Dolphins and Killer Whales

Seeing dolphins in the surf at Point Lobos is very exciting. These animals may travel alone or in groups. Dolphins are highly intelligent marine mammals and are very playful and fun to watch. They are part of a family of toothed whales that includes orcas, sperm whales and pilot whales. Dolphins are carnivores, mostly eating fish and squid.

Dolphin coloration varies, but they are generally gray in color and have darker backs than the rest of their bodies.  Although it is difficult to identify the species unless you have binoculars and know the different markings, there are a few signs you can look for. Several species of dolphins visit the coast of California and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. The most common are the Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) (on the left below) and the Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) (on the right). Risso's can be distinguished by their blunt snouts and the amount of scarring on their bodies caused by fighting with other Risso's dolphis and with squid, their main food source. They are quite active and love to breach and tail slap. The Pacific White-sided Dolphin is found year-round but is most abundant during warmer water regimes in fall & winter. It ranges in the north Pacific from southeastern Alaska to Baja California.  Sometimes these dolphins put on a truly impressive performance of leaps and aerial flips. They have been known to also swim in formation with other dolphins and sea lions, sometimes leaping from the water in spirited somersaults.


Other dolphins seen in the Monterey Bay include the long-beaked common dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), a fast and energetic dolphin commonly seen breaching and somersaulting, the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) travelling just outside the breakers along sandy beaches, and the Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) that sometimes produces a “rooster tail” of water spray that is unique to this species.

The largest dolphin species is the orca (Orcinus orca), or killer whale. A typical killer whale distinctively bears a black back, white chest and sides, and a white patch above and behind the eye. Calves are born with a yellowish or orange tint, which fades to white. It has a heavy and robust body with a large dorsal fin up to 6 feet tall in the males. Behind the fin, it has a dark grey "saddle patch" across the back.  When seen from a distance, juveniles can be confused with other cetacean species, like the Risso's dolphin. Male orcas grow to about 25 feet in length and weigh about 19,000 pounds. 

The killer whale is also referred to as the orca whale or orca, and less commonly as the blackfish. Killer whales are found in all oceans. Killer whales as a species have a diverse diet, although individual populations often specialize in particular types of prey. Some feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals and even large whales. The killer whale's large size and strength make it among the fastest marine mammals, able to reach speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour. Killer whales have made appearances at Point Lobos during the gray whale migration from Baja to Alaska when the mother gray whale is traveling with her young calf from March through early May. The orcas will follow and attempt to prey on the calf while the mother gray whale will do everything in her power to protect it on this journey.

Killer whales are highly social; some populations are composed of family groups. Their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors are often specific to a particular group and passed across generations.  

Most dolphins live long lives. The bottlenose dolphin can live over 40 years, and the orca can live to be 70 or 80 years old!