Tour group spots orcas that might be feeding on gray whales 

A pack of hungry killer whales is combing the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge in search of food — and there is speculation they might even be eating larger whales.

A pod of 14 orcas was spotted halfway between the bridge and the Farallon Islands Marine Sanctuary by a whale-watching tour that left Pier 39 about 8 a.m. Wednesday. The appearance of the killer whales near the Bay — described as rare by some marine experts — raised questions about what they were doing there.

According to Steven Woods, a marine scientist who was aboard the boat when the pod was spotted, it is unusual for such a large orca group to travel so far south. Killer whales are more common in waters closer to Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, he said.

Woods said the pod was probably hunting migrating gray whales, which are about twice the size of the average orca.

It’s not something we see often here,” Woods said. “We could be gearing up for an exciting next couple of weeks.”

But Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., said it is not as rare as some might think to see killer whales this time of year. He said orcas have been known to migrate as far south as
Monterey Bay.

Instead of whales, the orcas could be this far south in search of chinook salmon.

“It’s too early for gray-whale migration,” Balcomb said. “Come end of March or April, there will be a fair number of gray whales and babies. It will be prime picking.”

If orcas do hunt for gray whales, Balcomb said, they travel in packs and try to lure them into deep waters where there is little defense for the gray whale because orcas attack from all sides. The best defense for a gray is to stay in shallow water.

Woods, though, reveled in the excitement. He said the boat followed the pod of roughly 14 orcas that included adult males up to 30 feet long and at least three young whales that range between 10 and 15 feet long for 30 minutes.

The whales were mimicking hunting behavior, Woods said. They were swimming in zigzagging patterns and forming lines in hopes of trapping young prey.

“It’s like the way people search in a forest,” Woods said. “They form a line while proceeding forward so they don’t miss anything.”

Regardless of what the killer whales are hunting — salmon or gray whales — Joe Nazar, owner of the whale-watching tour company, said seeing the orcas in the wild was “unbelievable.”

“It’s very unusual,” Nazar said. “People are freaking out.”


Let’s get ready to rumble

Gray whales versus killer whales, or orcas:


  • Mammal
  • Omnivore
  • 50- to 60-year life span
  • 40 to 50 feet long
  • Weighs up to 40 tons
  • Travels in a pod


  • Mammal
  • Carnivore
  • 50- to 80-year life span
  • 23 to 32 feet long
  • Weighs up to 6 tons
  • Travels in a pod

Source: National Geographic

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