5 dozen killer whales believed to be hunting
salmon off S.F. coast
Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle January
A large group of endangered killer whales has been
spotted off the coast of San Francisco, a long way
from their usual feeding grounds along the
The magnificent black and white predators were
first seen off Half Moon Bay, where they were
apparently searching for salmon, which are
declining in numbers in the Pacific Northwest.
Photos were taken Jan. 24 of from nine to 15 orcas
swimming in the open water between the Farallon
Islands and San Francisco.
Although killer whales have been seen off the
coast before, researchers believe some five dozen
or more individuals are now regularly leaving
their historic habitat in the Puget Sound area for
the abundant waters near the Golden Gate.
"It's exciting for us because they traveled so far
to get to California, which means they can travel
farther than people thought to find food," said
Nancy Black, a marine biologist and whale expert
for Monterey Bay Whale Watch. "Before, it was just
transient (orcas) that have been seen in Bay Area.
This is something unusual."
Ken Balcomb, senior scientist and founder of the
Center for Whale Research, which has tracked the
pod in Washington for 30 years, said the whales,
including a mother and calf, were positively
identified through the photos as members of a
family group called "K-pod."
Based on observations made a little over a week
earlier off Half Moon Bay, Balcomb believes that
members of "L-pod" are also in the vicinity. If
they are, it would mean that as many as 63 whales
could be spread out over 30 miles around the
The animals make up two of the three pods of the
southern resident killer whale population, which
provide thrills every summer for whale watchers in
the Pacific Northwest as they follow salmon toward
the rivers where the fish spawn.
The southern resident whales, so-named because
they are the southernmost group of orcas in the
Pacific Northwest, have been documented along the
Central California coast five times before,
starting in 2000, scientists say. The sightings
this year were seen by whale experts as
confirmation that the orcas have extended their
"This is the first time we've noticed this as a
recurring activity on this scale," said Kelley
Balcomb-Bartok, Balcomb's son and the spokesman
for the whale research center. "It extends their
range 1,000 miles."
The presence of the highly social species off the
Golden Gate may be great news for whale watchers,
but it's not such a good thing for fishermen, who
see it as an indication of how few salmon there
are left off Washington and Oregon. Salmon fishing
was severely limited along the coasts of the two
states and California last year because of a huge
drop in the number of chinook and coho salmon in
the Klamath River.
Experts believe the orcas are undoubtedly looking
for salmon off the California coast, where the
runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River
systems were not so depleted, like in the Klamath.
The addition of killer whales into waters already
teeming with the fish-loving seals and sea lions
could spell the further decline to a fishery
already impacted by water diversions and habitat
"You get a pod of killer whales feasting on salmon
-- that could create another problem," said Zeke
Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast
Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "I don't
want this to be a red herring that distracts
people from the fact that we need adequate water
flow and better conditions for migrating fish in
the rivers, but even if we resolve the Klamath
issue, there may not be this abundance of fish
because of these other factors."
The killer whale, or Orcinus orca, is the largest
species of the oceanic dolphin family and is found
in all the world's oceans. Males can reach up to
31 feet long and weigh 8 tons. They are one of the
fastest marine mammals, reaching speeds of up to
35 mph. Individuals can be identified by the shape
and coloration of a saddle behind the dorsal fin
that is as unique on each whale as a fingerprint
is on a human.
Highly intelligent and social, orcas generally
travel in matrilineal family groups, but within
those groups there are vast differences. Some
orcas feed on seals and sea lions and others feed
on other whale species. There are also transient
orcas that feed mostly on sharks. None of them are
considered a threat to humans.
The southern Washington orcas feed almost
exclusively on fish, with chinook salmon being
their favorite meal.
Their numbers have declined precipitously in the
past decade because of pollution and the
destruction of the historic salmon habitat, said
Balcomb. They were declared an endangered species
last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
It is unclear whether orcas once inhabited the Bay
Area. Balcomb said whale captains told him they
had seen killer whales inside the Golden Gate in
the 1950s when he was a federal biologist for the
Golden Gate and Del Monte whaling stations.
He said there is no record of resident orcas in
Northern California, but the sightings will lead
to further research.
"This is what everybody is trying to find out," he
said. "Did they do this before?"