To the surprise of whale watchers and marine biologists, dozens of exotic orca whales have been spotted off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, near Vancouver Island. Usually found cruising along California's continental shelf, these strangers from the south go by many names - exotics, transients and outer-coastal orcas.
"They have a little bit of a different look to them," Mark Malleson, a local whale watcher, told the Seattle Times, explaining that they're not identical to the resident orcas. "They're just a little fatter and sassier." He said he's seen the exotics more frequently over the past four months than in the previous 18 years.
The resident whales have long settled in the Pacific Northwest, though they've yet to cross paths with the newcomers, who haven't moved into the Puget Sound, where the residents live. Even if the two groups did meet, they would likely live in peace. Resident whales eat a diet of almost only Chinook salmon, whereas the outer-coastal whales hunt seals, porpoises and marine mammals.
It's unclear why the whales have moved north from California, but marine biologists have a hunch the exotic orcas are chasing food or pleasant water temperatures.
Despite the influx of whales into the area, the outlook for the locals seems grim. Only 78 resident whales were seen in Puget Sound in 2014, the fewest since the 1980s. And a 10-year study of the whales, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded that the "population continues to struggle to recover." Their salmon supply is dwindling, but the orcas' problems also stretch back decades - this was the group of whales rounded up by SeaWorld 40 years ago.