When people hear killer whales most either think of Shamu at Sea World or the fish eating residents of the San Juans. Although the residents do visit our waters every few years the orcas you will see in Northern California are either transients or more rarely offshores, both feed on marine mammals. The Sea World orcas were taken mostly from the Pacific Northwest and are a mix of resident and transient populations.
Like dolphins orcas are faster and more nimble than almost all whale watch boats so close encounters can’t be forced unless they are feeding.
In general they are curious and do not avoid whale watch boats. The best views occur when two pods meet, or they have finished dinner and are celebrating, breaches, tail slaps and spyhops are common behaviors. They will often watch the whale watchers. They are seen about one trip in every 10 or 15, and often in multiple day stretches. I’ve seen the same animals multiple times over the years. They are commonly seen in late April through May, when they are hunting gray whale calves. As the population of sea lions increases they will be here when the sea lions are plentiful. Last summer (2011) they were seen in the Monterey harbor.
Individual orcas are easily identified by their saddle patch shape and dorsal fin specifics. Residents have bifurcated patches, the males in all species have tall dorsal fins, females are shorter and facile (curved). Pods are led by older females, family groups stay together for life. Females can live past 70, but pollution is a serious threat.