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Immense Surge in Oregon Coast Orca Sightings Includes Baby Killer Whale

Published 06/05/22 at 5:45 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

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(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – Few things get Oregonians fired up and excited these days like orca sightings, especially when they happen in enormous numbers like in recent weeks. Part of that is there are simply more eyes now trained on them and a big network that connects the watchers, but there do seem to be more killer whales out off the Oregon coast than usual as well. (Photo detail courtesy Chuck Johnson: the baby orca is visible next to the larger one, note the orange patch)

The last few days have seen an incredible surge of the great cetaceans wandering through, with thick reports coming out of the Newport to Depoe Bay areas, but also some exciting moments in the Columbia River, Coos Bay area, and much more.

However, the big squeal-inducer is a baby orca spotted numerous times on June 3 and 4, all showing up on the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Sightings Facebook group as well as other similar pages. This is a rare treat for visitors and residents of the area, with the wee little one becoming quite photogenic in the Rock Creek area near Depoe Bay on Saturday.

You could say the orca calf is making a splash.

Photo courtesy Melissa A. Janiek / Oregon Coast Whale Watchers group: the baby at Rocky Creek

Josh McInnes of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. Is a lead researcher on regional killer whale populations through the university's Marine Mammal Research Unit and the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and he runs the killer whale sightings group on Facebook. That group, along with numerous others along the Oregon coast, have all lit up like a Christmas tree lately.

“The last couple of weeks we have seen several different transient killer whale matrilines or families off the Oregon coast,” McInnes said. “These killer whales specialize on hunting marine mammals.”

McInnes and his colleagues at numerous organizations have cataloged over 100 orca whales that frequent the coastline from B.C. down through California. This new baby calf is one that they've been aware of for awhile, having noticed that it was born in the Washington coast's Salish Sea about a month ago.

You can tell it's a baby by the hint of orange patch, which is barely visible in the photos but it's there.

Full frame photo from Chuck Johnson of the orcas in Rocky Creek

They don't know the sex of the orca calf just yet, but: “Killer whale calves are born with orange pigmentation, which they lose in the first six month,” McInnes said.

The baby and its relatives were spotted frequently in the last two days, along with a mind-blowing number of other orca sightings in Newport's Yaquina Bay, Boiler Bay and even far up the Yaquina River by an oyster farm. The killer whale sightings page has probably 20 or more sightings in just the last two days, many of which are overlapping witness accounts, photos and video from the same spots and times.

Other areas thick with sightings just this last week were around Long Beach / Astoria, Tillamook Bay, Port Orford, Yachats to Heceta Head and some incredible video taken by helicopter from the U.S Coast Guard North Bend sector on the southern Oregon coast. Some sightings report the whales chomping on seals or seal lions.

All this is super exciting for researchers as well, McInnes said. The calf belongs to the T049A family.

“This family is composed of six whales led by matriarch T049A (born, 1986), adult son T049A1 (born, 2001), son T049A2 (born, 2007), son T049A3 (born, 2011), son T049A4 (born, 2014), daughter T049A5 (born, 2017), and the new calf T049A6,” McInnes said. “T049A2 does not travel with his family that often.”

Like other young creatures, it's going to engage in some slightly different behaviors, a little bit like puppies do.

“Calves are often more gregarious then adults, with breaching, spy hopping and play behaviour being displayed,” McInnes said. “Social or play behaviour might be used by young transient killer whales as a way to develop hunting skills or to tone muscles that will be used for hunting marine mammals.”

These groups of orcas spotting around the coastline are showing up partially because of the increased food sources: it's pupping season for seals and sea lions. How they hone in on this is rather amazing.

“Transient killer whales have specific foraging behaviors adapted for different marine mammal prey, and they use stealth while hunting,” McInnes said. “This means they do not vocalize and instead passively listen for the sounds prey make. For example the splashing sounds a harbor seal makes while swimming in the shallows. They also travel and hunt in small group to remain inconspicuous and to coordinate hunts.“

McInnes said the transient groups don't linger in any one place very long, even if there are lots of harbor seals in the region. Once the transients make a kill, the other seals for miles around will know it, and the orcas have to move on to somewhere else where the prey is clueless. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Photo of orcas spyhopping near Brookings, courtesy Brookings Fishing Charters

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