by Erin Loury, Ichthyology Lab
Regular 4 a.m. wakeup calls are brutal even for the coolest fishing survey. Once the boat is steaming towards our destination, very few things can come between me and my precious snooze time. But this morning I heard words that had me on my feet in a hurry: “Killer whales!”
Science crew and volunteer fishermen alike clamored onto the deck and pressed ourselves against the boat railings, scanning the early morning horizon as our captain maneuvered us in for a closer look. Suddenly we saw them – two black jackknives of dorsal fins appeared over the rolling swells. We spotted two small orcas (another term for killer whale), their heads surging forward through the waves. Their characteristic white eye spots stood out like warpaint in fearsome contrast against their sleek black bodies. I watched in disbelief and euphoria as their heads broke the water’s surface once, twice, and again before they disappeared from sight.
Though orcas are found in all the world’s oceans and are not unheard of in Monterey Bay, to actually see them here is rare and really quite special. Orcas are voracious hunters – as far as their prey are concerned, they earn their nickname, “wolves of the sea,” and probably the Latin meaning of their scientific name, Orcinus orca: “from hell!” Orcas near Monterey, like the ones I saw, sometimes hunt gray whales passing through on their migration from Mexico to Alaska with their new calves (ie, easy targets).
But even their ruthless reputation just added to my enthusiasm, which somehow always gets the best of me around whales and charismatic wildlife. Cheering and clapping at the sight of my first orcas, I threw my fist in the air and shouted “Jump!,” – you know, like in Free Willy? Apparently these orcas had never seen the movie, since they missed their cue.
Still, it was a good miniflashback for me, remembering how I used to dream of being like the kid in that movie, who lived by the ocean and got to spend time with awesome marine life, lucky duck. And now I am that kid, getting to see the real deal on days like this, roaming free. Such sweet job perks even make the 4 a.m. wake-up call worth it – at least until tomorrow morning.