A group of killer whales played with salmon and chased seabirds in Monterey Bay on Friday — and one whale-watching group caught it all on drone video.
In one stunning frame, an orca uses its fluke, or tail, to kick a salmon high into the air where it flips several times.
“They were mostly just playing, like a cat with a mouse,” said Nancy Black, marine biologist and owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Black noted that several members of the orca group are young for killer whales, and not as experienced at hunting, so playtime helps them practice.
“There’s not much in the ocean to play with, and birds are one of them,” Black said. “They can see their little feet dangling below the surface and it’s a fun thing to do for these youngsters. It’s a way to coordinate and practice when they hunt larger animals.”
One of the orcas grabbed a bird in its mouth, dove under the water with it, and came back up with a dead bird, Black said. She added that the five birds they were playing with all apparently died, though she doesn’t believe the orcas actually ate any of them.
The orcas also played with what looked to Black like a king salmon. Though they sent the fish flying about 15 feet into the air, “they just let it go, they didn’t eat it,” Black said.
The killer whales showed playful and curious behavior, even coming up to the whale-watching boat on purpose, blowing bubbles and vocalizing as they played with the birds, Black said.
“I’ve never seen that before in 30 years,” Black said. “It was an amazing day. Practicing with the birds, I’ve seen that before, but not to this extent.”
This group of orcas is unique in that two of the members joined after their mothers died, Black said. They aren’t as good at hunting as their mothers were, so hunting is a team effort.
“This is the best example of practicing with seabirds that I’ve seen in 30 years,” Black said. “It was one of the most amazing days I’ve seen.”
The killer whales that were seen in Monterey Bay are the transient type of killer whale, which means they eat marine mammals. That’s different than the orcas spotted in Monterey Bay a few weeks ago: those are Southern Resident orcas, which typically feed on salmon and reside in the Pacific Northwest.
The transient type of killer whale is the type most often seen on the Central Coast.
Black noted that they tend to see more killer whales in April and May because they’re hunting gray whale calves.
In fact, on Saturday a group of about a half-dozen orcas were seen feasting on something — likely a gray whale calf — in Morro Bay.
Black noted that the day after the video was taken, the group of orcas hunted and killed a gray whale calf.
“It took them four hours to kill the gray whale calf. For comparison, more experienced hunters can kill a gray whale calf in less than an hour,” Black said.
While April and May is a better time to look for killer whales in Monterey Bay, Black cautioned that orcas aren’t out in the bay every day.
“They’re not here every day but we see them more often this time of year, and this is the best time to look for killer whales,” Black said. “You just have to be lucky.”