Unusual Whales

What is that? Is it a big dolphin? That dorsal fin is shaped kinda funny… Is it all black? Did it just jump out of the water?

These are just a few of the exciting questions that guests onboard Marietta as well as at Birch Aquarium were asking in the last few weeks. The warmer than usual waters have brought some uncommon visitors into San Diego’s waters and we have been lucky enough to have some pretty spectacular experiences!

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by  Michelle Robbins of NOAA

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

First, visitors got to see more than sea stars while visiting Tide-Pool Plaza at Birch Aquarium. From this high vantage point, visitors and staff were delighted to see False Killer Whales jumping out of the water just off of Scripps Pier.

A False Killer Whale jumps out of the water near Scripps Pier.

Visitors at Tide-Pool Plaza were able to see False Killer whales jump out of the water near Scripps Pier.

False Killer Whales, are found worldwide in tropical and temperate areas of the open ocean, though they are unusual in local waters. They are almost all black in color and reach lengths of up to 20 feet. False Killer Whales are an important species being studied by researchers at Southwest Fisheries Science Center here in La Jolla. Scientists with special permits went out in small boats to take identification photographs of the whales. These photos help identify individual whales and allow researchers to study different populations of False Killer Whales. The scientists also collected genetic samples from the whales. Dr. Karen Martien, of Southwest Fisheries, told us that that she has several ongoing genetic projects focusing on False Killer Whales. Dr. Martien explained, “We’ll be sequencing the [genetic] samples collected off [Scripps] Pier to see how they fit in with the other Pacific Ocean samples we published on a few years ago.”

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It is unusual to see False Killer Whales so close to Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

Dr. Susan Chivers, of Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium, “the False Killer Whales’ presence off La Jolla is likely due to the warmer than usual ocean temperatures we’re experiencing, and they likely followed their prey here.” False Killer Whales usually feed on fish and cephalopods (squid). They are fast and agile predators that often work together to take Mahi Mahi, Yellowfin Tuna, and other large fish as prey.

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

As if the False Killer Whales weren’t exciting enough, guests onboard The Marietta saw a large pod of Pilot Whales! Educator and Naturalist Meghan Duncan provided us with her account of seeing these spectacular Pilot Whales:

“The waves were rolling and the sun was shining in blue skies as we headed farther off the coast. We had just left a pod of about 60 Common Dolphins when we heard a voice over the radio say they had sighted a group of whales a couple miles from us. As we got closer we could see black dorsal fins, shaped as half crescents, breaking the surface of the water. We could count about 10 from afar, but as we got closer, we realized there must have been at least 30 whales! That closer look helped us realized we had stumbled upon a pod of Pilot Whales.

Short Finned Pilot Whales are close relatives of False Killer Whales. Photo credit: NOAA

Short-Finned Pilot Whales are close relatives of False Killer Whales. Photo credit: NOAA

Pilot Whales have uniquely round heads and almost jet black bodies, which helped us to identify this species. The volunteers, the Captain, and I had never seen these animals in the wild! With excitement, we watched them swim gracefully slow, seeming to move through the water with amazing ease and serenity. As we watched, we could hear the force of their blows as they breathed at the surface. They would all dive near the same time and later emerge to breathe, some together and some intermittently.

It was an amazing opportunity for everyone on board to witness these beautiful animals and we were even lucky enough to get a few glimpses of a calf swimming right against the other whales. We observed the pod for about 45 minutes before we left them to continue on their travels and they left us with a memory we would all never forget.”

There are still a few weeks left of whale watching season, and we can’t wait to see what turns up next!

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego