As plumes of saltwater shot up from the ocean’s surface, we spotted the pod of maybe 10 orcas cutting through the Santa Barbara Channel. Porpoising through the water, the group of apex predators seemed to be on the hunt for their next meal. The experience of spotting orcas off our shore from aboard an Island Packers boat earlier this month was both a fleeting thrill and a lasting memory.
There are two kinds of orcas along the Pacific Coast: residents and transients. Transient orcas can be easier to spot — they have a more pronounced and pointed dorsal fin, which can be six feet long on males. Resident orcas stay put, feasting on fish across a certain region, such as chasing salmon off Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, near rivers where the fish spawn. The transients prefer a more diversified menu, and as they pass through Santa Barbara Channel, everything is fair game, including seals and sea lions, dolphins and porpoises, even gray, minke, and humpback whales.
Teamwork is key to the hunt, which can last a few minutes or go on for hours. Once, in a separate sighting, the pods plowed ahead toward a massive group of dolphin, and we humans gathered on the bow, anticipating something monumental. All of a sudden the orcas vanished, and the ocean fell to an utter calm. Their strategy was to dive deep beneath the dolphin pod and strike from below. Suddenly the dolphin scattered and escaped — all except one, a mere morsel taken by two adult males. But the rest were hungry, too, and as two gray whales spouted in unison farther west, the hunt was back on.