"Gang" of killer whales killed a great white shark
LATE IN THE afternoon one recent winter day, Palos Verdes Estates resident Katy Penland looked out to sea and saw the telltale misty-white puffs of a whale blow several miles off the Redondo Beach Esplanade.
As a longtime naturalist, Penland knew that migrating Pacific gray whales were a common sight between December and May, so she assumed she was experiencing her first whale sighting of the season.
But there was nothing common about what Penland spied on that Dec. 5 afternoon.
After driving to the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula's Rocky Point to get a better view through her binoculars, Penland made a startling discovery.
"The first animal in my binoculars was a male with a very tall dorsal fin, at least 4 feet in height," she said. "At that moment I said, 'Holy moly, those are orcas!' "
"I ran to my car, grabbed my cell phone and called the (Point Vicente) Interpretive Center right away," she said. "I didn't have Alisa's number, but I knew the center would, and that's who you call when you see killer whales. Those are her babies."
For more than 20 years, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a marine biologist, educator and director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society's Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, has been studying killer whales.
"I became fascinated by them when I first saw Orky and Corky at Marineland," said Schulman-Janiger, a native of Long Beach, who now lives in San Pedro. "I spent hours by that tank, and it had a huge impact on me as a kid. To this day, I still have vivid dreams about killer whales."
Her whale work - which included studying a beached blue whale several years ago at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, where she met her husband, David Janiger, a curatorial assistant in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum's department of mammalogy - has involved all types of orcas.
Unusual, elusive gang
But her primary focus has been on the Los Angeles Pod, or L.A. Pod, a highly unusual and elusive gang of killer whales that has long prowled the waters immediately off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Named by Schulman-Janiger in 1984, after her first on-the-water encounter with the group, the L.A. Pod is distinctly different from the three known types of killer whale populations, known in the marine world as "eco-types."
Called transients, residents and offshores, the three existing eco-types are differentiated from each other by their behavior, eating habits, appearance and vocalizations. DNA tests have confirmed that the three types are genetically distinct from one another.
The L.A. Pod, however, appears to be in a class all its own.
Much smaller and more muscular than the others, they have their own vocalization dialect, unique markings, a one-of-a-kind dorsal fin shape and a penchant for lurking very close to shore, opportunistically feeding on fish and marine mammals.
The animals, Schulman-Janiger said, can be very social, curious, playful and friendly to observers in nearby boats. But the 13- to 15-member pod also can be aggressive.
Flexing their fins
More than once, individual animals have enjoyed flexing their fins and asserting their dominance by harassing other sea creatures, such as sea lions.
Perhaps the most notable incident of unusual behavior by a member of the L.A. Pod, sometimes called "the odd pod," occurred in October of 1997.
Two female L.A. Pod members, called CA2 and CA6, attacked and killed a great white shark at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. It was, at that time, the only recorded attack on a great white shark by a killer whale.
The numerous differences between the L.A. Pod and other orca populations, Schulman-Janiger said, suggest that the L.A. Pod might represent a new kind of killer whale eco-type.
But without conclusive DNA tests, scientists can't be sure.
Awaiting their return
Members of the L.A. Pod were last spotted nine years ago, right after the attack on the great white. Three L.A. Pod members were seen off La Jolla headed south, toward Mexico. Since then, Schulman-Janiger has been watching and waiting for the L.A. Pod to reappear.
Could Penland's December sighting have been of the L.A. Pod, back again after so many years?
"It's possible," said Eric Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Marine Aquarium at the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier, who also was watching the mysterious pod of orcas at the same time as Penland, but from farther up the coast.
"I never count it out," he said. "Since these animals live as long as we do, and we can only spot them from a boat or the cliff of Palos Verdes, they could be out there right now, and we just haven't been at the right place at the right time. Anything is possible."
Martin has been working with Schulman-Janiger in her ongoing study of the L.A. Pod since he first encountered the pod up close.
"The first time I got (a look at the) L.A. Pod was Oct. 28, 1984," he said. "I'll never forget that day. The big male, we call him Notchfin, breached, then he swam right beside my inflatable boat and looked right up at me. That day is what got me started studying wild killer whales."
Schulman-Janiger, who was with Martin that day, called the whale sighting "an intense, electrical connection," and in the years since then, she and Martin have been on call, launching Martin's boat at a moment's notice whenever a killer whale sighting is made. Even Martin's 11-year-old son, Cody, has been bitten by the whale bug.
"Nowadays when the phone rings, Cody asks, 'Is that Alisa?' " Martin said.
"He loves to go out with us, and he's becoming quite a good photographer of marine wildlife."
Unfortunately, whether that killer whale sighting last month was of the L.A. Pod remains a mystery, as no known pictures were taken.
"I'm hoping it was them," said Schulman-Janiger. "It's been nine years since we've seen L.A. Pod, and it's killing me. I've gotta know if it was them. If I could just get my hands on one picture, I'd know."
Finding a photo
Penland and Martin reported that two boats were in the water following the orcas, who appeared to be feeding on a large school of fish a few miles off shore.
Though no one knows who was aboard those boats or from what port they hailed, the researchers are hoping that photographs were taken, and that they'll somehow surface - or, for that matter, that any pictures of killer whales taken off the Southern California coast at any time in the last nine years will come to light.
"Pictures are the key," Schulman-Janiger said. "Even a shot of one dorsal fin. Somebody may have a picture of L.A. Pod sitting in a desk drawer. Somebody may have the missing link that solves the mystery of where they've gone."
She said the last known photos of the L.A. Pod showed large, warm-water barnacles attached to the animals, suggesting they could be holed up in Mexico.
But no one can say for sure.
"Just because they haven't been photographed doesn't mean they're not here," she said.
"Chances are small that they're wiped out. It's more likely that they've relocated, perhaps due to a shift in food source. And that doesn't mean that they're gone for good."
Until they show up again, Schulman-Janiger and Martin will be panning and scanning the horizon looking for the L.A. Pod.
"I'm like a dog with a bone," Schulman-Janiger said. "I just can't let it go."