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Killer whales spotted near S.F., far from usual feeding grounds

SAN FRANCISCO —_ A large group of endangered killer whales has been spotted off the coast of San Francisco, a long way from their usual
feeding grounds along the Washington coast.

The magnificent black-and-white predators were first seen off Half
Moon Bay, where they were apparently searching for salmon, which are
declining in numbers in the Pacific Northwest.

Photos were taken Jan. 24 of from nine to 15 orcas swimming in the
open water between the Farallon Islands and San Francisco.

Although killer whales have been seen off the coast before,
researchers believe some five-dozen or more individuals are now
regularly leaving their historic habitat in the Puget Sound area for
the abundant waters near the Golden Gate.

``It's exciting for us because they traveled so far to get to
California, which means they can travel farther than people thought to
find food,'' said Nancy Black, a marine biologist and whale expert for
Monterey Bay Whale Watch. ``Before, it was just transient (orcas) that
have been seen in Bay Area. This is something unusual.''

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist and founder of the Center for Whale
Research, which has tracked the pod in Washington for 30 years, said
the whales, including a mother and calf, were positively identified
through the photos as members of a family group called ``K-pod.''

Based on observations made a little over a week earlier off Half
Moon Bay, Balcomb believes that members of ``L-pod'' are also in the
vicinity.

If they are, it would mean that as many as 63 whales could
be spread out over 30 miles around the Farallones.

The animals make up two of the three pods of the southern resident
killer whale population, which provide thrills every summer for whale
watchers in the Pacific Northwest as they follow salmon toward the
rivers where the fish spawn.

The southern resident whales, so-named because they are the
southernmost group of orcas in the Pacific Northwest, have been
documented along the Central California coast five times before,
starting in 2000, scientists say.

The sightings this year were seen by
whale experts as confirmation that the orcas have extended their
habitat.

``This is the first time we've noticed this as a recurring activity
on this scale,'' said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, Balcomb's son and the
spokesman for the research center. ``It extends their range 1,000
miles.''

The presence of the highly social species off the Golden Gate may
be great news for whale watchers, but it's not such a good thing for
fishermen, who see it as an indication of how few salmon there are
left off Washington and Oregon.

Salmon fishing was severely limited
along the coasts of the two states and California last year because of
a huge drop in the number of chinook and coho salmon in the Klamath
River.

Experts believe the orcas are undoubtedly looking for salmon off
the California coast, where the runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin
river systems were not so depleted, like in the Klamath.

The addition of killer whales into waters already teeming with the fish-loving
seals and sea lions could spell the further decline to a fishery
already impacted by water diversions and habitat destruction.

``You get a pod of killer whales feasting on salmon — that could
create another problem,'' said Zeke Grader, executive director of the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.