Whale watching can be hit or miss, even in wildlife-rich places like Monterey Bay. Relatively common sightings include gray whales, dolphins, sea lions and jellyfish, among other animals. Transient orcas do come around mostly in the spring, feeding on gray whale calves.
But those relatively commonly seen orcas belong to an ecotype (similar to a subspecies based on different behaviors, but with differences generally viewed as more subtle than those between species) known as offshore orcas.
On Friday, Nov. 12, passengers aboard local whale watching tours got the experience of a lifetime. More than 75 offshore orcas put on a show, spread out over roughly three miles in subgroups of five to seven whales each, relatively close to shore.
“I haven’t seen something like this in probably eight to 10 years, this is absolutely incredible,” says Captain Mike of Sanctuary Cruises, based in Moss Landing.
The orcas could be seen swimming side by side as they were out hunting, and a few baby orcas where spotted swimming next to their mothers.
Unlike transient orcas—those that are more commonly seen in Monterey Bay and that eat mammals like seals and sea lions—the offshore orcas travel in larger groups and eat sharks, rays and large schools of fish. (A third ecotype of orcas, known as resident orcas that live primarily off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, specialize in eating mostly fish.)
Offshore orcas like those seen on Friday, Nov. 12, were only discovered in the mid-1990s.
"They are unusual to see anywhere in the world," says Chase Dekker, a marine biologist with Sanctuary. "Very little is known about them. They're very rare, very elusive, and they don't seem to be very friendly toward boats, so they are hard to study."
The last time offshore orcas were spotted nearby was in January of 2021 off the coast of Big Sur where they were eating a shark, Dekker reports.
As to where the group seen on Friday is headed, it's unknown. "Seventy to 100 orcas come into the bay for a day, then they're gone," Dekker says. "As far as we are aware, they could be down toward LA, they could be up toward Oregon, they could be 500 miles offshore—it's kind of a mystery."
Sara Rubin contributed to this report.