Whale watchers should be on the lookout for Chopfin, the transient orca
When the storms clear out and the ocean is again calm and navigable, marine mammal enthusiasts will venture out in search of Pacific gray whales migrating south to Mexico.
What they might encounter, though, are killer whales that have been seen sporadically in recent weeks off Orange County and Los Angeles. These "transient" orcas prey almost exclusively on marine mammals and perhaps are taking advantage of an abundant California sea lion population in the San Pedro Channel.
The most prominent member of this small sub-pod of transients is "Chopfin," who has a severely damaged dorsal fin.
In all, 150 transient killer whales have been photo-cataloged by researchers Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black. None is as easily identifiable or as mobile as Chopfin, who is catalogued as CA217.
So if you're heading out anytime soon, definitely keep an eye peeled for Chopfin and his posse.
The first known sighting of Chopfin, or CA217, was in 1998 on the backside of Santa Catalina Island. He was with four other orcas, including an adult female cataloged as CA216.
CA216 is Chopfin's frequent companion. In 1999 they were seen together off Monterey, a new calf by their side. CA216 had another calf early in 2007, so it is quite the family group milling off our coast.
Chopfin, though lucky in love, is unlucky when it comes to his dorsal fin. His original injury was possibly caused by a fishing net. His fin "flopped to the right and completely collapsed," Schulman-Janiger said. "We called this whale 'Willy II' after Keiko the killer whale of 'Free Willy' fame."
Chopfin was seen with fresh wounds to his dorsal -- which is now essentially a stump -- in 2007 off Westport, Wash.
But Chopfin, the only known transient to have been seen as far south as Dana Point, endures.
He and CA216, and at least two other unidentifiable transients, were spotted from a distance by Schulman-Janiger and her husband, David, on Nov. 29, five miles beyond L.A. Harbor. But it was a fleeting glimpse.
"We searched for the killer whales: up the coast, in close to shore, and back offshore down the coast to where we had first seen them," Schulman-Janiger said. "Although we covered many miles in this area for over four hours, we never did spot these killer whales again."
They may still be in the vicinity. Schulman-Janiger requests that whale watchers tote cameras and try to get profile photos for her identification project. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (310) 519-8963.
-- Pete Thomas
Photos: Chopfin (far left) and CA216 (closest to Chopfin) along with three other transient orcas in a photograph taken 14 miles beyond Long Beach on Jan. 3, 2003. Credit: Alisa Schulman-Janiger