Searching for the Sea of Cortez Orcas: Part I

We’ve just received a postcard from guide and Backscatter photo pro Dany Taylor, who’s been searching for the elusive Sea of Cortez orcas on our inaugural mobula and orca expedition.

Different seasons bring different seas.  Or at least it feels this way with an entirely different Sea of Cortez between April and July.  We have been stunned by the sheer volume of marine megafauna we have seen on this trip…

airplane

First Day at Sea

On our first day at sea on this expedition, we piled into our high speed 32-foot aluminum rigid hull inflatable (RHIB) around 9 am. We began our search between La Ventana and La Paz, knowing that there had been mobula sightings in the area in the previous days.

Less than an hour later, after already having seen a blue marlin breaching, a green sea turtle on the surface and a playful sea lion that came to check us out, we were contacted by Siddhartha, the pilot of the “El Peregrino” hydroplane, stating he had spotted a pod of orcas by the San Lorenzo Channel between Balandra, El Tecolote and Espiritu Santo Island. These were the Sea of Cortez orcas we had been looking for…

male orca

Sea of Cortez Orcas

After around 30 minutes of motoring there and waiting for any sign of the orcas, one of the guests screamed in excitement after seeing Moctezuma’s (the male orca from this pod) enormous dorsal fin on the horizon. We slowly approached them until we saw the full eight members of the pod come up for air, including a young calf.

We divided into two groups and began to position ourselves ahead of the orcas, so as to not to cut their path, but to be in the water by the time they passed by. I jumped in with the first group, and as soon as we looked down, there they were! Two big females (we assumed one was the matriarch) and two younger individuals, one being the youngest of the pod and one which was always between the two adult females. As soon as we came out of the water, everybody’s smiles said it all.

The second half of the group got ready and by this time we were practically in front of El Tecolote, where the water was much shallower and a clear aqua color. We had to swim several meters but eventually they crossed our path, the same four females from the fist jump came to us, tilting their bodies slightly to the side to take a better look. The biggest surprise was the massive male, Moctezuma, who was right behind them. Without moving a single muscle, he just glided in front of us. It was an unbelievable encounter seeing them in such shallow water, and with improved visibility from the first time!  

Nautilus Gallant Lady

The Benefits of Staying on a Liveaboard

From then onwards, as they headed towards Espiritu Santo, the day-tour boats had caught wind and gathered to see them. From big yachts and sailboats to small pangas, there were eventually around 15 boats surrounding them. At this point, we decided to respect the pod and follow from a distance so we wouldn’t cause additional stress, noting they had boats almost on top of them on various occasions.

After covering all the west side of the island from south to north, and with the sun starting to drop, all the boats headed back to land. The orcas began to swim in a calmer manner until we arrived at Los Islotes.

sea of cortez orcas

An Unbelievable Nature Show

There were a few sea lions swimming around and we noticed they began to swim faster, which we could only assume was their panic coming on as they heard the clicks and whistles from the approaching orcas. Finally, no more than 100 feet from the south side of Los Islotes, we began to witness unusual behavior from the orcas, swimming in different directions, rising more frequently to the surface to take a breath; then we realized they were hunting something. Initially we couldn’t identify their prey and assumed it was sea lions, since we could only see between all the thrashing in the water, a bit of brown color close to the surface. It wasn’t until a small school of mobulas that had broken off from the main school came closer to the RHIB that we realized they were the prey. For a few moments there was pure silence as we witnessed an unbelievable nature show. After a few minutes, we decided it was safe to jump in, and after a quick briefing of how to act in the water, the majority of the guests jumped it to witness the underwater action.

Snorkeling with mobula rays

A Window into the Wild

The mobulas were swimming erratically in all directions and on many occasions, they sought protection around us, to the point that they would hit our fins. And every so often, we would see the orcas around our perimeter or under us, getting ready to shoot themselves into the school of mobulas to take one of them. Not everyone had a chance to see them underwater as they were very quick and hard to see between all the tiny bubbles in the water from the mobulas splashing in the surface. But just taking your head out, you could clearly see all the orcas swimming very close to us and taking constant breaths at the surface. We were maybe around 15-20 minutes in the water trying to follow the mobulas and see the action, until the orcas chased the mobulas out of our reach. By then, the sun had set, and we saw as they left in the distance. Everybody was over the moon, but even more so from knowing, and seeing, that the Gallant Lady was just a few minutes away from us. The only reason why we were able to stay that long and experience such a show. On the way back, everyone wouldn’t stop talking about what they had each seen, making jokes to Juan and I about what we were going to do for the rest of the trip after such an unbelievable first day.

Stay tuned for Part II to find out what else they encountered on their expedition…  

Want to find the Sea of Cortez orcas? Join Us on a Mobula and Orca Expedition.

Image credit: Dany Taylor, Bugs and Bears

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