Monterey Seabirds
May 9, 2004 Seabird Cruise Trip Report

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Click on Killer Whale photos to see enlarged images.

Sunday May 9, 2004 -- Killers of Mother's Day

It was pure pleasure to arrive at the dock on Mother's Day on a fog-free morning. Being May we knew in all likelihood the afternoon would bring wind so we planned accordingly to get out to an area of the Monterey Bay where we could bring it home with the wind at our backs. On board we had the legendary Aussie seabirder Steve Anyon-Smith who was chomping at the bit to get out in the bay to see some sea monsters (as he likes to call them); he would not be disappointed today.

Still inside the harbor we had our only COMMON LOON. The breakwater was topped with more than 200 nesting BRANDT'S CORMORANTS. We found no rocky shorebirds along the jetty. PIGEON GUILLEMOTS were seen along Cannery Row, as were a few PELAGIC CORMORANTS and our first of many PACIFIC LOONS.

Off of Cypress Point there was a great deal of shearwater activity. Good numbers of SOOTY SHEARWATERS both in flight and resting on the water, looking a bit ratty in post migratory molt. Also making a good showing were an estimated 75 PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS and several small flocks of RED-NECKED PHALAROPES.

Flesh-footed shearwater, photo by Roger WolfeAbout mid morning things cut loose all at once when our first BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS appeared and a few moments later in came a very obliging FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER, our first of three on the day.

Some very full alcids were found attempting to fly away with full crops; several CASSIN'S and a few RHINOCEROS AUKLETS as well as a good number of COMMON MURRES. At one point Steve Anyon-Smith hollers what sounds to our Yank ears like "Whyle!" and it takes a moment for us to translate from Aussie. Our first two HUMPBACK WHALES blow. As we approach I'm in the top drive when I hear folks in the back gasp. Leader Richard Ternullo says, "must have breached." Sure enough it does again, completely clearing the water, right side up like a giant dolphin! I've seen many humpbacks do this from a distance but this guy is only 50-75 yards away. Quite a thrill. This whale breaches a few more times much to the delight of all on board.

About this time we get a call from Killer Whale researcher Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch that she has found a pod of KILLER WHALES attempting to separate a GRAY WHALE calf from its mother just off of Moss Landing. It is about 17 miles away but we decide to go for it. It's a bit of a haul as the wind begins to pick up. En route we come across a BLUE WHALE that dives and we are too impatient to wait for it to resurface as everyone on board really wants to see the Killer Whales in action. We also find a few NORTHERN FULMARS along the way.

Finally as we arrive just off of the harbor entrance to Moss Landing we see a great deal of commotion. A pod of 15 KILLER WHALES is playing tag team against the Gray Whale mother and her calf. Mom does her damnedest to keep the calf out of harm's way. Rolling onto her back with the calf on her chest, she tries to protect it from the onslaught. But the KWs are determined and we see the calf take some intense head butts to the body.

These digital images were shot at 7.5 frames per second. This series shows the calf being butted by a female killer whale. Click on one of these images to see a larger version of the four photos in sequence.

Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe   Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe
Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe   Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe
Photos by Roger Wolfe

The KWs take turns in teams trying to slam into the calf or push it under the water to drown it. The mother and calf are blowing about every 15 seconds which is the whale equivalent of panting. There is one huge male KW that uncharacteristically takes part in the hunt; typically they let the female do the work, much like African Lions. The vertical height of his dorsal fin and overall size in comparison to the females is very impressive.

We see only a bit of blood coming from one of the pectoral fins of the calf otherwise the attack appears to consist of blows and attempts at separation. The mother Gray Whale does her best, placing her body between the KWs and the calf, and she slashes the water with her flukes trying to get a shot in. On the boat we are all in awe of the spectacle we are witness to. Veteran seabird leaders Don Roberson and Steve Bailey have never seen the likes of anything like this. I fill up the card on my digital camera all too soon.

Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe   Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe
Photo by Roger Wolfe   Photo by Jeff Poklen

All of us are on the bow listening to Richard Ternullo answer questions about Killer Whales and their attack strategies. They favor this particular spot in the Monterey Bay as the deep submarine canyon comes very close to shore here. The Gray Whale mothers and calves on their northern return from the Baja lagoons like to hug the shoreline to avoid the KWs. Sooner or later they'll have to cross over the deep water of the canyon here and the KWs know that.

Killer Whale Attack, photo by Roger Wolfe
Photo by Roger Wolfe

To us it looks as if the calf has virtually no chance of surviving this attack given the intensity and numbers of KWs and by the time we have arrived this has already gone on for hours. Someone asks if they ever get away and Richard tells us if the mother and calf can get into water less than 60 feet deep they have a good chance of getting away. The next question is how deep is it here? About 60 feet is the answer.

Suddenly there is a break in the action as the KWs switch teams. The team resting on the sidelines is a little slow in reasserting the attack and the mother and calf head for shore. There is a brief flurry of activity and the KWs break off the attack and take off into the bay. The mother and calf get away. How appropriate for Mother's Day! We follow the fleeing KWs for a while and have great looks at them leaping beside the boat. Just an incredible experience to savor.

Other birds seen but not mentioned above: BROWN PELICAN, CALFORNIA, WESTERN and BONAPARTE'S GULLS and CASPIAN TERN.

Read more about the Killer Whale attack and see additional photos on Don Roberson's website.


Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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Last updated August 12, 2004