The odd-looking dolphin frolicking offshore was noticeably different – a sleek dark color with no dorsal fin.
The Newport Coastal Adventure crew, during an early-morning trip on Sunday, heard word of a pod of Risso’s dolphins in the area, itself a fun find for guests on the charter boat. But once they found the pod, the unique dolphin stood out among its numbers.
Captain Ryan Lawler and photographer Mark Girardeau flew up a drone to get a closer look at the marine mammal, immediately recognizing it as a northern right whale dolphin, a species they recognized from trips to Monterey but had never seen off local waters.
The duo immediately sent photos to Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a local cetacean expert and researcher, for confirmation.
Schulman-Janiger said sightings of the species in Southern California waters don’t happen often, the last time one that was 100% confirmed and documented from the shore was in 1995, though there have been other reports further out at sea on the backside of Catalina and up in the Channel Islands.
“Orange County southward, we don’t encounter them often, we think they are offshore mostly,” she said, noting they are also sometimes spotted further down in Baja.
Seeing northern right whale dolphins mix with Risso’s dolphins is also unusual, though not unheard of, she said. Experts in Monterey said they’ve had a few encounters of them mixing with other dolphin species reported up there.
It’s unknown how or why this northern right whale dolphin linked up with the pod encountered.
“Maybe it was just wandering around and decided to socialize,” Schulman-Janiger said. “But it is always pretty cool to see a mix of species.”
Because of their sleek body, dark color and no dorsal fin, northern right whale dolphins are often mistaken for sea lions or seals, she said, noting that it wasn’t swimming in sync with the other dolphins, rather swimming in front of the pod.
“This species is pretty fast and it seemed to always be leading the Risso’s as if to be waiting for them to catch up,” Girardeau said.
It’s the only dolphin species in California without dorsal fins.
According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the northern right whale dolphins usually travel in groups of 100 to 200 individuals, but sometimes in groups of up to 3,000. They are “acrobatic” swimmers and can leap more than 20 feet over the surface of the water.
Scientists estimate there are about 68,000 northern right whale dolphins in the North Pacific Ocean, according to NOAA.
They are typically 6.5-feet to 10-feet long and weigh about 130 to 250 pounds. Their dorsal side is shiny and black, while their underside is white. NOAA’s online information said they are occasionally seen in mixed groups with other cetacean species, such as Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and short-finned pilot whales.
They are typically found in deep waters from the outer continental shelf to oceanic regions throughout the North Pacific Ocean. But they usually migrate within their habitat as the water temperature changes, moving south during the colder winter and autumn months, then returning north during the warmer spring and summer months.
Source: Orange County Register