An Encounter with a Killer Whale Calf

Early in the day, excitement turned into grave concern. Bob Pitman sighted an animal, but it was moving strangely. After a few minutes, he saw the dorsal fin and the head. Too far away to identify, he thought it may be a small or young cetacean entangled in nets. Could this be our first encounter with a vaquita? So fragile is the population that the possibly of losing one is devastating at this point. This is the final year of gillnetting in the northern gulf of California. It is the accidental capture and drowning of vaquita in gill nets that scientists cite as the main threat to the survival of the species. Scientists give the population only two years before they would be extinct if nothing is done. Fortunately, the Mexican Government is acting.

Barb Taylor asked me to go along in the zodiac with Bob, Todd and a team from the Jordan to take a closer look and to get footage of what was happening. We were not sure what we were going to encounter, but were shocked when we realized what it was.

Watch this video to see what was thought to be an entangled dolphin or vaquita turn out to be a killer whale calf, on its own, struggling for survival.


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This was absolutely, totally unexpected. Watching a young animal like this fighting to live, all alone, was gut wrenching. Sadness doesn't come close to describing the mood in the zodiac. I have never witnessed anything like this in the wild, watching this incredible mammal in its last moments, and there was nothing we could do. If this was an entangled animal, perhaps we could have done something, but in this case we could only assess and monitor the progress of the unfolding situation.

For this young killer whale, the most debilitating issue was distance. We were hundreds of miles from any kind of land based facility with the expertise to at least try and help the calf.

This was a front row view of nature at her most brutal. The killer whale is an iconic mammal, a keystone species in the marine ecosystem. This young animal was supposed to grow up as a strong, apex predator, but instead, was the victim of circumstances we could do nothing about.

I spent the ride back to the ship silently hoping that things would turn around, or that magically, its family would come to the rescue of the young killer whale in some spectacular Hollywood ending. But this was not to be.

I will never forgot this morning...

There was no Hollywood ending for the young killer whale. Soon after we left, nature took its course and the young whale died, washing up on a beach south of San Felipe.