"Ultimately, the titanic orca-gray whale clashes are a testament to the abundant marine life of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where the upwelling of the cold, nutrient-rich water from the canyon attracts a staggering array of marine life."
Monterey -- The boatload of nature lovers set out to celebrate Mother's Day whale watching on sunny Monterey Bay -- only to witness the mother of all wildlife battles.
Instead of gentle giants lolling in the sea, they came upon a life-or- death struggle as a pack of six killer whales attacked a gray whale calf while its mother valiantly fought to shield her 8-ton baby.
As whale watchers looked on with a mixture of awe and sadness, mother killer whales -- the most experienced hunters -- took turns ramming head- first, like 6-ton torpedoes, into the calf's soft underbelly, their force nearly knocking it out of the water, while others leapt atop the 20-foot baby, trying to drown it.
"It's the greatest predation event on Earth,'' said Richard Ternullo, a killer whale researcher and co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, who witnessed the battle during one of the company's daily whale watching tours. "It's 100 tons of whales crashing together.''
This brutal, natural drama has been repeated on an unprecedented scale in Monterey Bay this spring. Crafty killer whale packs have turned the bay into "ambush alley,'' lying in wait for gray whale calves and their mothers to cross the bay's deep-water canyon -- the riskiest stretch of their 6,000- mile migration from Baja California, Mexico, to their Alaskan feeding grounds.
"In 17 years, I've never seen so many killer whales here,'' said independent marine biologist Nancy Black, also a co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, who has used the whale watching tours to conduct and fund research into the still mysterious lives of killer whales that venture year- round into Monterey Bay.
During the 2 1/2-hour Mother's Day assault, the excited squeals of the killer whales -- or orcas -- drew others until 17 of the sleek black-and- white super-predators were milling about.
To the relief of the spectators, the clash had a happy ending: The 40-ton mother gray whale, rolling like a log to shed attackers and lifting the calf on her back above the attack, led her battered and bleeding baby to shallow coastal waters -- where the orcas do not venture.
But other gray whales have not been as fortunate: About 15 calves were killed by killer whales in April and May in 22 documented attacks.
Black believes this year has been especially bloody because of a bumper crop of gray whale calves born over the winter and now heading north. Less ice coverage in the chilly Bering Sea last summer allowed gray whale mothers to beef up for their long trip south and produce a bounty of calves in Mexico.
"I think the killer whales figured out that there were more calves coming through here and alerted other killer whales,'' Black said.
Scientists don't believe that orca attacks will hurt the greater gray whale population, estimated at 20,000. But they offer researchers eye-opening insights into the amazing teamwork and adaptiveness of these mighty predators, which some scientists consider "the modern T. rex of the oceans,'' throwbacks to the fierce meat-eating dinosaurs.
"Most people don't even realize you can see killer whales here,'' Black said of Monterey Bay. "They think they're only up north (from Washington state to Alaska).''
Ultimately, the titanic orca-gray whale clashes are a testament to the abundant marine life of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where the upwelling of the cold, nutrient-rich water from the canyon attracts a staggering array of marine life. During a recent trip on Monterey Bay Whale Watch's 70-foot Sea Wolf II, whale watchers from around the world thrilled to see everything from sea lions and hundreds of dolphins to humpback whales and 15 rare blue whales -- at 100 feet long the largest creature to ever roam the planet.
Since 1987, Black's team has identified nearly 350 orcas by photographing their unique dorsal fin shapes and nicks and their white saddle markings. Black has drawn on an informal network of researchers and commercial fishermen to track the behavior and movement of killer whales from Mexico to Alaska.
They've discovered dramatic differences among different types of orcas.
The so-called transient orcas are a group of about 300 killer whales that primarily roam the California coast, but extend all the way to Southeast Alaska. They are mammal eaters, killing baby gray whales in Monterey during the spring and shifting to sea lions, elephant seals and dolphins in the fall.
These fearsome predators have also been known to dine on great white sharks, turtles, seabirds and otters. Ternullo said that one researcher has documented orca kills of a dog, a pig and even the stray moose or deer caught swimming across inland waterways in the Northwest.
In contrast, there are the resident orcas, so called because they spend summer on the coast of Washington state and British Columbia, feeding almost exclusively on salmon. They also make occasional winter sojourns south to Monterey.
Finally, there are the mysterious off-shore orcas that roam the deep ocean and venture the farthest -- 3,000 mile journeys from Southern California to Alaska. They prey on fish and squid. The widely ranging hunting habits of these killer whale groups have scientists pondering whether there are really two distinct subspecies -- marine mammal-eaters and fish-eaters, Black said. A new theory is that an ancient ice age isolated killer whale groups, forcing some to adapt to eating whales and seals and others to feed on fish.
"The genetics are totally different for 'transients' (mammal-eaters) and 'residents' (fish-eaters). It's like they're from different oceans,'' Black said.
Interestingly, the highly intelligent creatures bear many similarities to humans. Next to us, killer whales are the most widely dispersed mammals on the planet. They share similar life stages as humans from an adolescence that occurs in their teenage years and child-bearing in their 20s. Females can live until 90, males until 60.
As in African lion prides, the most experienced Orca hunters are often mothers. While male orcas can kill a gray whale calf in a couple of hours, the female-led attacks can last up to six hours. Researchers believe this is because the females are trying to teach their off-spring the family trade.
The gray whale attacks are savage but efficient, with each orca taking a specific role, Black said. Some females are separators, wedging themselves between the gray whale calf and its mother. Some ram the calf with a dull "bang," while other Orcas jump atop to drown it. When they succeed, the attackers call in other killer whales for a blubbery feast that can last days.
To avoid detection, gray whales cease noisy, visible spouting and start to "snorkel" -- taking quiet, shallow breaths -- as they try to sneak across the narrow submarine canyon, Black said. If caught, the gray whale's best chance is to flee for shoreline shallows, sometimes hiding behind rocks. There, orca teams are unable to surround and subdue the larger prey.
During the peak spring research season, when scientists spend 16-hour days on the water, Black said she and her colleagues have noticed that the killer whales "are checking us out, just like we're checking them out.''
A "goofy" teenage male, dubbed "Star Fin,'' is obsessed with the researchers' 22-foot inflatable skiff, often coming up and playfully nudging it with his nose. When researcher Sarah Graham recently leaned over the side of the skiff, an orca slowly rose up vertically -- "spyhopping'' -- to inspect her, Black recounted. "It came right to her, stopped right beneath her hand and looked up at her.''
They've even been interested when Black's Labrador retriever, Andy, peers over the side of the boat, "as they swim by, they turn sideways and looked up at Andy,'' she said. But when Andy dropped his Frisbee into the water, the orcas swam away indifferently.
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