A pod of 14 orcas was spotted this week near the Golden Gate Bridge. It is rare for them to appear so near the city of San Francisco. Speculation so far has been that they are looking for food in the form of salmon or gray whales, which they sometimes hunt. They were seen by a whale-watching tour which left Pier 39 in San Francisco early in the morning headed towards the Farallon Islands Marine Sanctuary. This area is known for a great richness of marine life and is about 27 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands are actually part of the city and county of San Francisco.
It is not common for orcas to travel so far south. Typically they remain in northern waters around Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia. One scientist said it was unlikely the orcas were hunting gray whales, as it is too early in the season for them to be readily available for orcas to hunt. Their presence will be more noticeable by the end of March or April, so it seems more reasonable the orcas are looking for salmon. Salmon in the Bay Area have experienced a dramatic decline recently. In 2009, only about 39,000 were counted, the lowest ever recorded. In 2010, that number increased to over 150,000 but it is still far too low. It is possible the orcas were drawn to the area because of the salmon increase. The orcas that were spotted were engaging in behavior indicating they were hunting, such as sweeping parts of the ocean together in a formation.
It should be noted the name killer whale is not very accurate, because in the wild they never attack or kill humans. They merely do what every other marine mammal does — look for food and eat when they can. Any attacks have taken place when they are held captive in confined spaces. One can understand how people would fear them though, as they are very fast swimmers and quite large. Several of the adult males seen by the tour group were 30 feet long. Some of the largest males weigh 16,000 pounds or more. (For comparison, the average car in the US weighs between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.) The tourists on that San Francisco boat had the thrill of a lifetime.