Double Take: False Killer Whales and Pilot Whales in the Same Day

When the research team carries out odontocete transects, we are looking for all species of toothed whales, but most commonly we see bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins. On rare occasions we see false killer whales, of which the insular Hawaiian population is on the endangered species list, and short-finned pilot whales, which is a deeper water species not commonly found in the shallower waters of our survey area. We might see these two species a handful of days per year. Well, believe it or not, we were recently lucky enough to see them both on the same day!

We were surveying the area behind the island of Lana‘i and we had a feeling it was going to be a special day when we set off from Ma‘alaea Harbor. We had just arrived at the start of our first transect line when we saw a large black dorsal fin. We soon realized that this was a false killer whale. At first we only saw one solitary individual, but it soon swam and joined the rest of its pod, which we estimated at 15 individuals. We photographed them to obtain ID’s for our false killer whale catalog and collected behavioral data. When we were satisfied that we had photographed all the individuals present we returned to our transect line, excited that we had such an exciting experience so early in the day.

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Mother-Calf Dolphin Resight

On August 12, the research team went out on the water surveying for odontocetes and marine debris. At around 11 am, we sighted a pod of 17 bottlenose dolphins and began taking photographs, as per our protocol. We spent the maximum allowed hour with this pod, giving our interns a chance to try their photo-identification skills and collect as many dorsal fin photographs as possible, as the pod was milling about and not difficult to keep track of. While we were watching the dolphins, we noticed there were two distinct pairings in the pod.

Later that week when we were in the office cataloging and examining the photographs, our analyst Jens noticed that one of the pairs was already in our bottlenose dolphin catalog. The same two individuals had been photographed together as a mother-calf pair  in 2011.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and again on August 12, 2014.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and the pair was seen again on August 12, 2014.

This is pretty neat because using photo-identification we can track how long these two individuals stay together. Bottlenose dolphins have a complex social structure that is very different from odontocetes that live in stable groups like a pod of killer whales. They live in a fission-fusion society, meaning it is dynamic and always changing. However, the association between a mother and calf is one of the strongest bonds in the dolphin society. They will stay together on average for between three and six years, and we know that these two have been together for at least three years. It will be interesting to see what happens to these two individuals in the future.


FACT OF THE WEEK: The underside of a whale’s tail, called the flukes, is not the only characteristic that can be used to photo-identify baleen whales.

MORE ON THIS: You may already know that humpback whales have individually unique tail flukes, like a human fingerprint, and can be identified by photographing these. In addition, each humpback whale also has a unique dorsal fin that allows researchers to track and study individual whales using photo-identification techniques. But did you know that other species of baleen whales are identified using other body parts?

humpback whale fluke (PWF-Hawaii 2013)

Humpback whale flukes. Photographed under NOAA permit # 16479.

Gray whales don’t actually have a dorsal fin; instead they have a series of “knuckles” along their back. Researchers can use the shape of these knuckles, as well as mottling, scarring, and barnacle patterns on the whale’s back to identify individuals.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge - front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge – front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Minke whales are identified using nicks or notches in their dorsal fins, or by unusual dorsal fin shape, similar to photo-identification in dolphins. They can also be identified on the basis of lateral body pigmentation.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

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Gidday from down-under!

It is that time of the year again for some of Pacific Whale Foundation Research staff to head south for a few months to gather data on the humpback whales that migrate along the east coast of Australia. This year, I will be leading the research team again and will be joined by three interns: Lorenzo Fiori (Italy), Tizoc Garcia (USA), and Danielle Barbknecht (USA).

The team arrived in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where we will be based until then end of September. One thing for sure is how big Australia is. It is the largest island on the planet and is the sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, the USA, and Brazil. Hervey Bay is situated approximately 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Brisbane, about a 4 hour-drive. In October, we will relocate to Eden, New South Wales, as humpback whales migrate south to their feeding ground in Antarctica. This will be a 1,750 kilometers journey south or the equivalent of driving from Seattle, WA, to Los Angeles, CA.


Brisbane to Hervey Bay, Queensland

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Bottlenose dolphin in Maalaea Harbor

Dolphin in Maalaea Harbor

The research team did not have to go far on July 3rd to spot a dolphin. There was one swimming around Maalaea Harbor! It looked like a sub-adult, meaning it was not fully grown. We photographed it following our protocol, and this week searched for a match within our bottlenose dolphin catalog, but this individual had not been photographed previously by our researchers. When we were examining the photos, we noticed a lot of tooth rake scars on the posterior (back) half of its body – perhaps it was seeking shelter from another dolphin or predator, it was curious, or maybe it had simply gotten lost. The team watched for a while and eventually the dolphin followed another boat out of the harbor.  Teenagers are always getting into trouble!

Rake Marks Photoshopped