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First Orcas of Season Spotted on South Oregon Coast Near Brookings

Published 02/28/22 at 12:32 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

First Orcas of Season Spotted on South Oregon Coast Near Brookings

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(Brookings, Oregon) – It's not like the sighting is earthshaking in itself, but it's a big deal for whale nerds and whale watchers along the Oregon coast. It is a bit unusual this early on, however. (Above: outer transient whales photographed in the past by NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

This week saw the first killer whale sightings along the Oregon coast for the season, this time down around Brookings.

It was Brenda Ziviello-Howell of the Brookings area who made the find, photographing two killer whales seen zipping around the waters of Sporthaven Beach and chasing harbor seals.

Josh McInnes of the University of British Columbia is the sort of rock star of whale research on the west coast right now, the public face of a few groups of researchers from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Transient Killer Whale Project of the U.S. and Canada, and others. He confirmed to Oregon Coast Beach Connection it was two killer whales but he did not know the identities. Either they could not be ID'd from the photo or they were not ID'd yet by researchers who have cataloged many of the orcas off the West Coast.

McInness' group of researchers put out a landmark publication this last year called “Transient Killer Whales of Central and Northern California and Oregon: a Catalog of Photo-Identified Individuals,” which ID'd over 140 orcas from the region.

He could not say yet whether this bodes well for the upcoming whale watch season along the Oregon coast and Washington coast, which invariably brings quite a few killer whale sightings to the region. See Ziviello-Howell's full post here. A screen capture of the post from a local whale watcher group is below.

Yet this is quite early for them to be reported along the Oregon coast, especially for any of the so-called transients that seem to follow the gray whale migrations. Normally, these kinds of orcas show up in April or so, then often stay until about late May or maybe June.

Experts on the Oregon coast have long believed they follow the gray whales to eat the new calves in the group, which were birthed in the warmer waters off Mexico. The Whale Watch Center in Depoe Bay has seen them attacking the babies before and documented it.

However, McInnes told Oregon Coast Beach Connection last year that he's not convinced that's why they're here. There are various groups of transient orcas, each with different habits.

“I've never been able to figure out which group of transients are hunting calves,” he said. “It's easier to grab a seal pup that's less maneuverable, and easy to kill compared to a gray whale calf which isn't as easy to kill and has a large defensive mother.”

McInnes thinks the greater number of orca sightings off the Oregon coast and southern Washington coast in spring may have more to do with pupping season for seals. The sighting off Brookings shows them preying on seals, but it's not pupping season yet.

McInnes and the various groups around him have found there are three main types of killer whales of the West Coast between Alaska and California: residents, offshore whales and the transients. Inside that transient subset there are two kinds: the coastal transients and the outer coast whales. The ones we get to see on the Oregon and Washington coast in the spring are largely the coastal transients – or coastal assemblage – which eat mammals. (Photo courtesy Oregon State Parks)

The outer coast whales are much more mysterious to the researchers involved in the publication, but they do know this group wanders the continental shelf off Oregon and California.

One thing is for sure among these researchers and Oregon coast experts: aquatic wildlife offshore seem to know the orcas are in the area. The Whale Watch Center frequently reports seeing whales, seals and sea lions suddenly gone from the area, and sure enough, within an hour or two killer whales are seen drifting through. MORE ORCA PHOTOS BELOW

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Photo Josh McInnes

Photo courtesy Selena Rivera

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