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Killer Whale Sightings Lead to Revelations About Oregon Coast Transient Orcas

Published 05/20/2019 at 6:53 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Killer Whale Sightings Lead to Revelations About Oregon Coast Transient Orcas

(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – Various reports of Orcas have been the highlight of the spring season along the Oregon coast, including an incredible encounter back in April when some were spotted in Tillamook Bay. (Photo above courtesy Whale Watch Center, Depoe Bay).

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Since then, reports have been largely sporadic, but one spectacular run happened in early May and then on May 15 – the latter sighting seems to have revealed something significant about this rather mysterious group of killer whales.

On May 15, Whale Eco Excursions in Depoe Bay ran across a pod of six or seven of what are known as transient whales, which featured a few females, one male and a calf. This group of Orcas – unlike the resident whales from northern Washington that sometimes wander south – is a big unknown to most officials and experts on the Oregon coast. Scientists and others in the whale biz have in the state have said for years that not much is known about them.

It turns out, however, they have been studied all along by scientists in other states and Canada for awhile. In fact, two researchers from different west coast groups were able to identify one of the males in the pod on May 15: he’s known as T68A.

Another revelation: the transients’ numbers are growing, while the more famous Orcas of Washington are shrinking and endangered. They’re down to 75, while the gypsy-like transients – with their more beaked appearance and appetite for mammals – are more than five times as plentiful in number.

Josh McInnes, a Canadian researcher from the University of Victoria and the California-based Marine Life Studies, made the positive ID of T68A first, based on Whale Eco Excursions’ owner Carrie Newell’s photos from that day.

These transients may not be as much of a mystery as Oregonians think.

A revelation to those dealing with Oregon coast whales may be that McInnes and others have documented two separate groups of transient killer whales that call the entire west coast of the continent home: from California to Alaska. Their members have even been cataloged, as McInnes showed. For T68A, T means “transient,” his number is 68, and A means he’s the first born of a female known as T68.

“There are two sub set communities,” McInnes said. “There’s what we call the outer coast group that’s primarily found in the offshore waters around the continental shelf. We see those guys a lot in Monterrey, California. Then there’s the inter-coast. They both intermingle, but not a continuous basis, though.”

What is known is that the big thing separating them from the fish-guzzling resident Orcas is that the transients chow down on mammals: seals, sea lions and often baby gray whales.

The inter-coast group alone numbers at least 400, with some 150 of these whales being regulars down in Monterrey. Others prefer the areas from southern Alaska through Washington state. The pods are wide and varied in habit too, McInnes said. They have their ranges. The outer coast group numbers 200.

“It really depends on the family groups,” McInnes said. “When hunting, some groups have their preferences for certain prey.”

Some pods stick to Vancouver Island, for example, looking for harbor seal pups in the summer. Others, like those that appear on the Oregon coast, hunt in April and May looking for gray whale calves.

There still seems to be plenty of mystery about these whales, and thus plenty to study. But one sure thing is that their numbers are expanding.

“There’s a big baby boom of transients,” McInnes said. “They’re having lots of calves. Their prey – like seals, sea lions – are doing well. While the residents are down to 75. There is a definite increase in the calves being born. We’re even seeing new individuals coming in from elsewhere. We’ve documented many animals coming from Monterrey to British Columbia, something we call immigration.”

Strangely, with all that’s known about these continental Orcas, there is a definite gap in data from the Oregon coast, McInnes said. There are frequent reports of sightings, but hardly ever photos.

This leads to another interesting revelation.

“We think that what we’re seeing in Oregon is a mix of California and British Columbia transients,” McInnes said. Oregon Coast Lodgings in these areas - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours

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