Killer whales surround 3 men on a dinghy

Killer whale named Bumper investigates Eric Martin and crew; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

When Eric Martin, his son Cody, and David Lantos set out from the Southern California port of Redondo Beach in a 10-foot inflatable boat on Tuesday, they never imagined that they'd soon be surrounded by killer whales.

Or that the killer whales would develop a deep interest in their presence, and spend more than an hour “mugging” a boat so small that the Martins refer to it as the “bathtub." (Mugging is when the mammals repeatedly swim up to a vessel.)

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It was as close of an encounter with orcas as can be experienced in the wild without physical contact, an experience Cody, 18, described as "possibly the best moment of my life."

This interaction occurred off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, involving four transient orcas cataloged as the CA51s, in such calm, clear water, that the trio was able to capture incredible footage from above and below the surface.

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Killer whale named Orion approaches the dinghy; photo by © Alisa Schulman-Janiger

"It was an experience I'll never forget," said Eric Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium in Manhattan Beach. “And to be honest, I didn't realize how small we looked" until he saw an image captured by researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger (image is atop this post).

Schulman-Janiger, who runs the California Killer Whale Project, was aboard the Triumphant, a whale-watching boat out of Long Beach. She said this "magical footage" was the best she had ever seen of killer whales off California.

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The underwater footage is serene, showing several close approaches and revealing vocalizations as the orcas communicate with each other. The topside footage provides a human element and reveals the type of chaos associated with being mugged by orcas in a dinghy. It also includes strange “raspberry” sounds made by the orcas at the surface.

The CA51s are more commonly seen off Monterey, in Central California, but have visited Southern California for four consecutive years in January. (The three previous sightings were on New Year's Day.)

This family group included CA51, or Star, the mother; CA51C, or Bumper an 11-year-old male; CA51B, or Orion, a 16-year-old male; and CA51D, or Comet, a 4-year-old female.

Like all transient orcas, the CA51s feed on other marine mammals, and during their Southern California visits they typically feed on California sea lions.

The CA51s are famously boat friendly, which made for a precarious situation when Martin first saw them as he approached the Palos Verdes Peninsula in his dinghy, after the initial sighting by shore-based volunteer spotters working for the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.

The orcas decided to investigate them as soon as they saw the “bathtub” in the distance. Eric Martin, who has been visited by these same orcas while he was aboard a larger boat, killed the motor, wisely, once they were close.

"We all thought they were just going to swim under the boat," he said. "Little did I realize that the mother and Comet would decide to stop, face to face, just inches from David, who was holding the GoPro camera, and stare right at us."

The orcas swam away briefly, and harassed some sea birds, before returning for more human interaction.

Cody, in disbelief, told his father, "I can't believe I'm actually making eye contact with a killer whale."

Said Eric, "Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, they started vocalizing. You could hear them even at the surface. It was an unforgettable experience."

Perhaps it was for the orcas as well. They were last seen Thursday off Orange County, heading slowly to the northwest.

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