05-03-2011: Orcas Attack and Kill a Gray Whale Calf, Humpbacks try to stop it, Chase After Orcas

A female orca surfaces as she circles around the area. Photo: Sack 05-03-2012

The Monterey Bay never seizes to amaze me. Seriously. Just when you thought you’ve seen everything, we have what happened today happen. Just remarkable. Over the last week we’ve had some weather extremes. One day it’s perfect: Glassy ocean surface, no wind or swell, nice light and excellent sightings. The next day the wind and swell picked up with a vengeance and blew for two days. Making it impossible to for any kind of sane marine wildlife adventure.

A humpback whale does a "lunge feeding dive" as it feeds on krill about 40 feet below the surface. Photo: Sack, 05-03-2012

But those same vicious conditions, mainly the strong northwesterly winds, is what makes The Monterey Bay so rich in marine life diversity and quantity. When we have these heavy northwest winds, a phenomenon known as “upwelling” occurs. This is when the lateral movement of ocean water toward shore gets replaced with water from the depths of the Monterey Bay submarine canyon.

Bringing with it nutrient rich water and sediment from the depths and canyon walls of the Monterey Bay sub-marine canyon that are filled with plankton. When the plankton hits the sunlight, we have these massive plankton blooms. One of these types of plankton is called krill. Krill is a favored food source for humpback whales and blue whales eat krill almost exclusively. Anchovies and salmon also eat krill as does many other types marine life. Krill is a small shrimp-like critter about the size of your pinky finger nail.

A juvenile orca "spy hops" to take a look at what's happening above the water. Photo: Sack, 05-03-2012

So krill is pretty much what makes our ecosystem come alive in the Monterey Bay. And that was evident today.

We had glassy calm conditions with no swell and krill blooms happening on the whole Bay. The sooty shearwater pelagic birds are starting to show up in larger numbers from New Zealand. So we were seeing large flocks of these right out the gate.

Then after about 20 minutes a passengers yelled that they saw something just off our starboard side. So I stopped the boat and kept an eye out. And the next thing I new we all got a glimpse the rostrum and dorsal fin of a Minke whale. So that was cool for something a little different.

We see these animals periodically. They basically look like a giant dolphin. Mainly their dorsal fin. But their head or rostrum looks like a small whale. But we usually don’t get great looks at them. More like great glimpses. So we kept moving. Within about ten minutes I noticed blow off our port side about a half mile away so we headed in that direction.

After we got a line a on where it was and the direction it was headed, we moved into position and waited for it to surface again. This was a feeding humpback. It was making huge circles and doing the occasional “lunge feed”. This is where they come up to the surface with their mouth open and take a big gulp of surface food. So we get to see their head kind of come up out of the water. That’s always fun. But this critter only did a few times and then was just kind circling around. Not really that interested in us.

And I had heard of larger pods of humpbacks further out. As we started heading out into deeper water, we started seeing blows in all directions. There had to be at least 10-15 animals in our general area and reports of more in other parts of The Bay. So kind of hang out with a couple humpbacks that at first were circling around feeding and then seemed like they were moving out toward the south. We also noticed two more a little further out that were also heading south and then yet another two more heading south. It was almost like a parade of some sort. So we kept our distance just kind of moving along with them just over a hundred yards off to the side and behind them.

After about 15-minutes of this, I got a report of orcas attacking a gray whale with humpbacks kind of in middle of it all not far from our position and on the exact same course as the humpbacks we were with were heading.

Things were about to get very interesting. So after we received the report, we headed in toward the scene. When we got there, we could see about four or five humpbacks surfacing and “trumpeting” repeatedly. This is when they make a spout and it kind of sounds like a muted elephant. We see them do this regularly when they are feeding. They would change direction toward the orcas every time we observed the orcas surface. When we got on the scene, we also saw the mother gray whale in the middle of it all. Unfortunately, the orcas must have gotten the calf shortly before we got on there. Because we never saw the calf and observed the mother gray whale kind of make her way out of the area alone.

But the humpbacks were pissed. They almost seemed to be pursuing the orcas. Of course, orcas are quite fast swimmers and humpbacks are quite slow swimmers. So they were more like continually moving in the direction of the orcas. It was crazy. Without knowing for sure, my best guess was that the humpbacks were trying to prevent the orcas from eating their recent gray whale calf kill. But maybe they were just in the offensive.

Speaking of orcas eating their gray whale calf kill. What a waste. They seem to only eat the tongue. I’ve heard this before but wasn’t sure. Then this morning, when I was doing an early morning scouting trip before our whale tour, I came across a gray whale calf carcass in the same general area where we witnessed another orca / gray whale calf encounter last week. Sure enough, the animal was completely intact except for the throat pleats and tougue. Although, there were some pretty big chunks taken out of the animal’s pectoral fins.

As we looked around, we could see many spouts in several directions from very close to more than a mile. They all seemed to be moving in our direction where we were checking out these orcas. It was remarkable. The next thing we knew, there were at least 10-15 humpbacks in our general area. They seemed to be in groups of 3-5 and were kind of surrounding the orcas. Turning in the general direction of the orcas as the orcas seemed to move around back and forth in about a half mile diameter area.

We observed this type of behavior for over three hours. With perfect weather and lighting, it was hard to go in. But at some point we had to. So after more than seven hours of marine wildlife touring, we finally pulled back into the slip after witnessing what can only be described as the experience of a lifetime for most people. Just amazing.

There’s still plenty of room on our Saturday May 5, 2012 trip and the conditions should be stellar. But Sunday May 6, 2012 is sold out.

About Michael Sack

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