe, and at least one videotaped the female orcas terrorizing the dolphin while the calf and adult male mostly watched.

"We were stopped dead in water and they were only 20 or 30 feet away, and the frightened dolphin swam toward us but then the killer whale knocked it 10 feet out of the water, jumped on it and took it under," Elzig said.

"Talk about a 'National Geographic' episode. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that, even on TV."

Certain types of killer whales prey almost exclusively on mammals.

A "transient" pod visits Monterey seasonally to ambush migrating gray whale cow-calf pairs, targeting the calves. Transient orcas also dine on seals and sea lions.

However, scientists in California have documented only sporadic cases of killer whales feeding on dolphins.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger and fellow researchers off Monterey once saw an orca surface with a bottlenose dolphin in its jaws.

Scientists have also logged attacks on a Pacific white-sided dolphin, a long-beaked common dolphin, a larger Risso's dolphin, and a Dall's porpoise.

The killer whales Elzig encountered -- most of his photos were not sharp and video was not made available -- are believed to be from a mysterious pod of Mexican orcas, whose behavior is similar to that of transients.

Schulman-Janiger said one of the females closely resembles a whale named ME 13, first documented beyond La Paz, Mexico, in 1987.

This Mexican pod has not been documented north of Newport Beach.

Female orcas can live 80 to 100 years in the wild, while male orcas rarely live past 40.

Although it may seem cruel for them to toy with a dolphin for torturously long periods, it is thought to be an educational experience for the benefit of calves.

Schulman-Janiger is involved in a long-term identification project and asks that boaters who photograph orcas e-mail copies to her at:

janiger@bcf.usc.edu.

Back to the fishing

The lone albacore caught aboard the Sea Horse was among the first landed inside U.S. waters, and Elzig's charter picked up 13 more on Tuesday, so a local longfin bite appears imminent.

Meanwhile, yellowtail are surfacing sporadically in voracious frenzies. Capt. Tino Valentine of the Phantom on Monday phoned in a count of 80 yellowtail weighing 20 to 40 pounds, for 10 anglers.

He told 976tuna.com it was "the best yellowtail bite I've ever seen in my life."

Valentine would not disclose his location, meaning he probably bypassed Santa Catalina Island in favor, perhaps, of Santa Barbara Island.

Also, the spearfishing community is congratulating Bill Ernst for his recent capture of a 93.1-pound white sea bass while free-diving near his Malibu home.

That eclipses the International Underwater Spearfishing Assn. record by 13 pounds. It also is nine pounds heavier than the all-tackle sportfishing record.

They're all worthy

Winners of the ESPYs will be announced July 15 and fans can vote through July 7, via www.espys.tv, on five nominees in the "Best Outdoors Athlete" category. They are:

* Bass-fishing pro Michael Iaconelli, who has seven top-10 finishes during the last year.

* Samantha Larson, 18, who recently became the youngest person to have climbed the highest summit on seven continents.

* Ian McKeever, who has climbed six of the seven summits since January and this week was closing in on his seventh.

* Lance Mackey, winner of this year's Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

* Dean Karnazes, who ran 50 marathons in 50 states from September to November 2006.

Trip planner

* Kids fishing: MacArthur Park Lake in the Westlake area of L.A. is loaded with catfish for a youth derby Saturday from 8 a.m.-noon. It's free for those 15 or younger. Equipment provided. Details: (213) 368-0520.

* Whale watching: The Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society is running one of its occasional all-day trips July 14 aboard the high-speed Condor Express out of Santa Barbara. Humpback and blue whales are on tap. Cost is $90 or $80 for ACS members. Details: (310) 548-0966.

--

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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