The Elusive False Killer Whale

In 2013, Jens Currie came to Pacific Whale Foundation as a data analyst from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. With an ambition to explore more robust statistical methods of potential anthropogenic impacts on cetacean populations, Jens is now Senior Research Analyst. Here, he lends a helping hand for those of us that are new to understanding and appreciating the endangered false killer whale.

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What is a false killer whale, and can you dissect the name for me?
False killer whales are the fourth largest species of dolphin. They are characterized by their dark coloration, slender body, crescent-shaped dorsal fin, and small rounded head with no beak. Individuals of this species weigh between 1,000-3,000 lbs. Adult females reach lengths of 16 feet, while adult males are almost 20 feet long.

The name Pseudorca (pseudo-orca) comes from the similarly shaped skulls that false killer whales have to that of killer whales (Orcinus orca). The “crassidens” in their scientific name Pseudorca crassidens means “thick tooth.” They were first discovered and described by fossils.

What is their lifespan, what do they eat, how do they stand out?
These animals have a lifespan of 60 years or more.  False killer whales feed primarily on fish and cephalopods in open water habitats.  The prey items of this species include economically important fish, such as mahi-mahi and tuna, and occasionally other marine mammal species. It has been documented that false killer whales cooperatively hunt, and will share food between individuals in their group.

Where are they found in the world?
False killer whales are distributed throughout warm and temperate waters in the tropics and subtropics, with the highest abundance in warmer waters. They are typically found in the open ocean but can also occur closer to shore, particularly near tropical oceanic islands such as the Hawaiian Islands. Based on genetic and photographic data, there are three populations of false killer whales surrounding the Hawaiian Islands: the main Hawaiian Islands insular population, the northwestern Hawaiian Islands insular population, and an offshore/open-ocean population.

Do they migrate? Are they kama’aina?
They do not migrate and the main Hawaiian Islands insular population is kama’aina

Why are there so few remaining?
The endangered main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whale population is estimated to be around 150 individuals. The historical population size is unknown; however, spotter planes from the 1980s report seeing large aggregations of 350-400 whales in a single area. Aerial data suggest that the population has declined at an average rate of 9% per year through the early 2000’s (NOAA Fisheries, 2018).

The reason why there are so few false killer whales is unknown; however, there are several factors that likely play a role. Given their endangered status, in 2010 a Biological Review Team (BRT) was established to conduct a status review of the species. In the Status Review report (Oleson et al. 2010) of the 29 identified threats identified, the most substantial threats to the population include: the effects of small population size (inbreeding depression and Allee effects), exposure to environmental contaminants, competition for food with commercial fisheries, and hooking, entanglement, and/or intentional harm by fishermen.

How can citizen scientists help us ID these elusive animals?
Citizen scientists can help us ID these animals by donating any photos they have of false killer whales in Hawaii. We can photo-identify individual Pseudorca through unique scars and markings, and by using their dorsal fin. Photo-identification is an important part of our research and how we can track changes in population size over time.

Another way to help is to notify PWF’s researchers when false killer whales are sighted in the Maui Nui region! We would greatly appreciate a phone call or text if any water users see false killer whales so we can initiate a rapid response (weather and time permitting).

Can you give me 3-5 reasons why they are awesome?

  • They share food with each other, and have been documented offering fish to humans that are diving or boating.
  • They are one of very few species known to enter menopause. Most animals continue to reproduce until they die; the only known exceptions to this are humans, killer whales, false killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales.
  • False killer whales were first discovered by their fossils and were thought to be an extinct species until a pod was observed in 1861.

All photos and videos were taken under NMFS Permit # 16479.

PWF Marine Debris Action Plan Partnership

In concert with our core research, education and conservation work focused on marine mammals, Pacific Whale Foundation began to research marine debris in 2013 when we noticed how much floating trash we were encountering during whale and dolphin surveys. By conducting formal research studies we strive to understand the types and amounts of debris that are impacting Maui coasts and marine resources, as well as closely monitor the effects of education, policy and outreach on reducing marine debris. This prevalence of debris in our oceans and along our coasts has enormous impacts on marine life, including marine mammals – making the issue essential to our work.

In August 2018, Mark Manuel, the Pacific Islands Marine Debris Regional Coordinator, invited Pacific Whale Foundation to participate in a statewide working group evaluating the progress made in Hawaii since a plan was last revised in 2016. Supported by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the group first convened in 2008 and brought together 30 representatives from government, academia, nongovernmental organizations and private businesses to prioritize marine debris issues specific to Hawaii. Over time, 48 organizations developed the Hawai‘i Marine Debris Action Plan, which established a comprehensive framework for strategic action to reduce the ecological, health and safety, and economic impacts of marine debris in Hawai‘i from 2016 through 2020.

Goals of the Plan:

  • Reduce sources of marine debris through prevention
  • Reduce the amount and impacts of ocean-based marine debris
  • Support and sustain marine debris removal
  • Increase capacity to address abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs)
  • Conduct high quality research to understand marine debris

During the August 2018 Oahu-based meeting, each of the 30 participating organizations reported progress made towards achieving these goals and then worked collaboratively revise the Action Plan for the next 2 years, creating ways that each can work together to tackle the most pressing issues facing Hawaii.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s marine debris work provided significant progress towards achieving the goals outlined in the 2016 plan and was among the top contributing organizations of the original 48 that helped to develop the plan, along with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Surfrider Foundation, 808 Cleanups and Hawaii Wildlife Fund. We are actively working towards 4 of the 5 goals through our continued land and at-sea marine debris research, as well as our ongoing education and outreach initiatives.

“To find effective solutions to Hawaii’s marine debris problem will require all stakeholders such as governments, NGOs, academia, the private sector, and the public to work together,” remarks Pacific Whale Foundation Senior Research Analyst Jens Currie, “Marine debris accumulation is a multi-step process and PWF is focusing their efforts on understanding the “end of the line” impacts on our oceans and marine life. We want to address the issue at the source, so we can work towards effective solutions. Being included in this statewide consortium allows us to work with other organizations to target larger audiences to ensure our findings are impacting change.”

Pacific Whale Foundation has dedicated substantial resources to better understand the impact that marine debris poses to Hawaii. In addition to maintaining removal efforts, we strive to leverage these opportunities for data collection and scientific research. Working closely with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, we are producing the scientific research needed to assess and evaluate impactful legislative decisions and mitigation measures.

To make a donation in support of this important work, please visit https://www.pacificwhale.org/you-can-help/make-donation/.

Have a group interested in making a difference with a beach cleanup activity? Sponsor a 2-3 hour event; we will provide coastal marine debris monitoring program kits, research and conservation experts, transportation and any coordination you need. Contact us