An unusually large congregation of killer whales, numbering roughly two dozen, was spotted off the coast of San Francisco in an extraordinary wildlife spectacle last month, marine experts have reported. This event, which left onlookers and researchers equally spellbound, marked a unique gathering of orcas for the Northern California region, a phenomenon experts speculate could be linked to a successful hunting expedition targeting seals or sea lions.
“Orca!” exclaimed a stunned Michael Pierson, a naturalist with the Oceanic Society, upon sighting the iconic dorsal fins slicing through the waves during a whale-watching tour he was leading. Recollecting the awe-inspiring scene, Pierson described the experience as “exceptionally special.”
The orca pod was sighted on May 7 around the Farallon Islands, situated approximately 28 miles west of San Francisco. These majestic creatures typically inhabit the depths of Monterey Bay’s underwater canyon, nearly 75 miles south of the city, according to Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch and a seasoned marine biologist. The proximity of the canyon to the shoreline makes Monterey Bay an ideal spot for whale-watching tours, unlike the Farallon Islands which demand a lengthy boat ride from the city.
The sight of these magnificent marine creatures is the prime attraction for many embarking on whale-watching tours, Black stated, adding that their sporadic appearances add an element of suspense and surprise. “You simply can’t predict when they’ll show up,” she said.
Black, who also heads the nonprofit California Killer Whale Project, affirmed that while she’s witnessed larger orca pods in the past, every sighting retains a unique charm. As she shared her insights, she marveled at a group of five orcas gracefully navigating the waters of Monterey Bay.
On the day in question, the Oceanic Society’s tour took an unexpected turn, deviating from their usual route to the Farallon Islands, a decision made by Pierson and the boat’s captain, Jared Davis, to venture into deeper waters. The gamble paid off spectacularly as they chanced upon multiple orca families congregated in a mass that totaled 20 to 24 individuals.
Typically, orca families, ranging from Baja California up the West Coast to Alaska, are seen in groups of three to six during these tours. Yet this occasion presented a rare spectacle as numerous family units assembled near the islands, a popular spot for pregnant sea lions and seals during birthing season.
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Why such an immense gathering took place remains a mystery, Pierson said. However, he vividly recalls the awe inspired by the striking adult males with their 6-foot-tall dorsal fins and the heartwarming sight of mother orcas with their calves. The collective gasps, coos, and awws from the spectators on board, Pierson noted, were a testament to the profound impact of this extraordinary encounter.