About 30 killer whales in California’s Monterey Bay on Sunday spent hours playing, breaching, doing triple flips, and rolling around together — but some of those same orcas participated in a much less light-hearted act just a couple months prior.
The killer whales splashing around on Sunday were captured in extraordinary footage and photos that showed them jumping out of the water close to boats.
“It was the best killer whale encounter I’ve had and I’ve been studying them for 30 years,” Nancy Black, a marine biologist with Monterey Bay Whale Watch and director of the nonprofit California Killer Whale Project, told Insider. They were so vocal and active. You could tell they were just really excited.”
Black explained that researchers can recognize individual killer whales by the markings on their fins, adding that the playful whales in Monterey Bay came together from 11 different family groups, which are typically matriarchal and led by a mother or grandmother. The different groups that live in the region often mix, she said.
Six of the whales were the same individuals captured on footage in April attacking a pair of gray whales off the coast of Monterey Bay, Black said. The orcas that participated in both hunting events included a family of four and an additional male and female.
The rare drone footage showed a group of more than 20 whales in an act of “attempted predation” on adult gray whales, which are much larger than adult orcas. While adult grays can be 48 feet long and weigh 78,000 lbs, orcas are typically half that length and only around 11,000 lbs.
It’s not uncommon for killer whales to prey on grey whale calves, but it was the first known attack on adult grays in the area in more than 30 years, Insider’s Joshua Zitser previously reported.
Evan Brodsky, a cinematographer for Monterey Bay Whale Watch, said at the time the orcas were trying to eat the gray whales alive, adding the attack lasted around six hours.
The striking footage showed the pair of gray whales huddled together near the surface get surrounded by orcas that appear to strike, followed by pools of blood in the water. Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported that the gray whales survived but suffered severe injuries.
The footage from Sunday was very different. Black said they “reminded me of a bunch of puppy dogs that were rolling around and wrestling.”
She said it’s unclear why the orcas were so playful, but said it could be because it was the end of baby gray whale hunting season.
“They may have had a lot of food to eat,” she said, adding, “if they’ve had a lot to eat they can spend more time being social.”
The unusual playful display comes as killer whales near Spain and Portugal have increasingly been damaging and even sinking boats. An expert told Insider that behavior is also likely playful, and that it’s unlikely to spread to other orca populations throughout the world’s oceans any time soon.
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