The pod has been spotted between Malibu and San Diego, with many sightings in Newport.

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Orcas have been seen swimming off the coast of Southern California

For whale watchers, one heck of a holiday surprise has arrived, as rare sightings of killer whales off the Southern California coastline have continued throughout the week. The orcas, which are part of the transient Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) pod, have been spotted as far north as Malibu and have ventured all the way down to San Diego, with repeated visits to the seas off the coast of Newport.

Though there hasn’t been much information gathered regarding this predominantly female pod, marine biologists in conjunction with data gathered from citizen scientist observers via Happy Whale believe it’s made up of at least nine unique individual killer whales, including a months-old baby calf named “Cookie,” who got her nickname from a cookie-cutter shark bite along her side. The matriarch is named “Top Notch” because of a notch cut out of her dorsal fin, also likely due a shark run-in. These tough broads are making quite a splash, drawing global attention to the region, and for good reason.

Jessica Rodriguez, Education and Communications Manager at Newport-based tour operator Newport Landing is elated by the attention this brings to conservation efforts. As apex predators, killer whales are subject to countless threats including pollution, bioaccumulation of microplastics, food shortages, habitat shrinking, and climate change. And it’s hard to inspire people to protect what they don’t know.

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“We usually don’t have water temperatures this warm going into the winter. These ETP killer whales are normally spotted in South America and Mexico,” she says. While it could potentially be coincidental, the orcas’ new pattern could also be a product of the warm waters caused by El Niño. “This may be expanding their feeding area. We don’t really know exactly why, other than that they’re feeding, and they’re feeding a lot.”

The killer whales have been spotted hunting bottlenose and common dolphins, but Rodriguez emphasizes that they haven’t caused any harm to boats or humans.

“Killer whales are very strategic; they have to be smart and stealthy to chase an 800 pound bottlenose dolphin,” she says. “And they have coordinated feeding strategies. This is why they’re called the wolves of the sea. They hunt in packs and communicate with each other using echolocation, and have their own specialized dialect that is unique to their pods. They really are one of the smartest animals in the entire ocean.”

Many travelers have taken the opportunity (and the “dead week” between Christmas and New Years) to venture out on whale-watching trips in an attempt to catch a glimpse of these magnificent apex predators in their natural habitat. Being out in the open ocean lends a great perspective of nature and can inspire conservation efforts. But observers must practice respect and caution, with boat operators staying 100 yards away from the animals.

The team at Newport Landing takes the time out on the water as an opportunity to teach travelers on the fly, discussing the myriad issues that face these oft-misunderstood animals that are critical the ocean’s ecosystems. It’s a critical time, as a study published in Science estimated a mass extinction of at least half of the world’s killer whale populations due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans via PCBs and microplastics. These PCBs bioaccumulate as they go up the food chain, eventually causing issues in killer whales like reproductive impairment, infant mortality, and immunotoxicity-related disease. 

Rodriguez sees moments like these migrations as a time for people from around the globe, especially those who don’t have ocean access, to connect with, and better understand, these incredible, highly complex creatures in their natural habitat rather than in captivity.

“The circle of life is so fascinating to see firsthand,” says Rodriguez. “It’s something that you’d normally only see on Animal Planet and BBC, and it’s all happening right here.”

If you’re curious to learn more about volunteering or learning more about protecting and documenting orcas and other cetaceans as a citizen scientist, you can check out the American Cetacean Society or Happy Whale.