04-27-2012: First Known Orca/Gray Whale Calf kill this year, Plenty of Humpbacks in The Bay, Rough Weather

A male orca surfaces after a long morning of gray whale calf hunting and feeding. Photo: Sack 04-27-2012

We almost canceled today’s trip. We knew the conditions would be challenging from the beginning and would only get worse as the day moved on. But, as always, we were hoping for something close-in before the conditions really picked up. It’s one of those hit or miss propositions. You can throw the dice and hope for the best. Or not go out and definitely see nothing. That much we know. If you don’t go out, you will definitely see nothing.

We also had another visit from a large Steller’s sea lion again.

Our frequent visitor the Steller's sea lion shows up again at the Moss Landing "Sea Lion dock."

On days like this it usually goes one of two ways: One, we can find animals within an hour or so of the time we leave the harbor and get great looks. More often than not this time of year that usually means orcas. Or, two, we run for an hour and a half or two and the weather picks up so that there are white-caps everywhere, the boat is bouncing all around, no one can be on the bow and it is near impossible to tell an animal splash from the thousands of white-caps everywhere. So we took our chances and it paid off. Sort of.

We did have some great looks at orcas and a couple of glimpses of a gray whale calf carcass. Apparently, the orcas had made the kill quite a bit earlier in the morning. A report from a fisherman put the attack at around 6:30 A.M. So by the time we were on the scene, the pod of three orcas were pretty well done doing what they were going to do and began to move out west after about 45 minutes to continue their transient ways. When they decide it’s time to leave, they really move out. They’ll easily cruise along at 10 knots. And when there is high wind and swell, following them is tough. So we headed out to see if we could find either more orcas or some humpbacks. We had reports of plenty of humpbacks from a fisherman associate that was a few miles into weather from our position. We tried to get out there. But after looking into the steep faces of a few 6′ slabs of near breaking chops, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get out there. So we turned and hoped for the best as we rode the weather back to harbor.

Most of the orcas we see here in the Monterey Bay are known as “Transients”. They pretty much cruise up and down the California Coast. Some have been photo-identified as far south as Baja and as far north as Alaska. They are pretty much always in transit. Stopping for brief periods to hunt and feed on marine mammals. We have occasionally seen the same pod here in the Monterey Bay for days at a time. But then they leave as quickly as they come and we may not see them for months or year or more.

This is the second orca whale kill we know about this year. The first was a minke whale calf a couple of weeks ago. Now is definitely the best time of the year to see orcas in the Monterey Bay. Our log books over the years show that increased orca sightings between mid-April and the end of May and into June. But we see them pretty much year-round.

The Monterey Bay is notorious as an orca ambush point on gray whale calves. We witness these attacks a handful of times each year during late April and May.

If you want to see orcas, your chances increase around this time of year.

About Michael Sack

Boat Captain, Monterey Bay marine life naturalist and guide. Photographer and Videographer.
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