A Great Day at the Breach

Koko Kechichian gazed out over what seemed a desert ocean, marveling at a vastness that appeared to have no end. He then looked down, beneath the rippling surface, and imagined a "missing world" that surely had to exist somewhere below.

As it turned out, his notion was not too far-fetched. The desert ocean, or at least a large patch of it between the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Santa Catalina Island, suddenly erupted with the most amazing kind of life late Wednesday afternoon.

Off the bow of the Voyager, which made the eight-mile run from Redondo Sportfishing, a tightly grouped pod of eight or nine killer whales surfaced and swam slowly westward, their sleek black bodies glistening under the sun.

Well to the port, dozens of Risso's and bottlenose dolphins began streaking across the surface in a display rarely encountered by researchers, much less everyday whale watchers. Amid them was a large male killer whale, easily identifiable by a dorsal fin that rose more than four feet out of the water.

Together they moved swiftly, first to the east, then the west, the north and again to the east. The much smaller dolphins, at times seemingly brushing up against the broad shoulders of the predatory interloper, seemed to be harassing the killer whale and herding it away from their feeding grounds.

On the fringe of all this, a lone female killer whale was content to keep her distance, watching the dolphins and, perhaps, the male killer whale.

Voyager captain John Glackin, who has spent 37 years plying local waters, said he had never seen anything like what he described as turf warfare.

"I've only seen killer whales out here five or six times," he said, following the action from his lofty wheelhouse perch. "But I've never seen Risso's and killer whales getting into it like this."

It was a grand spectacle indeed, kicking off a new year and a new whale-watching season in fine style.

"This was a great way to start the new year," said Kechichian, sitting next to his fiance, Shelley Ward, as the boat traveled shoreward under a sky set afire by the setting sun. Revealing his idealistic side again, Kechichian added, "It means I'm going to have good luck the rest of the year. I'm a Pisces and I really believe that."

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The killer whales presumably still off the Southern California coast are members of the "offshore" pod of orcas, fish and squid eaters that venture down from the British Columbia area and make it this far only occasionally and generally in the winter. They were last seen off Palos Verdes on April 1, 2001.

Typically, they break into subgroups of three to 15 animals as they travel, and they have ventured as far south as Oceanside. How long they'll stay is anyone's guess, but they've been encountered in previous years periodically through March.

One of the biggest local sightings was in February 1995. On Feb. 9, the captain of a boat off Newport Beach saw 15 to 20 orcas. On Feb. 10, another Orange County captain logged 40 to 60, and on the same day the Voyager sighted at least 25. On Feb. 11, L.A.-area vessels counted 80 offshore orcas in various subgroups.

At least one of those orcas, a female labeled CA 529, was among those sighted Wednesday, according to Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher who was on the scene with two friends aboard a smaller vessel.

Although orca sightings off Southern California are an unusual and exciting treat -- killer whales from the mysterious "L.A. pod" and "transient pod" also show locally from time to time -- even more unusual and perhaps more exciting is the interaction between Risso's dolphins and killer whales.

Risso's dolphins, which grow to about 13 feet and feed almost exclusively on squid, have been documented acting aggressively toward other mammals, even gray whales, but rarely toward killer whales.

Nancy Black, a prominent researcher in Monterey, is among the few to have witnessed this event, two years ago in July. A pod of about 12 transient orcas -- more notorious than the offshore and L.A. pods in that they feed predominantly on other marine mammals -- was literally chased and circled by about 50 Risso's dolphins and remained trapped, as if in a net, for several seconds before "they broke out and tried to flee."

Black said there isn't a scientific explanation for this behavior but presumed, "They just wanted [the killer whales] out of their area."

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Word spreads fast when the killers come calling. Those on Wednesday were first sighted in the morning by a private boater, whose marine radio conversation with another boater was picked up by Hugh Ryono, a volunteer at the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project at Point Fermin on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Ryono called Schulman-Janiger, the project director, who called Redondo Sportfishing to alert Glackin, and then contacted friends Zan and Larry Diener for a ride aboard their 19-foot boat.

Ryono and other volunteers, meanwhile, scoured the horizon with binoculars and located the killer whales "apparently feeding on sardines and other prey fish, competing with hundreds of sea birds."

Earlier, they had observed as many as six fin whales lunge-feeding through schools of baitfish. Also seen from the cliff were eight California gray whales traveling south to their calving and nursing grounds in Baja California's balmy lagoons.

"We also had nearly a hundred bottlenose dolphins and over a thousand common dolphins," Ryono wrote in his New Year's Day synopsis. "We were also fortunate to witness a pod of bottlenose dolphins surround a gray whale. The gray seemed to be annoyed at suddenly becoming part of the dolphin pod as it turned on its back and swam upside down with its flippers flapping on the surface of the water as the dolphins swam alongside."

Glackin arrived near the killer whales about 11 a.m. Birds diving on baitfish chased to the surface were the giveaway. During the afternoon run, however, there were no diving birds and very few signs of life.

Time soon ran out and Glackin began to carve a U-turn and head back -- Schulman-Janiger and the Dieners were just getting underway -- when the pod of killer whales surfaced off the starboard bow.

The party had begun. Those aboard the Voyager would be late for dinner, but there were no complaints.

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As of late Thursday afternoon, there had been no more killer whale sightings. Anyone encountering them is asked to take photos and contact Schulman-Janiger at (310) 519-8963 or via e-mail at janiger@bcf.usc.edu. She's involved in a long-term photo-cataloging project in an attempt to learn more about the numbers and movements of orcas belonging to any of the three pods.

She's also asking for volunteers, mainly on weekday afternoons and weekends, to help spot and log marine mammal sightings from Point Fermin.

This season's gray whale census project began Dec. 1 and through New Year's Day the southbound gray whale tally was 64, indicative of a fairly average season. Highlights from the cliff have included the sighting Monday of the first south-bound calf, the birth of a bottlenose dolphin and its mother gently nudging it along with her beak, a peregrine falcon swooping with a pigeon between its beak, "and several green flashes," Schulman-Janiger said.

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Whale Fiesta 2003, an annual event traditionally held in June, has been moved this year to Jan. 12 from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. Featured are arts-and-crafts booths, games and live entertainment. Details: (310) 548-7562 or at www.cabrilloaq.org.

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