Battle of Orcas & Gray whales

photos by Kristen Hislop /

Near Santa Cruz Island, 2 miles NW of San Pedro Point…  we saw the big dorsal fin.  Orca!

Everyone was up front, I was on video and steering, under full sail going 7.5 knots. Usually whale encounters are elusive… but these beasts were simply not moving, and not paying attention to us… and I suddenly thought, ‘We might actually run into them’. They were exhibiting a strange behavior, lolly-gagging around in a big cuddle puddle. Ha! Little did I know.

I cranked the wheel to starboard to avoid the mass of whale bodies. I unfortunately stopped videotaping, and then as we rounded them like turbulent buoy, I went hard to port and hove-to. That’s when we saw there was a gray whale in the midst of the orcas.

There was in fact a momma gray trying to keep the baby gray whale afloat; while the orcas kept rolling on top of it to try to drown it. The big male orca had a gigantic dorsal fin – it seemed to clear our railing, which is 6ft about the water. Kristen later said, “I never thought I’d have too much zoom for whales. I needed a wide angle to get everything in the frame!”  We were that close.

It was a terrible, graceful dance of predators, huge creatures moving slowly with precision and determination. Their prey billowed air with forceful fatigue. The baby was getting worn out, the momma was not keeping up with the weight of four (or was it five?) orcas rolling onto it.

Our ship was hove-to right next to them, and there was a moment when it seemed they all stopped their theater and looked up at us, “what the hell is this boat doing?”  This momentary lapse broke their attack formation and the grays split, or so we speculate, because the orcas suddenly bolted towards the island.  We followed them under sail, cranking in the sheets to windward, the boat shuddering with delight as the waves began chattering below its hulls. We caught up to them as they were congregating 1 mile east of Little Scorpion, not 60 feet from the cliff, which was a bit too close for comfort for us, but the boat and her skipper were feeling a bit bold, and hove-to again just up-wind of the orcas; we caught a quick glimpse of the gray whales again.

After a minute the orcas dove and began moving towards Anacapa, swimming leisurely now– we could tell they weren’t in attack mode any longer. Did the little gray whale and mother escape?  Did we indadvertedly sabotage their attack?  We looked out in wonder as the majestic creatures swam on, trodding along.

The battle was over. Perhaps we played a role in keeping a little whale from losing his tongue?  So they say, that’s what the orcas eat from the baby grays… Similar, I couldn’t help compare, to how humans will slice off fins from sharks, and let the whole body go to waste.

As we trimmed sail towards the island, after 45 minutes of racing around after the orcas, I thought: how fortunate we were! To be so close to large animals in their moment of ferocious instinct.  Stunned, awed, and somewhat elated, we carried on.