Marine mammal biologist Paula Olson was at her post aboard the Ocean Starr ship in the early afternoon of Oct. 14 when she saw a group of dark dolphins in the distance through her high-powered binoculars.
The ship carrying a team of scientists, then roughly 150 miles west of the Channel Islands, drew closer for a better view.
“We realized, ‘Oh, this is different,’” Olson said.
Olson and the rest of her team soon knew they were watching pygmy killer whales, members of the dolphin family never recorded by survey scientists in California waters and – despite their name – not considered dangerous. The team then got into an inflatable boat and used a crossbow fitted with a small biopsy dart to collect a skin sample of a dolphin. The samples allow the scientists to learn more about the species, its population and gender.
The pygmy killer whales were hardly the only unusual sightings for scientists during a four-month cruise of the California coast, where they monitored the appearances of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and birds on the Pacific Ocean. Sei and Blainville’s beaked whales along with band-rumped storm-petrels and loggerhead sea turtles were among the atypical sightings reported during the survey, which began Aug. 5 and ended Dec. 9.
The cruise included five separate legs, with different groups of scientists boarding at each leg to study the California current, which stretches from the Canadian to the Mexican borders.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla has conducted the marine mammal surveys along the California coast every three to six years since 1991 and along the West Coast since 1996. The last survey occurred in 2008, said Lisa Ballance, director of the center’s marine mammal and turtle division.
“We keep the ocean safe,” Ballance said. “We’re really all about monitoring status and trends to ensure that marine mammals and turtles are healthy.”
Using equipment like Olson’s special binoculars and a free-floating recording device, the scientists wanted to know the distribution of marine mammals, including whether endangered species are recovering.
The aim is to measure how different species are responding to changes in the ecosystem and to protection efforts, said Jay Barlow, the survey’s chief scientist.
“The ecosystem is extremely dynamic,” Barlow said.
The humpback whale population, for instance, has risen from about 1,000 back in the late 1960s to well over 20,000 in the entire northern Pacific, Barlow said.
The rare appearance of tropical species like pilot and pygmy killer whales in Southern California is likely linked to the area’s water being warmer than usual, he said.
“We’ve never seen the pygmy in California waters,” Barlow said. “It does tell me that as the world’s oceans warm, we will see more of these tropical species in these waters.”
The survey scientists are not alone in having rare sightings this year.
Leslie Kretschmar, director of at-sea programs at the Ocean Institute, an ocean education center in Dana Point, said pilot and false killer whales were new sightings for her boat this year.
“It’s been kind of a capstone year for having once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said Kretschmar, also a marine biologist. “Something is going on. There’s definitely a lot of food out there.”
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher with the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, said the pygmy killer whale sighting “in itself is extraordinary,” but she also is fascinated by the appearances of other warm-water species in the California current like the brown booby, a seabird.
“It’s a multiple-species shift,” she said.
Schulman-Janiger said she has been contacted by the survey scientists to help with identifying some killer whales.
The survey was not limited to what scientists saw. An acoustics team charted the sounds of the ocean.
Jennifer Keating, a research biologist at the center, used a hydrophone array to listen for and record whale and dolphin vocalization, which typically cannot be heard by the human ear alone. Computer software allows her to match the sound to an image of the species. At one point, she located the clicking sounds of the rare Blainville’s beaked whale.
The scientists are learning how the whales “function as a social group,” Keating said.
“It’s listening to how the animals communicate in the ocean.”
Keating got a jolt when a shark bit part of her array. But those kinds of unplanned events challenge the scientists to think on their feet, said Emily Griffiths, also a research biologist at the center.
“You learn to be a better scientist,” said Griffiths, who contended with an equipment failure and a bad allergic reaction when she was on the cruise. “Things happen in the field that are unpredictable, but you cope with it.”
Analyzing the data collected will take a year or longer, Barlow said. The survey’s cost was about $3 million, largely federally funded, he said.
Scientists said that their surveys always reveal new information because the animals are unpredictable and the ocean is active. There also is a constant sense of mystery about the sea.
“We know so little about the ocean and what lives there as opposed to the terrestrial environment,” Olson said. “It’s harder to study.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.