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Expert on Oregon Coast Orcas: Why So Many Sightings, Practice Kills, Who, More

Published 06/22/23 at 6:21 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

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(Oregon Coast) – The amount of killer whale sightings along the Oregon coast has grown exponentially in recent years, especially since the advent of the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program, a group on Facebook run by – of all things – a whale scientist in British Columbia. Consequently, a lot has come to light in the last year or so, and this current season of spotting orcas off these shores has resulted in some off-the-charts moments. This is part two of Other Gray Whales Killed by Orcas Found on Oregon Coast, Revealing More Science . (Photo above courtesy Brookings Fishing Charters)

Researchers have learned a lot of about which orcas are bounding through here. Why are there so many sightings now? Why do some not eat all they kill? Who are they? And how do you spot one?

The page is a project with the Marine Mammal Research Unit Institute for the Oceans Fisheries up north: that group of scientists works with various others along the west coast of the continent, studying whales from Alaska down through California. Josh McInnes, from Vancouver, B.C., runs the Facebook page, and he recently talked with Oregon Coast Beach Connection about much he and his researcher pals have found because of it.

That includes the nagging question: are there more orcas out here? This time of year always produced several sightings, but this year and last year were insane by comparison.

While the general answer seems to lean towards there are just a lot more people out there spotting them and reporting them – and it's now, of course, firmly the digital age. The killer whale Facebook group has over 10,000 followers, so that was a major factor.

Still, McInnes said it's entirely possible there are more on the Oregon coast, but no one is really certain. That kind of detail and frequency of reports / sightings wasn't possible until now.

He thinks it comes down to the amount of harbor seals in the area, which is primarily what most of the transient killer whales are interested in for food. McInnes said that supply of food is better than it used to be.

“The amount of harbor seals available [are there] to support the amount of transients that are gonna be in the area,” he said. “The harbor seal situation in British Columbia and Washington State is that there's a larger population of them, a higher density. What I'm seeing is likely there could be an increase in the pinned population. So that could mean the transients are spending more time on the Oregon coast, so we might be seeing more transient time being spent here.”

Along the Washington coast, the researchers from the institute have been seeing something like 60 transients a day in recent months. Here, the Facebook group has helped the scientists identify 34 different whales from March to June, some 41 or so different sightings this season. McInnes said that's five different groups of orcas, which includes that bone-chilling squad of 12 that killed the gray whale calf on May 8. See Dozens Watch and Document Orcas Attack, Kill Baby Whale on Oregon Coast: More Videos

Photo Jim Rice / Marine Mammal Stranding Network: the baby gray calf killed by orcas on May 8 near Depoe Bay was only chewed on and not eaten.

Some are resident killer whales (including the greatly endangered southern residents) and some are oceanic killer whales – also known as offshore whales.

They are getting to know who these pods are as well, and though most are interested in harbor seals as prey, some have another target in mind.

“It's quite interesting because what I believe is going on is that we've had one or two different groups of transients that have been mostly killing gray whale calves,” McInnes said.

They've also been able to make more scientific finds like seasonal behaviors and trends, and have been able to confirm some theories about orcas.

Then there's this unique thing that's surprised many readers in recent stories – even angered some – that a few of the killer whales don't eat all they hunt down. Especially the baby whales they attack: the carcasses washing up were just nibbled on, really.

Not everyone is going to like this answer.

McInnes said they are not sure why, but there is an aspect of predator ecology that's called “surplus killing.” [3 Gray Whales Strand on Oregon Coast: Calf from Orca Attack; Mother and Calf Swim Away ]

“We see it with different species of predators that will often kill for what we believe to be no reason,” he said. “It could be for training purposes for young ones. It can be that the killer whales have had enough to feed on during the season, and got enough food and nutrition, they may actually kill animals for practice or training.”

He noted sometimes this phenomena of gray whales washing up not entirely-eaten could be that the orcas had given up the hunt and the prey has gotten away. Then, later the whale is so injured it dies.

That, said McInnes was actually documented with one of the recent orca attacks near Crescent City, California. Witnesses saw the fight and noticed the gray whale escaping. However, it turned up dead nearby the next day.

So, how do you spot one of these wild behemoths, and join in the orca party going on?

It's a lot tougher than gray whale spotting, partially because you're not looking for the same kind of blowhole action. You'll need patience – and something more.

“It's just kind of like luck-of-the-draw you're gonna be in one of those spots,” McInnes said. “But they're continuously on the move, so you really just need to spend time looking, spending a full day, just kind of searching,”

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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