Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The last post of 2011

On December 23rd I got to see something that I have been wanting to see for years. It was at the top of my "to see" list. I saw an attack on gray whales by a pod of orcas. There were 4 orcas (and one was a calf) and 2 adult gray whales. The numbers were certainly in favor of the grays and they did win the battle.

I was working at the North end of our study range at Sea Lion Cove and waiting for a sleeping otter to show me her flipper tags. She was dead asleep and I figured I would be there a while so I pulled my camera out to take some hummingbird photos. (previous posts have photos of hummingbirds from this very spot!) While looking offshore I was thinking to myself, this feels like and orca kind of day. The ocean was flat and you could see for miles. About 5 minutes after I thought about the orcas I saw some splashing close to shore. I looked down and saw 2 gray whales on their backs. I thought maybe they were mating. Although most grey whale mating behavior happens far south of us in Baja Mexico, I have seen mating along their travel route a few times.
I started taking some photos of them and then realized there was a dolphin dorsal fin right by the gray's head. I looked a little closer and saw the white saddle patch (a telling characteristic of orcas). I kept taking photos, but was so excited that I was jumping up and down and actually for once, hoping that tourists would stop and I could tell them what was going on. The encounter only lasted about 7 minutes and the orca pod started swimming south and offshore. The grays were underwater for a long time and appeared to 'wrangle up' some more whales that were on their way south. Soon there were 5 grays all swimming together within 200 meters of shore- often through the kelp. Just south of their current location is a deep canyon and this is where it would be easiest for orcas to attack. Often when the mothers and calves are traveling north there are attacks in the deep canyons off Monterey and Carmel.

After the orcas swam offshore, I believe they got a sea lion (a little easier breakfast option that a 40 foot long gray whale) and I took some photos but at this point they were about a mile offshore so the quality is not as good.

Gray whale on its back with orcas swimming underneath.
Mom and calf orca on the left side, one orca underwater and the gray whale coming up for air.
Mom and calf orca on the left, two gray whales up for air.

gray whale spouting

gray whale fluke.
After the attack the grays started back south but were swimming very close to one another and close to shore.
Orca breaching (about a mile offshore)

Orca slapping her tail.

Orca- Possibly with a sea lion, they were about a mile offshore of Torre canyon.


  1. Wow... amazing photos! ....thanks for sharing..

  2. Beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing!

  3. this doesn't look like an "attack" to me. the 1st pic looks like the back, not "on it's back". the next few pics look like some kind of communication happening. orcas breaching and slapping are more communication (but an attack? hmmm) the last pic shows lots of birds which means lots of small fish in the vicinity (=food).

  4. Thanks for posting pictures! Regardless of what might have been happening, it was amazing to see...would love to see it in person!

  5. Great photos! Thanks so very much for sharing!!!

  6. Regardless of what was actually happening, thank you. Great photos! Eric is a buzzkill.

  7. Amazing. What a sight to witness, thanks for the photos

  8. Eric, I agree that it was not an all out attack for many reasons. It could have been the pod teaching the calf different things, the orcas sizing up the whales or they were just bored?? I would imagine that there would not be a successful kill when there were only 3 adults and one calf, and 2 adult grays but in general these two species are seen as hunter and prey.

    As for the first photo, the whale is on its back because in the series (which I only posted one of) you see the pectoral fin and it is clear that the gray was on its back. The other whale is just below the surface with its back closest to the surface.

    The breaching photos were well after the encounter with the gray whales. They were also after what I am assuming was a sea lion kill. Orcas often will spash, breach, spy hop and "play" after feeding. I am not sure if there was a kill because at that point I was a mile away but I believe there was. Birds also circle kills to get scraps. If you watch in Big Sur you will see this when the sea lions are eating mola mola too.

  9. Where is Sea Lion Cove?

  10. Sea Lion cove is the first pull-out North of Coast Gallery~ about 3 miles south of the Henry Miller Library.

  11. Great pictures! I hope to see something like this some day, thanks

  12. Nicole, I reaaly like your blog and your passion for the nature. I'm brazilian guy studying biology on the college and going to LA in the next week, do you have any tips for me?