Evidence points to orca attack in whale that washed ashore on Sonoma Coast

A scientist confirmed that an orca attack on a gray whale calf caught on camera Saturday off the Sonoma Coast appeared to involve the same whale that washed ashore Monday.|

A dead gray whale calf that washed ashore Monday on the Sonoma Coast appears to have been the victim of a violent orca attack that was caught on video by local fishermen two days earlier.

That’s the conclusion of experts at the California Academy of Science, who said photos of the juvenile male whale show a distinctively notched flipper, as well as a whitish patch, that appears to match one seen on video of the attack.

The finding, reported Tuesday, gave no solace to Petaluma resident Dane Monell, who, with friend Kevin Loughman, filmed the remarkable marine encounter Saturday, when a mother gray whale and her calf were attacked again and again by killer whales off the central Sonoma Coast.

“To watch the event was so, kind of, horrific,” Monell said Tuesday.

Such incidents are not rare, and many West Coast orca attacks have been caught on camera. But few have been recorded at such close proximity, especially on the Sonoma Coast.

“It gave me a whole new understanding of orcas,” Loughman said. “They’re relentless. When they were on the surface, and the mother was getting her body between them and the baby, they’d go underwater and come up from below. And when she would go under to protect her baby, they would come over the top, and press it down.”

A screen grab from their video and other stills of the young male whale that came ashore at South Salmon Creek Beach on Monday appeared to resolve the short-lived mystery. However, the calf’s body was pulled back out by the waves Monday before an expert could examine it.

Photos taken by Jackie Sones, a research coordinator with the Bodega Marine Reserve, clearly show jagged rake marks on the young whale’s throat and tail that likely reflect a whale attack, said Sue Pemberton, a curatorial assistant in the science academy’s Ornithology and Mammalogy Department.

Another photo shows whitish hide on the dead whale’s fin and the distinctive notch that further link it to one in the video, she said.

It remained unclear if the incident seen by Monell and Loughman, both of Petaluma, was related to a killer whale attack on a single gray whale witnessed the same day, about 90 minutes earlier, by three other fishermen who also had a camera recording.

One of them, Alex Brown, who was piloting the boat, said he and his friends were returning from fishing farther north when they were alerted by “explosions of water” ahead. They saw at least four orcas and as many as six attacking a single gray whale.

Brown, also of Petaluma, estimated the gray whale at about 30 to 35 feet, judging by the size of its tail and fin.

“It was huge,” he said.

He said the water was filled with blood, and that the gray whale appeared nearly done in when rough waves forced him to retreat toward shore.

Pemberton said the coastal waters are filled with gray whales and their young at present, part of an annual northward migration in which an estimated 20,000 gray whales participate, as they leave Baja California to feeding grounds in the Arctic.

The calf that washed ashore at Salmon Creek was observed by the Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter, Henry 1, on Monday morning.

Those who saw it from ground level before it washed back out in late afternoon estimated its size at 20 to 25.

Acting Bodega Bay Fire Capt. Lou Stoerzinger, who went out to take a look, said he was unable to observe any surface injuries or obvious wounds, though he acknowledged a biologist might notice something he did not.

But Pemberton said the photos taken by Sones and other markings likely were linked to the battering by the orcas.

She said the video by Loughman and Monell appears to show young orcas learning how to hunt and probably not interested in the gray whale calf as food.

“This is a really super common occurrence during the northwest migration,” she said.

A response crew from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito was sent up to examine the dead whale, but it already was rolling around in the surf and being dragged out by the time it arrived.

The team would have been impeded from performing a planned necropsy in any case because of beach access restrictions that would have made it necessary to obtain special permission, she said. Salmon Creek Beach provides nesting habitat for the western snowy plover, an endangered seabird.

Monell said he found the onslaught on the mother and baby whale so disturbing that he finally had to motor away, not knowing how it ended.

“It was tough,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Brown, who shot the other whale attack video, said he and his friends were too stunned to think about filming the event at first. Their video, he said, “doesn’t do justice” to the violence of the incident.

“They were hitting the whale’s side at high speed,” he said. “There was a big life circle, right in front of us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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