Orca whales spotted off the Malibu coast

A pod of orca whales, also known as killer whales, spotted about a mile off the coast of Malibu in 2011 by whale watchers. 

The offshore waters of Malibu are teeming with life–and some pretty big life at that. In December, a record 368 gray whales were observed on their annual migration to and from Baja Mexico. The number of white shark sightings has increased so much that the lifeguard division of the LA County Fire Department held a recent shark symposium for officials, and a family of orca “killer whales” returned to visit for the third year in a row. 

Gray Whale sightings 

December 2013 has gone down in the official record books as the month with the greatest number of gray whales observed migrating in the last 31 years, with 368 spotted. The second highest December occurred in 2011 with 194 whales (70 is the average number). 

Gray whales are believed to have the longest migration of any mammal, leaving their feeding grounds in Alaska each year to journey to Baja Mexico to mate and give birth—an annual round-trip of nearly 12,500 miles from November to April. The migration path moves directly past Malibu. 

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the American Cetacean Society–Los Angeles Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, said the whales’ total population is believed to number 21,000. She thinks the reason so many more were spotted this year is because of viewing conditions and not because the population of gray whales is increasing. 

“It’s been clear weather with very little fog and good visibility,” she said. “The whales [also] came down early this year,” she added, which sometimes happens when ice forms early or food becomes scarcer in Alaska. 

White Shark sightings 

The number of “great white sharks,” or simply “white sharks” as biologists call them, has been on the rise in recent years along county beaches as a result of cleaner water and the sharks’ protection as endangered species status.

Shark expert Chris Lowe at the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab says that most of the sharks near shore are small juveniles. The coastal area is their “nursery” where they learn to hunt abundant food like stingrays in shallow waters. 

“We typically don’t see large adults moving along our beaches, although we do see them near the Channel Islands and Catalina, where we also have seal rookeries (a food source),” Lowe said. “The white shark is not a coastal shark. I would consider it an oceanic shark.” 

Due to a spate of juvenile white shark sightings and lifeguards subsequently dealing with surfers and media on the issue, the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Division held a Shark Symposium on January 17 at Dockweiler Beach attended by 70 public safety officials representing 50 different agencies. 

Kyle Daniels, ocean lifeguard at LA County Fire Department, hopes the symposium will be the first step toward developing science-based shark policies and “more uniformity in actions and messages to the public.” 

Orca “Killer Whale” sightings 

For the third year in a row, the same family group of orcas has traveled down the coast from Monterrey to spend the holidays in the Santa Monica Bay area, where they were spotted six times from December until January 1. They’re apparently headed north again, since they were last seen near Santa Barbara on January 2. 

Schulman-Janiger, who is also the co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project and has been archiving all of the killer whales in California for a couple of decades, recognizes this particular family by sight. These are “transient” killer whales, meaning that unlike some killer whales, they roam a large area. They are carnivores, they hunt in groups and are highly intelligent. 

“The orcas eat sea lions for most of the year but I think the Common dolphins are a treat for them,” Schulman-Janiger said. “There aren’t many Common dolphins in Monterey and we have thousands of them.” 

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