Students Dolphinitely find their Porpoise!

orca-3Avid whale watchers in Orange County usually spend December on the lookout for the first gray whales of the season as they start to pass right by our shores on their annual migration from Alaska to Baja. This year however, some unexpected guests have been stealing the show: orcas! A rare sight in Southern California waters, two separate pods of orcas were spotted here within a week of each other.

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are a type of toothed whale in the same family as dolphins. There are several different subgroups, or ecotypes of orcas that have their own specialized prey preferences, social structures, and behaviors. The orcas that visited our waters were two different ecotypes, making their back to back visits even more extraordinary.

The first sighting was of a group of offshore orcas, identified by the previously cataloged male, O239, known as Scoopfin. Offshore orcas are rarely seen because they generally spend their time in much deeper waters at the edge of the continental shelf, hunting large fish, including sharks. When Scoopfin passed through our waters, he was accompanied by up to 50 other individuals spread out between Newport Beach and Catalina Island.

Less than a week later, we were visited by an entirely different group of orcas! This time it was a pod known as CA51, a group of transient killer whales that stops by Orange County about once a year. Transient orcas are known as the mammal eaters, often seen taking down sea lions, dolphins, and even young gray whales. 

On both days, students aboard our Marine Protected Area Citizen Science Cruise were lucky enough to get up close looks at these incredible animals. For many of these students, it was their first time out on the open ocean, and the orcas made it a truly unforgettable experience. One student from J Serra High School said, “To see them swimming and playing in their natural habitat was awesome and it changed my life. I was completely in awe of their beauty and grace. For the first time in my life I actually thought about pursuing a career in Marine Biology.”

Even the most experienced boat crews in Orange County have only spotted orcas a handful of times. For students to get to see orcas in the wild right here in Crystal Cove is a once in a lifetime opportunity.


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