Sea Hunt

They porpoised westward with a real purpose. They knew where they were going. Nothing was going to deny them, and it was really fun to take it all in.I wasn’t alone. It was Easter weekend and lead guide training was finished for leading kayak trips at the Channel Islands National Park. The Island Packer boat was bursting with visitors. It was cloudy and cold. It had rained in the early morning. All the guides were wearing damp clothes and huddling inside the main cabin of the catamaran. That was until the captain came on over the intercom, and said something about a transient pod of orcas.Dolphin Channel Islands National ParkThe diets of transient orcas consist primarily of marine mammals, which there is an abundance of in the channel. They travel in small pods of usually two to six animals, but I have seen a couple of larger pods on different occasions. They have less family bonds than resident pods. Female transient orcas have more of a triangular and pointed dorsal. Transient pods roam the seas widely along the coast that includes pods in southern Alaska and California.We weren’t that far off the mainland. We had just passed the oil platforms off the Ventura Harbor when we were alerted about the orcas. Another boat was already tracking them, and when I saw how close the boat was to the apex predator of the Santa Barbara Channel, I was a little shocked. They were right on top of five orca; three large males and a female with a calf. The three males led the way swimming in a close knit group.Due to an orca’s large size and especially its strength, those aspects make it among the fastest swimming marine mammals in the world. They’re able to reach speeds in excess of 30 knots. On this afternoon on Easter Sunday, it appeared to me they were doing at least 30 knots.It was standing room only from the bow of the Island Packer boat. Everyone was searching the horizon, gazing into overcast skies with the faint hope of sun beaming through. Several hundred yards further west a feeding was taking place. Thousands of common dolphins in a feeding frenzy were enjoying a sizeable bait ball of fish, the pelagic food web in all its glory. Little did the pod of common dolphins know that they were on the menu.They say that for every common dolphin seen on the surface, that there are 7 to 10 more common dolphins below. If that was the case (and it sure looked that way), then I estimated the pod to be somewhere between 3 to 5 thousand.I had never seen orcas hunt before. Once I saw them feeding. Anticipation was mounting on the Island Packer boat. We were getting closer to the common dolphins and so were the orcas. Were they going to continue porpoising toward the commons? Suddenly all the orcas vanished without a trace. Where did they go? Now everyone was watching the dolphins who still weren’t aware they were being hunted. I could only imagine what was going on under water. They were too busy feeding…and then utter panic.The pod of orcas dove deep beneath the unsuspecting common dolphins, deeper than all the dolphins beneath the ones on the surface. After diving deep the orcas then swam straight up underneath the common dolphins causing 360 degree mass exodus. It was the pelagic version of a pride of lions hunting, chasing huge herds of wildebeest and zebra on the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania.Orca Channel Islands National ParkDuring all the commotion no one on the boat could tell if the orcas had caught a dolphin. Common dolphins aren’t big animals. I think one of those large males could gulp one whole, but orcas usually play with their catch like a cat with a mouse, but we didn’t see that.Whether that transient pod of orcas caught a dolphin or two was of little consequence. There was something larger looming on the horizon. There were still gray whales migrating northward and two had just surfaced, their blowholes spewing seawater a half mile off our bow.Author: Chuck Graham Website: http://chuckgrahamphoto.com/

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