WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger answers our questions about her favorite subject – killer whales.
|Killer Whale Facts
::They have very close family relationships.
::Many of the hunting techniques are passed
on within their groups.
::They’re extremely emotional animals.
::Females live to be 80 to 100 years old or
more. Males live to be 40 to 60 years old.
::They can see just as well with their eyes
covered up because their sense of sound
is so sophisticated.
When a group of over 40 shark-eating killer whales visited the Orange County coast recently, it was a great sight for all – but not as many people were as thrilled with the visit as Alisa Schulman-Janiger. She has been researching, photographing and following killer whales in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas for the past 28 years.
“They had some transients a mile off of the pier at Dana Point, and one of the killer whales turned on its side and was nursing a calf right there,” she says.
A marine biologist and avid researcher, she recently gave up teaching in the classroom to focus on her California Killer Whale Project full time.
Coast Magazine met with Schulman-Janiger at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, where she partakes in the volunteer-based whale watching program she started in 1984. (The group keeps a tally of the number of whales spotted from December to mid-May.) On March 10, Schulman-Janiger will be giving a presentation on killer whales and a whale-watching tour at the Dana Point Festival of Whales; she will also be giving a presentation on May 24 at Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center for the American Cetacean Society.
You recently spent an entire afternoon in Orange County with killer whales. What was the experience like?
It was extraordinary! We were with them for almost three hours. I was on a whale-watching boat [on January 19] when I got a call that there were some killer whales next to Dana Point. Orange County is a really important place, like a southern boundary for many of these whales. When we got out there they were not too far off Newport, and we followed them from off Newport to off of Huntington Beach. They were super rare whales; these ones haven’t been seen here since around 1996. They now have babies and juveniles. I’ve been trying to match things up but I have no pictures because it has been over 15 years since we’ve seen this group of whales. We left the group off Huntington Beach at sunset and no one has reported any sightings since. I just find it so interesting that at this point there are still some things that you can go and discover that haven’t been discovered yet. [If you have any photos from the recent OC killer whale sightings, e-mail them to Schulman-Janiger at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
How do you differentiate between one whale and another?
The shape of the fin. The fins are very different and there are different kinds of fins. The saddle areas look different, even the shape of the eye patch is different. So I mostly compare the shape of the fin and the shape of the saddle and the different marks and I’m able to tell who’s who. It’s basically a concentration game. I’ll stare at the fin until I really have it in my head, and then I’ll flip through all these other pictures until there’s this little bell that rings. And that’s what I really enjoy doing. I have an eye for shape and patterns.
What do you do when you’re not here whale watching or out on the water taking photographs?
Mostly I'm on the water with whales, watching the water for whales, teaching people about whales, Facebooking and e-mailing people about whales, or working on my orca IDs and database. A lot of my time since retiring from the classroom in July has been spent on the computer with killer whale ID. I’m going back and scanning the old ones, comparing them and trying to figure out which whales belong to who. That’s a big part of our project – getting family relationships sorted out.
So what’s the proper term: killer whale or orca? Is there a difference between the two?
A lot of people are trying to get it changed to orca. Killer tigers kill people, killer sharks kill people, killer elephants kill people, killer whales eat food – they don’t kill people. It’s not a good name at all. Originally the Eskimos called them whale killers, because the ones that they were seeing were transients who killed whales. But that wasn’t exciting enough so other people changed it to killer whale. It’s really a bad name because it makes them sound so ferocious and dangerous, and they’re not.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I would say my favorite part is going out in the water and taking pictures and recognizing the animals and just spending time with them. It’s really special. I love going out on boats and talking about the whales and teaching people about them. I was told when I was a little kid that blue whales would probably be extinct when I grew up! These are animals that are in our own backyard. You don’t have to go to a marine park in order to see them. It’s amazing the variety of species that we get just from here on a given day. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen orcas and I still get really excited. The ocean has always sparked my interest. But, for whatever reason, the whales... it’s an unending interest.