Orange County’s Present and Past With Killer Whales

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Reports and fascinating video of orca sightings off the coast of Dana Point have been making their way around the Internet lately, but despite what you might have heard, orcas aren’t so rare here.

I got in touch with marine science professor and dolphin expert (“killer whale” is something of a misnomer; orcas actually are the largest species in the oceanic dolphin family) Dennis Kelly of Orange Coast College and asked him about the recent sightings.

Orca sightings in Southern California date back at least to the 1920s, my former professor said. “Zane Grey, believe it or not, wrote a stirring piece about orcas he encountered off Santa Catalina Island while deep sea fishing one day.”

And the first live orca in captivity was captured in Newport Harbor in October 1961, he said.

Take it away, professor:


Yep, a young female orca swam into the harbor (all alone — not usually the case with orcas as they live in families that stay together pretty much forever) all the way to the far west end of the harbor and got trapped there. Marineland of the Pacific came down, and it took them all day, but they finally netted the orca, drove her to Marineland on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on the back of a flat bed truck, and dumped her in a tank.

Attendance went up astronomically — as did the price of a ticket, temporarily — and the great orca “gold rush” was on.


Editorial note: If you can’t tell already, Kelly isn’t a fan of these animals being in captivity. In fact, he told me that at a federal hearing he spoke out against Sea World’s plans to capture scores of orcas to start a breeding program. He was subsequently told never to set foot in any Sea World park again for being “disloyal.” He still has the letter on Sea World letterhead.

But here’s why he calls what Sea World and others have been doing since the 1960s “capture and imprisonment.” Early on, the orcas in captivity didn’t live long — about five years on average — because their keepers’ knowledge wasn’t very advanced.


I started collecting sightings and photos of orca off Southern California in the 1980s because I had learned a lot about orca from going up to the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and learning about orca in the wild from [preeminent researchers]. They were sharing their research findings that included the orca living in extended families that stay together always, that female orca lived into their 70s and 80s, and that males lived into their 40s and 50s.

Also that there were different types of orcas out there: “residents” that stayed pretty much inside Puget Sound and the Inside Passage of British Columbia and were almost exclusively fish (salmon) eaters; and tourist orca called “transients” that came into and out of the same area periodically, had smaller families, and primarily captured and ate marine mammals. The two were as alien to each other as we (locals) are to tourists, and they never mixed. The residents frequently mixed.

There was a third type that they had just discovered, “offshores,” that stayed outside Puget Sound and the inner waters of British Columbia, and they were different from both residents and transients. They were large-fish and squid eaters.


The whales off Dana Point are probably transients, and that is rare to see transients around here. I saw offshores off Dana Point on Valentine’s Day 2005 — about 40 of them — and they were after large squid.



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