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A family of 10 orcas has been spotted swimming between Oxnard and San Diego

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Every winter, gray whales migrate down the West Coast to reach their breeding grounds in Mexico. But this season, a different species is making a rare appearance along the Southern California coast. NPR's Paige Waterhouse has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCA BREACHING WATER)

PAIGE WATERHOUSE, BYLINE: Over the past few weeks, a family of 10 orcas has been spotted swimming around between Oxnard and San Diego.

JESSICA RODRIGUEZ: To have this frequent of a sighting here off the coast of Southern California is pretty rare.

WATERHOUSE: Jessica Rodriguez is the education manager at Davey's Locker, which offers whale watching tours out of Newport Beach. She says these whales are part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific group of orcas and are usually found off the coast of Mexico and Central America. This specific pod was first spotted in this area in 2018. Rodriguez says it's unclear why they're hanging out in the Southern California area.

RODRIGUEZ: One reason might be it's an unseasonably warm weather conditions, like, leading into El Nino. One other theory is that their main prey, which is bottlenose and common dolphins, are in abundance here.

WATERHOUSE: Orcas live in tight-knit family groups. They're known as killer whales because of their ability to hunt a wide variety of prey, from sharks to marine mammals and even seabirds. Alisa Schulman-Janiger is a research biologist for the California Killer Whale Project, a whale research and conservation group. She says the adult orcas have been observed teaching their young how to hunt dolphins.

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: They have a very important culture passing on traditions of where to go, what to eat, the techniques of what to do.

WATERHOUSE: But this week, the pod was seen going after a much bigger form of prey.

SAMANTHA TOTMAN: Right now on the water off of Point Vincente, we are seeing an incredible sight. We are seeing nature in action. We are seeing some killer whales, some orcas, on a hunt. They are currently going after a gray whale.

WATERHOUSE: That's Samantha Totman, an education specialist for Harbor Breeze Cruises, a whale-watching tour agency in Long Beach.

TOTMAN: They seem to be tiring out the whale, but these animals are the apex predators of the ocean, and they are very good at what they do.

WATERHOUSE: Harbor Breeze Cruises has seen an increase in demand for tours since the orcas showed up. But Rodriguez from Davey's Locker thinks that people aren't the only ones doing the watching.

RODRIGUEZ: We've seen a lot of play behavior, swimming in the wake of the boat, jumping, mugging the boat, where they kind of, like, stop and turn around and look just at the boat and stare at it.

WATERHOUSE: Marine mammal advocates advise curious viewers to observe these whales from a safe distance.

Paige Waterhouse, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paige Waterhouse
Paige Waterhouse is a producer for Morning Edition and Up First. She got her start in media working for a community radio station and podcast collective in Charlottesville, VA.
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