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Killer whales spotted in Gulf of Mexico

This video scene shows killer whales near an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in October. It’s unclear how many are in the gulf.

Gary Finch Outdoors

This video scene shows killer whales near an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in October. It’s unclear how many are in the gulf.

It was a fish story that even veteran boat captains found fascinating: Up to 200 killer whales feeding on tuna in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"It was like being at SeaWorld because they'd come right up to the boat," said Eddie Hall, captain of the Shady Lady, the charter boat that spotted them.

It was also hard for some skeptics to believe: orcas, as killer whales are also known, typically are thought to live in cold water and eat seals.

But Hall's description of what he saw Oct. 31 was no tall tale, and a government biologist who saw video taken from Hall's boat confirmed it. And last week that same scientist, Keith Mullin, explained at a public meeting in Orange Beach, Ala., that they do live in the gulf.

Mullin, whose outfit has been working for years to get an accurate count of the gulf's whale population, said it may be time to increase estimates on how many killer whales are in the deep waters off the Gulf Coast. He's taking part in a research expedition this summer that could determine if his hunch is right.

Scientists believe the whales have been in the gulf for years. Their small population and the speed at which pods move make them difficult to count.

Hall said the Shady Lady was 95 miles off the coast of Alabama when anglers and crew saw scores of them. "There were four different pods. We estimated there were about 200 maximum. One pod had 75 in it," he said.

Don't worry, but stay clear

Do the orcas pose any threat to beachgoers? Surely not. They frequent waters only 600 feet and deeper, said Joel Ortega-Ortiz, an associate research scientist at Florida Fish and Wildlife's Research institute in St. Petersburg. But Ortega-Ortiz said people who see them should stay away. "It's against federal law to come within 100 yards of any whale," he said.

Robbyn Mitchell, Times staff writer

On the Web

Watch video of the whales at links.tampabay.com.

Killer whales spotted in Gulf of Mexico 03/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 10:11pm]

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