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Orca Attack is Back!

It is that time of year again. We will begin to see migrating Gray Whales passing through the Santa Barbara Channel soon. This also brings increased sightings of Orca. We had one such sighting recently while traveling along the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.

A large pod of dolphins were casually moving north when a submarine like black shape erupted from the surface smashing it's prey to death. We slowly, but excitedly, motored toward the area and noted a group of birds picking off scraps from the surface.

It appears that the adults in the pod tore the meat up and left this hunk for the little baby to practice with. It bumped it, dragged it and swatted it with its tail.

It even swam towards us to show off its prize

After the group of Orca moved a bit further away the rest of the food chain had a go at the meat formerly known as a dolphin.

This Gull is trying its luck. Birds in this situation need to be careful. I once saw and Orca kill a California Sea Lion and a bunch of Cassin's Auklets that happened to be nearby. Quite a few got nailed by the Orcas tail as it kicked around near the surface.

This very young Brown Pelican has not yet learned its limitations when it comes to food sources.

The two lobes floating up on top are the lungs. The rest was a bit hard to decipher but it looked like a few ribs and maybe a bit of spine.

Was this the culprit? From what we could see there were at least four whales maybe a fifth. I sent off a series of pictures for photo identification and up to six and perhaps seven whales where present? One was identified as CA122C and her calf, and another as CA138 and her three offspring. If you were unaware that we have Orca off our southern California coast line you have been enlightened. These pods are called Bigg's, or Transient Orca because they move around large areas, and are mostly marine mammal hunters. This is in contrast to the resident Orca in the Pacific Northwest that consume mainly fish. Orca are found through out the world and some believe there are many subspecies, if not full species of Orca. Here in the Santa Barbara Channel we see them most often during the Fall-Spring with Summer sightings a bit less common, but they can be found at any time of year. These sightings may be of different Orca groups so within a more restricted population they may have a more predictable migration/ seasonal distribution. Here is a nice poster that shows the different types. For a more "zoomable" image use the link.

After our killer whale show near Santa Cruz Island, we encountered a very large and energetic pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin out in the Santa Barbara Channel. Typically we see Long-beaked Common Dolphin in the Santa Barbara Channel and usually see the Short-beaked Dolphin south of the Islands in deeper water.

Besides their namesake, the main observable difference between the two species is the contrasting pattern of light and dark around the eye. Short-beaked tend to have a dark eye patch surrounded by white. This is mostly due to the fact that the flipper stripe leading forward from the pectoral flipper is thinner than on a Long-beaked Common Dolphin. The short beak also lends a more bulbous look to the forehead making them appear more compact and robust, rather than elongated.

Behaviors can also be noted. Short-beaked will jump higher out of the water with greater frequency, and they usually travel in larger pods. Those are the things I look for when I'm trying to figure out which species I'm looking at.

Well that is all for now, soon the Gray Whales will be here!

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