Whales, Orcas, & Dolphins Along Ventura California’s Coast

by Ken McAlpine

Photos By: Latitudes Fine Art Gallery

I saw my friend Steve Munch recently and it reminded me again of the surprise and raw beauty in this world, not to mention the lovely unfoldings and potential for visceral heartbreak that exist right off our coast.

Let me explain.

First let me say that my friend Steve Munch is many things, many of which cannot see print, but above all he is a man who cares deeply about our oceans. He is also a supremely talented photographer. Along with Stephanie Hogue, another supremely talented photographer, Steve owns Latitudes Fine Art Gallery here in Ventura (our town is not short on creative talent). My friend Steve photographs many things, but most of his photos center around the waters off our Ventura shoreline. Steve is not lackadaisical in his efforts. He spends over 200 days a year out on his boat shooting. This allows him some special moments.

I have been out on the water with Steve (not often enough for me, but perhaps too often for him), and I will tell you there is no finer way to spend a day. The waters of the Santa Barbara Channel are rife with life, and it is not unusual to encounter this life the instant you leave shore. One of the last times I went out with Steve, putting out of Ventura Harbor, we came on a nursery pod in less than five minutes, an achingly beautiful assemblage of common dolphins. The little ones — and I mean little, some looked to be about the size of an over-inflated football — executed the same scimitar leaps, barely a splash exiting and entering the morning-still water, as their parents, making you wonder if they exit the womb knowing how to leap perfectly.

We drifted. Steve shot. The only sounds punctuating the quiet were the exhalations of the dolphins, the sound like a snorkel being cleared, and the marveling exclamations of two men.

Drifting only a few hundred yards off shore, looking east we could clearly see Oxnard’s 22-story Topa Financial Tower. It was odd to think of men and women tucked in cubicles beneath artificial light, while we floated on a skein of ocean as dolphins streaked and lept, the morning sun playing off their sleek forms.

Whenever I leave any shore I am struck by this abrupt, yet perfectly obvious, juxtaposition. Two different worlds, yet, of course, not different at all. Raw, beautiful surprises but, of course, not surprises at all.

Which brings me to the visceral heartbreak, and another day; this time my friend Steve out in his boat alone.

Not every natural encounter is a fairy tale moment of infant dolphins and ethereal light. But it can be argued that there is a certain beauty in every kind of wildness.

On this particular day, again dolphins appear, exploding from the milk-smooth Pacific waters like fistfuls of birdseed scattered; a pod maybe a thousand strong. Wildlife photography is a frustrating business, but there are rare times when the natural world aligns itself for the photographer. Hundreds of dolphins fleck the surface. Behind them, Anacapa Island’s Arch provides the perfect backdrop. It is a gift of timing and luck, and Steve throws himself on the deck of the boat, getting as close to water level as possible, firing off shots of sleek forms rocketing from the water all around him. This is when he hears another noise, different from the raucous cavorting, something more measured and perhaps clinically efficient. He looks off the stern. The orcas, five or six of them, move almost as one, each separated from the other by a little over an arm’s length. Steve breaks photography’s first commandment. He lowers his lens.

All playfulness disappears from the day. This is no game. The whales move with lethal power. Slipping beneath the surface they make a sound like a whisper, no more.

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The bull explodes from the water, taking a dolphin. The panicked pod runs, undulating for the relative safety of the island. Steve recovers his wits and his professionalism. He brings the camera up again, steering the boat with his feet. Still his hands shake. It takes all his skill to keep the lens level.

It is beautiful in a dark fashion. The orcas separate four or five dolphins from the pod and begin their work. The culled dolphins break left. They break right. Their shadows flick beneath the water at astonishing speed. The orcas are often invisible, but it is clear what they’re doing. It’s terribly simple. They are exhausting the dolphins. The female orcas chase, herd and confuse the dolphins. Then the bull comes up from beneath and finishes them.

At the end there are two dolphins left. They come to Steve’s boat, the only refuge in the savage water, pressing against the hull. There is nowhere else for them to go. As the orcas rise to the surface, Steve feels the water boiling through the transom.

Another dolphin disappears.

Wounded and exhausted, the last survivor lays just off the boat’s swim step. Steve could reach out and touch the dolphin. Its panting is nearly human, a desperate runner at the end of great race.

There is nothing dramatic in this end. The bull surfaces and rolls over on the dolphin, gently taking the dolphin down into the sea.

The boat settles. Steve waits. The dolphins and the orcas are gone. There is only pure silence.

Life goes on.

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