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Possible New Killer Whale Discoveries Off of Oregon Coast Waters

Published 3/20/24 at 10:15 p.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Possible New Killer Whale Discoveries Off Oregon Coast Waters

(Oregon Coast) – Researchers may have found a new population of killer whales off the Oregon coast and California coast. A cadre of marine experts from University of British Columbia (UBC) as well as a host of other agencies have compiled a good deal of observations taken for over 20 years that points to a new discovery about the species out there in the Pacific Ocean. (Killer whale OCX043 photographed with three other whales 175km west of Bandon, Oregon, September 9, 2021. Robert L. Pitman, Oregon State University )

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Part of this find includes bite marks from a particular kind of shark.

The lead author on the project is Josh McInnes from the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Marine Mammal Research Unit, but he's well known here for the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program on Facebook. It's a group that has famously made some startling observations in this area.

The study was published this week in Aquatic Mammals, saying there seems to be a new subpopulation of orcas out there in the open waters off the continent that has never been documented. Using photos and encounters from various vessels between 1997 and 2021, McInnes and his group believe they've found a unique group of transient killer whales living tens to hundreds of miles offshore, and one that looks and behaves differently than other known orcas.

About 49 new whales are in the research.

Aside from new markings, documented encounters included predation interaction with other marine animals researchers that was new.


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The killer whale Facebook group documented some striking, dramatic killer whale behavior in recent years near Depoe Bay (above), Brookings and more. Dozens Watch and Document Orcas Attack, Kill Baby Whale on Oregon Coast: More Videos

“These whales appear to feed on marine mammals,” McInnes told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “However, the species was observed to [attack] marine mammals that occur in open ocean habitats. This included sperm whales, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, and northern elephant seal. There was one record as well of a group feeding on a leatherback sea turtle.”

It all points to new discoveries about orca movement out in the ocean, and how inhabiting different waters makes for different characteristics and killer whale ecology.

There are three ecotypes of killer whale that live along the coasts of California and Oregon: what are called “residents,” “transients,” and “offshores.”

The residents – seen on this coastline and up north – eat salmon. Transients – also observed here – chomp on mammals, and they sport a gray saddle patch along with pointed fins. Offshores prefer sharks and larger fish. In the photograph at top, this new offshore orca was spotted off the waters of Bandon.

It's proof the ocean still holds a lot of secrets.

“As of right now we can only say that these whales could not be photo-identified and have not been documented in association with other populations of killer whales,” McInnes said. “They appear to inhabit oceanic/offshore waters and were observed feeding on marine mammals. This was evidence in the occurrence of cookiecutter shark bite marks/scars on their dorsal fins and saddle patches. These parasitic sharks are small and they bite small chunks off large animals, and they are only found in the open ocean.”

Data was brought together from nine encounters over the two decades, and included a pod attacking a herd of female sperm whales, eventually killing one. Among the sources were passenger boats and fishing vessels that had snapped photographs or recounted their stories over the years.

McInnes said there still needs to be much more research done to prove the hypothesis, which will include genetic testing.

Also contributing were the Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

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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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