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Killer Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel

Gone whale watching lately? The months of December through April mark the peak season, although whale watching off California is year round.

If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might see one spectacular sight: killer whales. They’re just a boat ride away.

“What we mainly have here are transients (also known as Bigg’s killer whales),” said David Beezer, Captain of the Condor Express in Santa Barbara. “They’re just that — they travel quite a bit and they feed on marine mammals and fish.”

“Bigg’s (transient) killer whales travel in small groups, they focus on hunting mammals: seals, sea lions, occasionally dolphins and whales,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a renowned researcher and orca expert with the California Killer Whale Project.

She is the go-to expert for Beezer and other marine mammal experts in town and has helped identify killer whales throughout the west coast.

“The transient (or Bigg’s) killer whales are very stealthy when hunting, very quiet — trying to ambush their prey,” said Schulman-Janiger. “Another ecotype of killer whales were seen in the Santa Barbara Channel in January and December last year: they’re called offshore killer whales. They come down from BC (British Columbia) in large, chatty groups and focus on hunting sharks and fish. We have different killer whale that we’ve only seen once in the Santa Barbara Channel — that was in November of 2014. Those are called Eastern Tropical Pacific killer whales, because they are found in tropical waters. They only rarely come up from Mexico.”

NewsChannel 3 was granted permission to use two gorgeous clips of killer whales footage. One was shot by Auggie Smith, a deckhand on the Condor Express. The other, from Eric Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach.

In Martin’s underwater clip, NewsChannel 3 learns the orcas videotaped is known as the CA51s, led by an adult female transient killer whale, filmed off the coast of Southern California.

Schulman-Janiger said that CA51 is also known as “Star,” as is likely between 35 and 50 years old. The most recent sighting of this black and white beauty, with three of her four offspring, was in the Santa Barbara Channel New Year’s Day of this year.

“They are spectacular,” said Michelle Berman, an expert with CICRU Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit.

“These animals are highly intelligent,” said Beezer.

Local marine mammal experts who routinely see grays, humpbacks and even the occasional massive and majestic blue are quick to admit that there is something especially striking about seeing orcas in the wild.

“Best time to see them typically is winter and spring,” Beezer said.

“When the gray whales are migrating and they have their newborn calves, then that’s when we see them,” Berman said.

Orcas don’t migrate, they search for mates and hunt for food. Some only eat fish (“residents”), others prey on marine mammals (“transients”), and experts say there is a separate population that feeds on sharks (“offshores”).

“It’s like sandpaper. Really files down their teeth,” Berman said. “They look much older than they are.”

These sea celebrities if you will — thanks to Shamu — are actually the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They’re called “killer whales” because some types occasionally attack and kill whales.

“They’re not friendly,” Berman exclaims. “So you don’t want to swim with them. You don’t want to put on a show with them in the wild.”

“This is not Seaworld,” Beezer said. “These are wild animals and very unpredictable.”

They are a complex mammal species driven by a matriarchal culture. Berman said females go through menopause and killer whales commonly only eat the tongues of other whales.

“The tongue is an easy to get, clean piece of protein.” Berman said. “It’s really violent, really graphic.”

“If somebody was out there surfing and saw a great white shark and a killer whale, which one should they fear more?” Newschannel 3 asked.

“Just get out of the water,” Berman said, laughing. “Killer whales won’t go after people. They don’t know what people are, people are very boney, we don’t have a lot of muscle for them so … I would fear a great white shark over a killer whale.

Overall, there are three distinct forms or ecotypes of orcas: residents, transients or Bigg’s, and offshore. They’re categorized based on where they’re found and what they eat. Experts say while their range area is great and may overlap, it appears they rarely interact and don’t interbreed.

“They differ by their appearance, by their genetic make-up, by their vocalizations, by their traditions and their culture and what they eat and how they feed,” said Schulman-Janiger.

“Just in Antarctica alone there are five different ecotypes,” Berman said.

Berman said a recent genetic study found the transient form has been separated from all other killer whales for 750,000 years.

“Usually (the residents) stay in maternal linages,” Berman said. “They stay with mom, grandmom. The males will go off and mate, the females will generally stay together.”

Schulman-Janiger is one of the top experts when it comes to killer whale culture and behavior and identification.

“She will ID these groups very quickly by coloring on their back and base of their dorsal fin called the saddle patch,” Beezer said.

Each saddle patch is as unique as a human fingerprint.

“The humpbacks look like they’re following the killer whales again,” Schulaman-Janiger said, off camera.

We hear her voice as she narrates an encounter between a pod of humpbacks and a calf being attacked by a pod of killer whales off the coast of Monterey. It is footage shot in 2012 that she shared with NewsChannel.

“Oh boy! We have a group of killer whales behind and in front of the humpback whales, encircled by killer whales,” Schulman-Janiger explains.

Schulman-Janiger recognizes this pod. It is an adult female known as CA 216 and at least three of her offspring. They are a family of Bigg’s killer whales that ventures through the Santa Barbara Channel. She documents each saddlepatch, either through a photo or video, and uses that to identify each individual or family she encounters. It is her passion, logging the tiniest details — and behaviors — of each orca (and ecotype) she comes across.

To date, there are an estimated 2,500 killer whales roaming in waters off California, north to the Aleutian Islands.

Off our coast, the Condor Express will give you one of the best views in the Pacific of orcas and other marine life. (Island Packers is also a great way to see these gentle giants.)

“The Condor Express is a state-of-the-art catamaran,” Beezer said. “We’re water-jet driven, we do not have propellers, we’re environmentally safe around the animals. They come right to the boat, it’s their choice to be with us.”

“You realize that there’s a mammal and a being. It’s so much like us,” Berman said. “You can’t describe the feeling that you get when it comes up and you hear that big blow and dorsal fin breaks the surface.”

Berman points out an unfortunate parallel between killer whales and humans.

“I think the thing that is most profound for me is that they are mammals and they are subject to a lot of the same things that we’re subjected to. We’re starting to see a lot of terrestrial-borne diseases end up in the marine environment.”

Berman said a necropsy done on a baby orca that washed up on a Ventura beach in 2006 died from cattle-borne salmonella.

“We can look directly to them to find out how healthy our ocean is, based on how healthy they are,” Berman said.

Schulman-Janiger offers up advice for folks who go whale watching and are lucky enough to spot a family of orcas.

“Get pictures of whales together, I will typically know what family it is. If you can get video too, that’s great because it shows behavior. Getting footage is essential, it’s filling in bits of information and the mysteries of these animals that we only see a small part of their life above the water.”

And most important to her, a photo of that all-telling dorsal fin and the colored saddle patch behind it.

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