July 28, 2023
Out off the Florida Keys, between the mainland and Cuba, the Florida Straits offer fishermen unparalleled opportunities to find various sought-after sportfish species like marlin, swordfish, sailfish, queen snapper and barrelfish. What one wouldn't expect to see is a pod of orca whales weaving in and out of schools of fish in the record-high warm waters of the area. But earlier this week on July 24, a group of fishermen were in for a surprise.
While out on a quest for swordfish in the Florida Straits about 19 miles off Key Largo, Mike Slaughter and his pals were caught off guard when they see blood in the water as they pulled up to an area rife with bird activity in 1700 feet of water. In an eye-rubbing, "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" kind of moment, a black and white silhouette makes its way to the surface and the crew is floored. Killer whales.
Orca Whales in the Florida Keys?
Now, the term killer whale is somewhat misleading. Orcas are actually a part of the dolphin delineation of the Infraorder Cetacea which encompasses whales, dolphins and porpoises. This Infraorder is divided further into toothed whales and baleen whales, and since orcas possess a row of razor-sharp 4-inch teeth that they use to rip apart their unfortunate prey, they are technically a dolphin. But "killer dolphin" doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it?
In a series of miraculous events, members of the curious pod came to the surface near the boaters, quietly observing the vessel and crew before diving back down to go about their business. Slaughter reports, "At one point, one of the orcas came out of the water and had a huge piece of meat in his mouth, you could smell it, it was really cool." Show off.
The pod of 5 to 7 orca whales remained around long enough for Slaughter to grab his phone to capture a few short videos, as this was one event you really need to have proof of to not be written off as a fish tale.
I was actually on assignment in Key Largo when the sighting occurred and all the locals were asking me if I had seen the videos. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The orca pod was the talk of the town. Everywhere I went, all the way down to Key West, I was hearing buzzing talk of the sighting as the Keys residents were sharing the shocking story. News spread quickly by word of mouth aided even further with the help of social media and local news coverage.
Why Were Orca Whales in Florida?
With an estimated 50,000 orcas worldwide, as well as being normally found in the much colder waters of Antarctica and between California and Alaska, this encounter was indeed rare. Although not unheard of. Capt. Bill Chrisman of No Regrets Sport Fishing shared that he knows a captain who once saw an orca whale off the Cay Sal Bank in the Bahamas 40 to 50 years ago.
Marine Biologist Kirk Linaje weighed in as well, suggesting that the pod captured on video were Caribbean orcas, a subset of orcas that call the waters of the southeastern Caribbean and Lesser Antilles home. Linaje speculates that recent warmer waters have affected their normal feeding patterns, forcing them to forage for food in waters farther north than they are used to hunting.
How Rare Are Orcas in Florida?
According to one source, the Straits of Florida are said to hold the highest density of fish in the Atlantic Ocean which could explain the creatures' unexpected appearance. "Orcas can be spotted pretty much anywhere in the ocean," Linaje says, but finding one so close to the equator is relatively rare. "It's even more unusual to see an entire pod of orcas."
Marine Mammal Scientist and FIU Biological Sciences professor Jeremy Kiszka said it appears to be at least four large female killer whales and one male in the pod and explains killer whales have been previously studied in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and in the Bahamas.
"It was amazing and a once-in-a-lifetime experience!" Slaughter shared on social media. That it was indeed. See one of the videos posted on Capt. Bill Chrisman's Instagram here and the rest of the videos on Mike Slaughter's page here.