Ryan Lawler, owner of Newport Coastal Adventure, was all done with his eco-tours for the day when he got word: rare orcas spotted off the coast.
He decided to give it a shot and scour the sea to spot the black-and-white beauties late Friday afternoon – and he’s glad he did, finding a playful pod of killer whales that haven’t been seen off Orange County since January 2015.“That’s the last time any Orange County whale watching boat has seen them,” he said.
The orcas – identified as the group CA-51 – were first spotted by Harbor Breeze Cruises off Palos Verdes.
Capt. Dan Salas, founder of Harbor Breeze Cruises out of Long Beach, was out watching dolphins off San Pedro with passengers when they suddenly split.
“They just took off 1,000 miles per hour, they just scattered. Then all of a sudden, here comes this family of orcas,” he said. “That is the pod that is the most friendly group of orcas we’ve ever seen. They love interaction with the passengers.”
They came up and greeted the passengers, looking at them eye-to-eye. They did back flips and spy-hopped with their heads out of the water.
“It was so beautiful to see these magnificent animals,” he said. “Some of the passengers were in tears, they had never seen anything like that. It was so beautiful.”
Salas has been a boat captain for 30 years and had trouble describing just how powerful the interaction was.
“You can see the power and how intelligent they are. It’s like they’re trying to communicate and say hello,” he said. “Words can’t describe what actually happened.”
By the time Lawler heard about the sighting, it was already 4:30 p.m. on Friday, June 2. He picked up wildlife photographer Mark Girardeau and expert Alisa Schulman-Janiger and raced up the coast.
They found the pod in Long Beach and followed them south into Orange County waters.
Girardeau had just returned from Monterey, a trip specifically aimed at seeing orcas in the wild since sightings are more common further up the coast.
So to see them in his own back yard was a treat.
“They are just more rare, we don’t get them that much,” he said. “When you do see them, it’s an adrenaline rush. They are basically a giant dolphin, when you see them they’ll play with the boat. The killer whales are the ultimate species, it’s the iconic mammal you get to see.”
Years can pass between orcas sightings in local waters. While other orcas were spotted locally last year, this particular group hasn’t been seen for years.
The CA-51 pod – known as the most playful of the orcas seen off the coast – includes orcas who’ve been named Bumper, O’rion, Star and Comet, who were spotted Friday.
Lawler said they followed the pod all the way down to the oil rigs in Huntington Beach until sundown Friday. The group headed out under overcast skies Saturday to search the sea again. His boat quickly sold out for the day after word of the orcas spread.
Girardeau said a highlight was when the orcas swam right under the 26-foot inflatable boat they were on – their bodies as big as the boat.
“When they come under the boat, you see the size of them,” he said. “It really puts it into perspective when you see them this close.”