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Killer whales pursuing a dolphin off Central California

By Jodi Frediani, with intro by Carl Safina Killer whales are astonishing creatures, extreme by every measure. I (Carl) wrote extensively about them in my recent book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel. Several non-interbreeding “types” which are actually different species exist (though these are not yet formally recognized with different Latin names). And...

By Jodi Frediani, with intro by Carl Safina

Killer whales are astonishing creatures, extreme by every measure. I (Carl) wrote extensively about them in my recent book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.

Several non-interbreeding “types” which are actually different species exist (though these are not yet formally recognized with different Latin names). And even within species there are intricate cultural differences. What’s important in this piece, though, is that along the West Coast one type eats fish and never hunts mammals, while another type hunts mammals and not fish. The type that hunts mammals is called Bigg’s Killer Whale; they’re often referred to as “Transients.”

Below, photographer Jodi Frediani tells of an encounter with several such mammal-eating killer whales as they hunted down a dolphin. I wonder if these were some of the same whales I’d seen a few years ago leaving the site of a gray whale they’d killed after they finished eating.

Jodi’s photos capture nature at the extreme end of high-performance predators. So be forewarned: seeing a dolphin getting killed is not entirely easy to watch or contemplate. For those who either find this unpleasant, or who prefer the name orca, keep in mind Herman Melville’s observations in Moby-Dick that “Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale . . . for we are all killers,” and,There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

Bear in mind, too, that Killer Whales are dolphins—by far the world’s largest. As you’ll see.

Jodi picks it up from here; this is her story of what she witnessed:

Tail slap. Credit: Jodi Frediani
Tail slap. Credit: Jodi Frediani

Earlier that January morning, whale watchers had seen the well-known female Bigg’s transient killer whale CA138 as she cruised Monterey Bay, one of her favorite hangouts. She was with her two offspring—a 6 year old male and a 3-year old female—along with Fat Fin, a 12-15-year-old adolescent male; and his buddy, a lone adult male dubbed Stubby (a.k.a Chopfin) because of his damaged dorsal fin.

These whales, like elephants, live in tight matriarchal groups, sometimes traveling and hunting with one or more other families. CA138 and her kids are close associates with a very friendly group called the CA51s who will often approach boats after feeding, and may bowride, vocalize above the surface and generally show curiosity towards boats (CA138 does not share their affinity for such encounters). Unlike elephants, adult sons generally live with their mothers their whole lives. Males whose mothers have died—like Fat Fin and Stubby—may periodically work as a team to hunt and sometimes temporarily hang out with other family groups.

The moment the phone rang and I learned the orcas were in the Bay I grabbed my camera and zipped down to Monterey. There I got onboard the Pt. Sur Clipper captained by marine biologist and long-time transient killer whale researcher Nancy Black who had earlier spotted these transients, and we quickly headed out to re-find them.

According to killer whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger, CA138 and her kids focus mostly on California sea lions. In one remarkable episode her son, perhaps a year old at the time, paraded across Carmel Bay for over an hour with a sea lion flipper in his mouth as if he were carrying a pacifier. What was the young guy thinking? Black and Schulman-Janiger have seen this family unit an average of just 5 times a year since first observing them in 1994. What they think and what they do when we’re not around is anyone’s guess. In addition to their sea lion staple, they had been recorded killing an elephant seal, a harbor seal, a harbor porpoise, and they were once observed feeding on a gray whale carcass along with other killer whale families.

No sooner were we in their company, than CA138 and her two juveniles took off in pursuit of a common dolphin. We could hardly keep up as the whales zigged this way and zagged that, periodically porpoising out of the water. Fat Fin and Stubby were still in the area but were not involved in the chase. This was just mom and the kids.

After much zipping around, CA138 suddenly did a massive tail slap not far offshore. Such power! As the action unfolded, it became clear she was using this move to stun the dolphin she and her kids had managed to isolate from its pod.

Dolphin toss. Credit: Jodi Frediani
Dolphin toss. Credit: Jodi Frediani

Moments later CA138 flew totally out of the water in front of us. Looking through my lens, I saw the relatively “tiny” 200-pound-plus dolphin flying through the air like a juggler’s pin. My finger was glued to the shutter button as my camera fired off 8 frames a second. Wow! This was a first for me! Something almost no one ever gets a chance to witness.

Dolphin toss 2. Credit: Jodi Frediani
Dolphin toss 2. Credit: Jodi Frediani

As I reviewed my images, I noticed teeth marks on the side of the dolphin as it tumbled through the air. It seems CA138 could have killed the dolphin with her powerful jaws. But she did not. Why? Likely she was teaching her juveniles how to hunt and make a kill. Nancy Black recounts how a mother will sometimes hit an unsuspecting bird with her flukes, followed by her calf doing the same in imitation, though lacking in the accurate precision of mom. The two will repeat this several times as the calf learns to hone hunting and killing skills. But here was the real deal.

Two juvenile killer whales with dolphin. Credit: Jodi Frediani
Two juvenile killer whales with dolphin. Credit: Jodi Frediani

As the stunned dolphin hit the water, the two juveniles were right there. Having participated in the earlier chase, and having watched from below as mom lobbed and tossed the dolphin, they were now Johnny-on-the-spot to complete their lesson and partake of their reward.

Two juveniles feeding, CA138 near. Credit: Jodi Frediani
Two juveniles feeding, CA138 near. Credit: Jodi Frediani

As her son and daughter made quick work of the approximately 220-lb dolphin snack, CA138 presided. Hunting mammals is part of the culturally transmitted behavior shared among these transient killer whales. Each prey species has its own unique behavioral patterns and avoidance tactics. Moms and grandmas must teach their youngsters special skills which have to be learned, remembered and utilized to hunt each species successfully. Because these transients range all along the California coastline, sometimes reaching as far north as the outer waters of British Columbia, researchers see families like CA138’s only a few times a year. Their name reflects their wandering ways, as they do not exhibit localized site fidelity like the Southern Residents who spend the summer months in the Puget Sound area, and the bulk of the transients’ kills occur quickly, out of sight beneath the surface of the water. Getting to observe a hunting lesson is quite rare.

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.