Monterey Seabirds
September 20, 2009 Seabird Cruise Trip Report

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Sunday September 20, 2009 - Close Encounters of the Killer Whale Kind

Possible Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, photo by Jeff PoklenSuffice it to say this was a trip that I for one will never forget and neither will our skipper, Richard Ternullo.

Richard has been a skipper on the bay for 35 years. He and Nancy Black have been conducting research on Transient Killer Whales for many years. He's had numerous interactions with Killer Whales but never has he seen anything like we did this day.

We already had a very satisfying encounter with a pod of Risso's Dolphins that uncharacteristically approached the boat and milled around us.

Admittedly, the seabirding is a bit on the slow side when we notice some bird activity up ahead of us. Gulls are circling about, and we know why when we spot the distinctive black dorsal fins of KILLER WHALES/ORCAS. I'm doing some fist pumping. I never tire of seeing these animals and count myself fortunate in having had the great luck to interact with them on several occasions.

As we pull up the Killer Whales approach the boat swimming all around us. One of the females lifts her flukes out of the water and waves at us. The surface of the water has a layer of oil on it and with the gulls overhead we know that the Killer Whales must have just made a kill.

On other occasions we've had Killer Whales approach the boat with prey items in their mouths. It is as if they want to show you what they have and they seem to enjoy playing with their food, dead or alive. I am just saying this to someone on the boat when one of the females approaches the boat with the skeletal remains of what I think is a California sea lion sticking out of her mouth.

She swims straight up to our boat near the bow and actually makes contact with it. She lifts her head out of the water with the prey dangling out of her mouth as if offering us a bite!

All of us on board are shocked and awed at this. The Killer Whales swim around the boat on their sides looking up at us humans hanging over the rail. Some playful tail slaps near the back of the boat get some of us wet. There are five Orcas in all: an adult male, a subadult male (aka a sprouter), a calf and two females. Each of them approaches us at one time or another.

While we're watching we see one of the females and a calf grab a COMMON MURRE and play with it for a few minutes before eating it. The youngsters learn to prey upon smaller prey items like this. I've seen them eat Rhino Auklets too.

This is part of the group that are known as the "Friendly Pod" as they have been known to interact with boats on many other occasions and have even done some bow riding, thus the appropriate name.

I'm trying to get it all on video and fielding questions at the same time when three of the Killer Whales approach the boat with guts trailing out of the male's mouth; a female and her calf take the prey from the mouth of the male and swim right up to us. As she approaches us the female's blowhole clears the water and she vocalizes into the air in a dolphin, squeaky way. We are all amazed at this.

Todd Easterla says, "Hello love," and she comes to surface and does it again with a punctuation of what Richard calls a fart blow or raspberry through her blowhole.

We are having interspecies contact of the third kind. These animals are genuinely interacting with us. I can't help but speculate that they might be attempting to share food with us, make us feel welcome.

They seem to be as interested in seeing us as much as we are interested in seeing them. Several pass by just under the rail swimming on their sides looking up at us looking down at them.

We've notified the whale watch fleet and soon the first boat arrives on the scene. We've had our time with them alone but time is limited and now we need to get back to seabirding. As we pull away the male does a series of breaches as if to send us off.

Over the P.A. Richard tells everyone, "You will probably never have an experience with Transient Killer Whales like that ever again in your entire life."

Driving away I'm choked up, for me this is the stuff of dreams. Richard and I just keep looking at each other saying over and over, "WOW! What was that all about?"

Check out the video I shot:



Be sure to have the volume up (starting around 4 minutes 28 seconds) to hear the female Orca vocalize.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, photo by Jeff PoklenThe marine mammal show didn't end there. We also had some close passes by three BLUE WHALES one of which fluked up two times for us.

I said to everyone that this was the best whale watch I'd ever been on, but it was a seabird trip so on to the seabirds.

One FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER was very accommodating in flying in around the boat for some time to delight everyone on board, especially the photographers. We had two MERLINS flyover and a single PEREGRINE FACLON.

We also had a shorebird fly by that photographer Jeff Poklen managed to get a few shots of. It was the first pelagic record for Monterey of a juvenile SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER.

Keen-eyed Dutch birders on the bow spotted a single BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER.

We did manage to locate the storm-petrel flocks but they were comprised solely of ASHY STORM-PETRELS. Inside the bay we were lucky to find a few SABINE'S GULLS and SOUTH POLAR SKUAS.

(See map of our route below.)

Summary of species seen:

Bird species seen (Monterey County)
   Black-footed Albatross    10
  Northern Fulmar   3
  Pink-footed Shearwater   19
  Flesh-footed Shearwater   1
  Buller's Shearwater   3
  Sooty Shearwater   500
  Black-vented Shearwater   1
  Ashy Storm-Petrel   20
  Brown Pelican   8
  Brandt's Cormorant   50
  Pelagic Cormorant   3
  Merlin   2
  Peregrine Falcon   1
  Black-bellied Plover   1
  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper   1
  Red-necked Phalarope   50
  Sabine's Gull   3
  Heermann's Gull   300
  Western Gull   70
  California Gull   50
  Elegant Tern   5
  South Polar Skua   2
  Pomarine Jaeger   12
  Parasitic Jaeger   2
  Common Murre   250
  Pigeon Guillemot   2
  Cassin's Auklet   20
  Rhinoceros Auklet   38
       
Marine Mammals:
  Blue Whale   5
  Humpback Whale   3
  Killer Whale/Orca   5
  Pacific White-sided Dolphins   3
  Rissoís Dolphins   125
  Dallís Porpoise   7
  Harbor Porpoise   5
  Northern Fur Seal   2
  Northern Elephant Seal   1
  California Sea Lion    
  Sea Otter    

Click to see Google Earth image of track See the Google Earth image showing locations of points along the track in red (same route out and back) and county boundaries in white (opens in new window).

See Jeff Poklen's photo gallery of this trip at: www.pbase.com/jpkln/20sep2009

Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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Photos copyright © 2009 Jeff Poklen, all rights reserved.
Video copyright
© 2009 Roger Wolfe, all rights reserved.

Last updated September 26, 2009