Two killer whales that have been hanging out beyond Point Loma for much of the past three weeks have piqued the interest of scientists because killer whales, or orcas, are rarely seen off San Diego.
But also because, so far, nobody has been able to identify what type of killer whales they are, or why -- if they're mammal-eating transient killer whales -- dolphins do not seem to be spooked by their presence.
One is a young male given the name Mel (or Mysterious Mel) by Pacific Nature Tours naturalist Melissa Panfili Galieti. He has been the most boat-friendly.
The other is a larger orca who has remained more distant and has not been identified as a male or female. Reports that this is a mother-calf pair appear to be erroneous because the smaller orca, estimated to measure 16-17 feet, is too large to be a calf.
Reports the larger orca is its mother (see video) have not been verified.
"This is the Sherlock Holmes mystery of the year," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher who has photo-catalogued more than 100 transient killer whales and more than 200 offshore-type shark-eating killer whales, which are known to inhabit waters from Southern California to Alaska. "Hardly ever do we see a killer whale that I do not know, especially one that has been seen multiple times and so close to boats."
It's possible, perhaps likely, that the orcas are from Mexico or farther south.
The first sighting was June 23 by passengers aboard an Adventure Rib Rides boat, about 12 miles offshore. A large pod of dolphins was nearby, acting normally.
The orcas were next sighted by a sailor July 14; on July 15 by passengers aboard the Eclipse and Ocean Odyssey, near hundreds of leaping dolphins; and on Thursday by Adventure Rib Rides passengers.
On the small boat were Katie and Jack Montou, visiting from Las Vegas. Katie told NBC 7 San Diego:
"It was amazing. It’s different seeing them in the wild. And they were friendly too. They swam next to us for 20-30 minutes."
-- Note: Schulman-Janiger posts updates on local killer whale sightings on the ACS-LA Facebook page