Southern California

Rare Pilot Whales Spotted Off Dana Point for First Time in Two Decades

The once-common animal became rare in Southern California after an El Nino warmed the waters and drove out their primary food source

Dale Frink, David Anderson/

For the first time in nearly two decades, dozens of rare pilot whales were spotted off the Orange County coast as onlookers watched in awe.

A group of whale watchers aboard Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari saw the pod of nearly 50 pilot whales during a Saturday afternoon tour.

A video captured by one of the boat's captains showed newborn pilot whales swimming near the boat alongside their mothers.

“I’d never thought I’d see these in my whole life,” an excited spectator said in the video.

Due to an El Nino that warmed the waters in 1988 and drove out their primary food source from the area, the pilot whales left over three decades ago and have been rare in the area ever since -- the most recent sighting nearly 20 years ago.

“They were relatively common animals to be found out here,” said Captain Dave Anderson of Dolphin Safari. “They kind of disappeared.”

Anderson said he has never seen pilot whales in the wild and has been to numerous places trying to capture them on camera.

“It is like the holy grail for me, because I keep trying to film them,” said Anderson, who did not get to witness the rare sighting this weekend because he was filming a lone, bottlenose dolphin in Ireland.

With the squid population having increased in recent years, the pilot whales remain to be a rarity in Southern California waters, but scientists and enthusiasts hope that with the increase of squid, more will return to the area.

“We are hoping to spot them again and we are all out looking for them,” Anderson said. “My hope is that they find a lot of food and stick around.”

Though the whale’s population has been depleted in some areas, it is not considered to be endangered, and both the long and short-fin pilot whales can be found throughout the world, according to the American Cetacean Society.

The pilot whale, also known as the blackfish, is the second largest member of the dolphin family and second only to the killer whale in size. Males can grow up to 20 feet in length and weigh 3 tons.

The pilot whale is considered social and highly intelligent. One was trained by the US Navy to retrieve items from the ocean floor as deep as 1600 feet, and older female pilot whales are one of the few animals that take care of calves that aren't theirs.

Anderson said that in addition to the pilot whales, minke whales, blue whales, and large pods of dolphins have also been spotted this year.

In January, an amorous pair of gray whales was spotted rolling in the surf about 2 miles off the Dana Point coast -- a ritual suggestive of courtship and possibly mating, and usually seen farther out in the ocean.

“It’s been quite an amazing season for wildlife,” Anderson said.

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