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Killer whales are making their presence felt

One unsuspecting sea lion was knocked clear into the air by a great white shark.

Land-based witnesses using binoculars detected a slick afterward, but could not determine its color because of the angle of sunlight.

So “it was a ‘PG’ attack rather than an ‘R’ rating,” said Hugh Ryono, a spotter for the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

To the north on a different day, two sea lions were savaged by a small pod of killer whales as passengers aboard the Island Adventure stared in awe and horror.

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“They worked together like a pack of wolves,” recalled Jim McWaters, co-captain of the Island Packers’ vessel out of Ventura. “They’d circle it, swipe at it, and the bigger ones would smack it with their tail.

“Then the younger ones would come in and do whatever they can. They didn’t have the power but tried to whack it with their tails as they swam by.”

Toss in recent sightings of blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, humpback whales and various dolphins and porpoises, and you have the trappings of a nature-channel series right off our coast.

But yet to make a grand appearance, curiously, are the perennial stars of this show: Pacific gray whales.

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These leviathans, which fuel the whale-watching industry, should have already grabbed the spotlight.

“I think they’re just getting a late start this year,” said John Glackin, captain of the Voyager out of Redondo Sportfishing in Redondo Beach.

I spent the first few daylight hours of the new year aboard the Voyager and we encountered a playful pod of common dolphins and two sleek fin whales.

But we saw nary a gray whale spout on a calm ocean with 15-mile visibility.

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Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who directs the American Cetacean Society’s census project, said that through Wednesday spotters had counted only 40 southbound grays, or half the average for this time period.

Perhaps more of them are taking a direct off-shore route to conserve energy, the researcher said, citing climactic changes that have made food more scare in Arctic waters, where gray whales fatten up before their 6,000-mile journey to nursing and mating lagoons off Baja California.

The unusually strong presence of killer whales off Southern California could also be a factor.

The Island Adventure’s encounters with a small transient family of six killer whales preying on sea lions -- once during a morning run and again during an afternoon run -- were last Sunday.

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Three days earlier Capt. Mat Curto of the Condor Express out of Santa Barbara located about 20 orcas gathered in the same area, near Anacapa Island. “And the next day I didn’t see anything. No dolphins, no whales. Nothing,” Curto said, blaming transient orcas, which hunt in packs and communicate with song.

Adding intrigue to “Whale-Watch 2007-08" is that one of the transients encountered Sunday was identified by Schulman-Janiger as CA51.

If this were a Western movie the killer whale could be named Ma Smalley, with her clan of ambushing outlaws.

CA51 is a common visitor to Monterey Bay and a notorious hunter of sea lions, dolphins and even whales.

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She’s also a mother of two and a grandmother of a newborn already getting lessons on how to kill pinnipeds.

Since Christmas orcas have also been sighted off Orange County, Long Beach and Palos Verdes.

So beyond our shore is a lawless frontier, a truly wild west.

But that wagon train known as the gray whale migration, perhaps 20,000 strong, will make it through to propagate anew.

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Why?

Because they always have.

Or perhaps it’s because, in shows such as these, the good guys always prevail.

Briefly

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Add orcas: Schulman-Janiger is seeking fresh orca photographs, preferably in profile, for an ongoing photo-cataloging identification project.

She can be reached at Janiger@bcf.usc.edu or (310) 519-8963.

Sportsmen deliver: California has 1.5 million anglers and 274,000 hunters who, combined, spend $3.6 billion a year, support 53,500 jobs and generate $452 million in state and local taxes, according to a new study, “Hunting and Fishing: Bright Stars of the American Economy -- a force as big as all outdoors.”

The state ranks third in participation behind Florida (2 million overall sportsmen) and leader Texas (2.6 million).

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Tuna roundup: This could go down as one of the most successful San Diego-based cattle, er, tuna drives in recent history.

The long-range fleet’s tally for yellowfin tuna weighing 200 pounds or more stands at 268.

Of these so-called “cows,” 15 weighed 300-plus pounds, including the largest “super-cow” of the season, a 359-pounder by Torrance angler Erik Kinoshita, aboard the American Angler.

That’s only three super-cows shy of the 18 wrestled aboard the fleet last season, and there are five months remaining this season.

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Year of the marlin: Last year might have been the most productive ever for striped marlin fishermen off Cabo San Lucas, thanks to a closing flourish in which multiple catch-and-release scores were the norm.

Pisces Sportfishing reports 409 releases from Dec. 20 to Dec. 30, with only one kill. Top score was 16 in one day for a group aboard Yahoo. Several logged 15 releases, and the run on Advil must have been significant as reeling in one marlin can be painful.

The marlin run at the Golden Gate north of Land’s End is expected to last a few more weeks.

Bear quota reached: California hunters reached the kill quota of 1,700 black bears nearly two weeks before the Dec. 30 closure, marking the first time the hunt ended early since 2001.

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The state’s black bear population is considered robust and estimated to number about 30,000.

--

pete.thomas@latimes.com


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