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Killer whales seem to be moving farther south

Outdoors

The killer whales, at least three dozen of them, coursed through and even leaped across the wind-swept ocean.

Even queasy passengers aboard the Sea Wolf marveled as these magnificent predators preyed beneath diving birds and frolicked en masse atop the choppy surface.

Crew members counted 40 orcas, adults and juveniles, as they journeyed around the Monterey Peninsula and into heretofore uncharted waters.

No orca vacation

How far south members of the L-pod family of endangered southern resident killer whales may have ventured after Sunday’s dramatic sighting off Cypress Point is unknown.

But this much is clear: They were a long way from home and did not seem inclined to return any time soon.

The Sea Wolf, which runs from Monterey Bay Whalewatch at Fisherman’s Wharf, was plying stormy seas when it encountered the orcas.

Several were confirmed as belonging to the L-pod, one of three family groups of the southern residents that historically have thrived off the Pacific Northwest, feeding chiefly on salmon.

This marks the sixth consecutive winter they’ve been documented off California and the fourth time they’ve been identified off Monterey, said Nancy Black, a prominent researcher who owns Monterey Bay Whalewatch.

Southern resident killer whales have not been documented south of Monterey.

“We saw them last year also,” Black said. “So maybe their new pattern is to venture this far down to look for the fish that they’re not getting up north.”

Desperate measures

It’s widely believed the orcas are expanding their range because depleted Pacific Northwest stocks of Chinook salmon, their primary prey source, can no longer sustain them.

Last January L-pod and K-pod orcas were seen off San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said in a recent report that not long ago it was believed the southern residents did not venture south of the Columbia River, near the Washington-Oregon border.

The report also cited depleted salmon stocks -- as they pertain to orca survival -- as an issue of concern.

The situation isn’t necessarily better off of California. The number of Chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento River plummeted to near historic lows last year.

Meager returns are expected this year too, and runs on other West Coast rivers have also dwindled.

This is due to dams and water diversions, but also, some contend, to environmental changes caused by global warming.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., essentially called for a ban on commercial and recreational Chinook salmon fishing, and extensive restoration of spawning habitat.

Because as salmon go, he predicted, so will the orcas.

Twelve years ago they numbered 97 individuals. Currently, there are 88 known specimens.

L-pod is the largest with 43, including juveniles who, if they were wise, would develop a taste for sardines, mackerel and squid.

There’s an abundance of these delicacies off California. Who needs Puget Sound?

Gray whale migration

Pacific gray whale sightings have been inconsistent off Southern California, possibly because many of the south-bound leviathans are taking a more direct off-shore route to Baja California.

Not so off Monterey. Black’s count for Tuesday, on a single two-hour voyage: 45 grays, including groups of 10 and 15.

They’ll be passing L.A. over the weekend.

Trestles bandwagon grows

Surfers aren’t the only group opposing a proposed toll road that would intersect San Onofre State Park, spoiling pristine environment and perhaps the famous Trestles point break.

Trout Unlimited says the project, if approved, would jeopardize a near-extinct population of steelhead trout that utilizes San Mateo Creek within the park’s estuary.

TU has for years been working to save the native steelhead, and will argue strongly -- and correctly -- at next week’s public hearing that areas of ecological importance should be spared from development.

The California Coastal Commission hearing -- probably the last forum on this issue -- is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Greening up, finally

I trekked into Malibu Creek State Park on Monday and made startling discoveries.

Green grass sprouted through a hay-colored landscape that had been lifeless for nearly two years.

Water the color of coffee-and-cream swelled the banks of long-barren creeks.

Bullfrogs croaked with delight and deer materialized in moist meadows to graze on something lush for a change.

Never did mud caking beneath the soles feel so good, and coming soon to this column, after the trails dry, is a mini-profile of my new favorite hike within this sprawling wilderness.

Eastern Sierra lifesaver

Caltrans is expected to complete transformation of 14.3 miles of two-lane highway on U.S. 395, between Independence and Big Pine, into a divided four-lane highway by spring of 2009.

It’s one of the final steps of a decades-long effort to divide and widen the Eastern Sierra highway from Kern County through Mono County.

Fishermen, snowboarders, skiers, hikers and climbers who frequent this highway are grateful. Many have witnessed or been involved in violent collisions and most have experienced close calls because of high-speed passing and veering of oncoming traffic.

pete.thomas@latimes.com


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