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Apr-06-2007 15:29printcomments

Killer Whales Expected on Central Coast in April

Last year, the killer whales lingered until the middle of July.

killer whales
Two mammal-eating "transient" killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photo by Robert Pittman, courtesy: NOAA

(NEWPORT, Ore. - It’s a little known aspect of whale watching on Oregon’s coast, but the middle of April is also orca season; usually in the Depoe Bay and Newport areas, but often seen from Cascade Head all the way down to Florence.

The killer whales are what are known as “transient” whales, meaning officials don’t know where they come from. They’re also more predatory, living off seals and baby gray whales.

Morris Grover, with the Whale Watch Spoken Here program, says these are smaller and more shark-like in appearance than what are nicknamed the “friendly” whales, which visit here from the San Juan Islands and live on salmon.

“We see them in our waters every spring, usually arriving about April 15,” Grover said. “But some have already been spotted during the previous whale watch week. They are here to intercept the baby gray whales, as that is the time they usually arrive along the coast. They are usually here for a few weeks.”

Last year, the killer whales lingered until the middle of July.

“That is a very long time for them, but it was obviously supported by local food for them,” Grover said. “We watched a pod of five around Depoe Bay and actually filmed them taking what we believed to be a seal in the south end of the bay. Seals and sea lions are fast in the water and orcas have to burn up a lot of energy to catch them. After all that work, only one seal will feed one orca. When they kill a baby gray whale, the whole pod can eat for a week.”

Grover said they can sometimes be seen coming into Yaquina Bay in Newport, when they can’t find baby whales, attracted by the proliferation of seals and sea lions in the bay. Some years, they have also been known to linger at the edges of the bay’s jetties. One sighting in recent years was of a killer whale chasing a seal all the way through Yaquina Bay, almost as far east as Toledo.

“It’s all food related,” Grover said. “They come up here all the time. Basically, they will take the easiest prey.”

Grover said they can sometimes be seen apparently “playing” with their food by tossing it back and forth, or slapping it with their tails. This unique behavior has to do with teaching their young how to hunt.

To catch sight of these killer whales, just like spotting any whale, Grover suggests patience, and head to a high vantage point. The Newport area has many of these, such as the lighthouse at Yaquina Bay, the Yaquina Head area, Don Davis Memorial Park in Nye Beach, and nearby at Cape Foulweather. The headquarters for the Whale Watch Spoken Here program is in Depoe Bay, at the seawall, and another good spot for seeing them as well.

Grover emphasized that even though the Whale Watch Week is over, there are still gray whales aplenty to be spotted, along with the coveted killer whale sightings. Gray whales are still migrating through here in great numbers until June. Then, the “summer” whales begin to show up, which tend to loiter on the central coast in large numbers for the summer before migrating again, because of the great food supply here. These really put on a show by coming quite close to shore.

“If you sit there for only five minutes and you spot a whale, then you’ve won the lottery,” Grover said. “It’s not likely. If you sit there for a half hour, it’s possible you’ll see one. If you sit for an hour, you’ll probably see one.”

In late May of last year, Tiffany Boothe of the Seaside Aquarium photographed a pod of killer whales near the Sea Lion Caves.

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.

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