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Dozens of killer whales thrill Southern California sightseers

January 19, 2012 |  7:44 pm

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Tour boats were buzzing with activity Thursday as sightseers spotted dozens of killer whales cruising the Southern California coast.

Whale-watching vessels reported seeing 20 to 40 of the marine mammals, also known as orcas, swimming up the coast from Dana Point to Long Beach as the day progressed.

It's not uncommon for killer whales to roam Southern California waters in search of sea lions and other prey, according to the experts who track and identify them.

Seeing them in such numbers, however, is unusual.

Hence the excitement that erupted Thursday morning when radios squawked with reports of an unbelievable number of orcas off Dana Point.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Dana Pride, a vessel on a chartered whale-watching trip for elementary school children when it came across a pod of 20 killer whales about 10:30 a.m.

“They got the time of their lives seeing all those orcas,” said Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching.

Another whale-watching boat saw as many as 40 killer whales spread out over a large area as they swam up the Laguna Beach coast to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.

“It was an incredible encounter,” said Dave Anderson of Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari. “They were coming over to our boat, swimming up next to the boat, turning upside-down and doing a lot of tail-slapping.”

By afternoon the black-and-white ocean predators had moved up the coast.

Observers for the Aquarium of the Pacific, who were aboard the Harbor Breeze Cruises boat Christopher photographing and identifying the whales, counted more than 30 orcas off the coast of Long Beach on two afternoon whale-watching trips.

“We were just completely surrounded.There were so many it was hard to get a good count,” said Kera Mathes, education specialist and whale research biologist for the aquarium. “It was incredible. I’ve never seen so many orcas before.”

The last several weeks have been a bonanza for admirers of marine life, with gray whales migrating south in record numbers and fin whales being spotted by the dozens. A group of seven to 10 so-called transient killer whales that usually hangs out around Monterey Bay and the Central Coast has also been making forays up and down the Southern California coast since December.

The orcas stopping through on Thursday may be from another group entirely, a lesser-known “offshore” population based in British Columbia. They travel in massive numbers and prefer to feed on sharks, experts said. The offshore orcas were last seen close to the Southern California shore in 2005.

“We don’t really know where they go or where they come from,” Mathes said. “We just see them every couple of years.”

-- Tony Barboza

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Photos: Top, two members of an offshore pod of killer whales pass a whale-watching boat off Newport Beach. Bottom, some of the 20 to 30 orcas seen off the coast of Newport Beach. Credit: Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times.

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