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Killer whales spotted in Gulf of Mexico

Imagine tuna fishing deep in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly you spot a pod of killer whales surfacing like porpoises in the distance. That is exactly what happened to a group of anglers fishing some 90 miles offshore of Orange Beach, Alabama on Oct. 31, 2008. The crew of the Shady Lady were on their second day of fishing for trophy yellowfins out of Zeke’s Marina in Orange Beach when Capt. Eddie Hall and boat owner Shawn Clemens spotted the reason for their lack of luck.

During the first night of fishing, Hall said the fishing “was terrible,” as the crew caught only three 100-pound-plus tuna and were getting no bites at all, despite the fact that conditions were such that the tuna should have been busting their baits. According to Hall, the Shady Lady was approximately three miles south of the Horn Mountain Rig – an oil rig located in 5,400 feet of water, approximately 100 miles southeast of New Orleans – when the sun came up on the second day of their trip.

Around 9 a.m. on Halloween Day (Oct. 31), the anglers discovered why the tuna were scarce. The crew almost could not believe their eyes, as they spotted (and shot video of) four pods of killer whales feeding on schools of tuna. These are the same black-and-white orcas (Orcinus orca) made popular by Sea World and featured in the Free Willy film. The orca (or killer whale) is actually the largest species of the dolphin family. The apex predator of the marine world is found in all the world’s oceans – and has even been spotted in the Gulf before – but it is an extremely rare occurrence.

Hall reported the four distinct pods were feeding independently of each other, and the smallest pod consisted of about 25-30 orcas. He estimated that there were as many as 100 killer whales in each of the other pods. The crew of the Shady Lady followed the killer whales for well over an hour, recording what they witnessed with a video camera and radioing other boats in the area of the rig.

For photos and video of the encounter, go online and type in: http://www.orangebeach.ws/. Some of the killer whales swam within just a few feet of the boat and did not seem to be bothered at all – simply checking their fellow anglers out as they continued to feed.

While he said he had seen numerous species of whales (including sperm whales) common to the Gulf of Mexico over the years, and had heard of whale shark sightings in the past, Hall said he had never seen a whale shark in his 13 years of fishing the Gulf. Hall and the crew didn’t just see one, they saw hundreds. Capt. John Holley of Destin, Fla. commented on an online forum that he has twice seen orcas in the Gulf.

“The first time in 1988 a scientist told me I had to have been mistaken (although nothing else looks like an orca), but the second time, in 2002, I got pictures. There were at least 11, but maybe 12, including two very large males, two small calves with their mothers, and they appeared to stay in two separate groups.

“Both calves simultaneously turned upside down and began knocking heads with their mothers on opposite sides of the boat. One large male rushed a lure but then backed off. It was wild!” Holley added.

The video taken on the Shady Lady has since been authenticated as being video proof that the animals were definitely killer whales and were in fact in Gulf of Mexico waters.

While orcas do seem to prefer colder waters (less than 60 degrees), there are pods documented entering the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Biologist Keith Mullin says there have been 17 sightings of orcas in the Gulf, but nothing like the latest encounter. “Ten to 15 in a pod is the most we’ve ever seen, or really even gotten reports of,” Mullin said.

Capt. Scott McCune of Port Aransas, Texas also videotaped killer whales during a marlin fishing trip on July 29, 2004 – one of four sightings that year. McCune was fishing about 70 miles east of Port Aransas when he documented the small pod of orcas. Marine Research Biologist Keith Mullin with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based in the Southeast Fisheries Science Center Mississippi Laboratories, said that the sheer number of orcas sighted outside of arctic waters made it special.

“We do our own surveys, and some years we don’t see any. Some years we’ll see one, and one year we were quite lucky when we saw three different groups of killer whales,” Mullin said.

It is something that Shady Lady owner Shawn Clemons won’t soon forget. “For them to come up, no hesitation . . . basically we could have jumped off the boat onto their backs, it was breathtaking.”