A whale watching group had quite the thrill in local waters on Saturday after they spotted a rare killer whale swimming off the coast of San Diego alongside hundreds of common dolphins.
Melissa Galieti, a naturalist and photographer for San Diego Whale Watch, says staffers and a group of guests were out on the water around 10:45 a.m. when they saw a teenage killer whale.
Instantly, Galieti says she recognized the whale, nicknamed “Mel.”
Galieti says the whale watching group had been on the lookout for Mel all morning after they received reports of sightings off the coast of Mexico, just outside the Coronado Islands.
Galieti says the whale had previously been spotted swimming alongside a large pod of dolphins. When the whale watching group got about five or 10 minutes outside of the bay, she says they saw a large pod of dolphins and knew the killer whale had to be close.
Just as suspected, Mel surfaced shortly thereafter.
“He was following a pod of about 1,000 dolphins. I saw his dorsal fin come up above the surface and I saw him exhale, and instantly knew it was the same whale [we were looking for],” said Galieti.
She says the whale saw and heard their boat, changed his course and swam right up to the vessel, maneuvering underneath the bow and then back off the stern.
Galieti says she, the boat captain and the whale watching guests were overjoyed as the whale made his rounds.
“Guests were screaming with delight, taking their photos and videos. I was on cloud nine. It was pure excitement,” she explained.
Galieti says it’s the fourth time she has personally seen Mel. He was her very first whale she ever saw in local waters, and for that reason, her colleagues nicknamed him “Mel,” after Galieti.
“It’s exciting to see a rare species, and have it be the whale that’s kind of special to me, personally,” she added.
Galieti says the younger male killer whale is likely in his teens and is approximately 16 to 18 feet in length and 10,000 to 12,000 pounds. When full-grown, she says he may reach up to 30 feet in length.
Although she’s seen Mel four times over the course of about two years Galieti says he’s the only killer whale she’s ever seen, which is why a killer whale sighting like this is extremely rare.
“It’s just not a normal occurrence for our area. He’s coming up from an area in Mexico. That’s where his pod, or possibly a pod that has adopted him, is located. He’s been seen about 120 miles south of San Diego and he’s come up here a couple times on his own,” said Galieti.
She says it appears that Mel wanders away from his home from time to time to hang out with common dolphins, and perhaps take a little vacation to San Diego.
Galieti and her colleagues are not sure why Mel wanders, but they’re studying his patterns in hopes of learning more about the species.
"That's something that we are very interested in learning more about," said Galieti.