Killer Whales Top Off a Killer Day

Mom and baby Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus)

It’s cold. Despite the radiant orb hanging low, unobstructed by clouds, and the pretty waves of blue rhythmically lifting our boat, despite our smiling faces and the playful energy of the sea lions off our port side, all of which give the deceptive impression of a balmy day at sea—it’s cold. The wind insists on slipping beneath my scarf-crowned layers and through the weave of my gloves trying, itself, to escape the November chill.

But this kind of nagging discomfort can’t squelch my enthusiasm. I’m here in Monterey for the biennual conference of the American Cetacean Society (, a weekend event that always begins with a much-anticipated day of whale watching.

Imagine attending a golf conference to listen to the pros speak, and getting to spend a day on the green with them. That’s what this feels like. Several of our co-passengers are renowned biologists who hold astonishing insight into the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises. 

blue shark (Prionace glauca)

We have already seen a pod of Risso’s dolphins, blunt-faced, whitish of color, bodies covered with scratches and scrapes as unique as fingerprints. We’ve also watched three Humpback whales of enormous girth, proof of a good feeding season. Swarms of sea nettles, a pair of sea otters, a cluster of small sunfish (Mola mola), and one eight foot blue shark. At every sighting, well-informed marine experts add factoids to the collective knowledge.

Now, as I stand at Sea Wolf’s side rail eavesdropping on a couple guys talking shop about field techniques for studying small endangered cetaceans, the onboard naturalist announces something (I don’t understand what) and everyone quickly shuffles to the other side of the boat. I’m slow to move, lost in thought. I’m still staring into the white froth splashing up from the boat keel, which is as mesmerizing as a bonfire, when two large elliptical black and white bodies sail by in the water just beneath me. Two orcas, eyes rolled up to catch mine.

The surprising visage takes a moment to process because this is the first time I’ve personally seen transient killer whales (Orcinus orca) off California. Turns out we are encountering a small pod of four—the two on the other side of the boat—and the two that just flew by. The resident naturalist tells us this is a known mother with three offspring of varying ages.

They are spectacular! Bold faces break the surface followed by skyrise dorsal fins. One youngster is chasing floating birds like a child flushing pigeons in the park. I only take a few photos; I am too excited by their antics to barricade my eye with the camera. Laugher rings from the boat. As the onyx icons dash and dive alongside our vessel and everyone chatters about our good fortune, I feel auspiciously confident this is going to be an excellent conference weekend.

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