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.

scroll below to watch video

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.

New research study on false killer whales

The Research Team is excited to announce that we have started a new study on false killer whales! We started field work for this study in May 2018 and will survey the leeward waters surrounding the Maui 4-island region; up to 50 miles offshore. This brings us into deep waters (> 2,500 ft) where the possibility of seeing other species is also very likely. In case this does happen, we also have authorization to collect data and photo-ID of 15 other toothed-whale species. The main objectives of this study are to assess the distribution, population structure, habitat use, body condition, and behavior of false killer whales.

The majority of false killer whales encountered within the waters of the Maui 4-island region are part of the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) insular stock which is currently listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The minimum population estimate for the MHI insular stock is 151, based on the number of unique individuals photographed (Baird et al. 2013). This stock faces a number of threats such as the effects from small population size, high levels of contaminants, interactions with fisheries, and a decrease in their prey species biomass.

Given the “endangered” status of the MHI insular false killer whales, there is a need to gain a better understanding of the species in order to develop effective management plans to aid in their recovery. Our research will provide a continuous, long-term data set using new techniques and technologies to  address gaps in our knowledge of this population. In addition to photo-identification, location, and behavioral observations, we will be using unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly called ‘drones’), photogrammetry, and underwater footage to gain information on body condition, growth rates, and possibly detect pregnant females.

We are excited to begin this new study and to learn more about this endangered population. Stay tuned for updates from the field!

Research Team Launches Dolphin and Whale Tracker App

The Pacific Whale Foundation research team has been hard at work creating a new ‘Whale & Dolphin Tracker’ app that is now available for download on the App Store and Google Play. This free app allows members of the public from all over the world to participate in citizen science by recording sighting of marine mammals. Contributors are able to use their mobile phone to record the GPS location of the animals, group size, observed behaviors, as well as upload any photos they may have taken. It’s an exciting way for the public to get more involved with the monitoring and research of marine life.

The Whale and Dolphin Tracker app was initially designed as a tool for PWF’s Marine Naturalists to record marine mammal sightings in the 4-island region of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Lana’i, and Moloka’i. Launching the public app will allow for a greater range of data collection in real time and overall will contribute to the global research database of cetacean species.

Additionally, users can find an interactive live sightings map on the Pacific Whale Foundation website which displays all sightings logged on the app within the past 7 days. Viewers will be able to use species and location filters to observe changes throughout the year.

This app was able to come to life thanks to a successful fundraising venture in 2016. Jens Currie, the Senior Research Analyst at Pacific Whale Foundation, is excited about the crowdsourcing opportunities that are created by the app: “Now that more users will have access to Whale and Dolphin Tracker directly from their phones, our crowdsourcing ability, and geographical coverage will expand, and so will our knowledge of whale and dolphin distribution”. He also added “We just published a research paper on humpback whale distribution using Whale & Dolphin Tracker data, and are excited about the opportunities this app presents for opportunistic data collection.”

Are you excited to get involved with real-time monitoring of cetaceans around the world? Head to the Apple app store or Google Play now to download Whale and Dolphin Tracker and join the team.

Meet our new adoption whales!

Pacific Whale Foundation has two new humpback whales from our North Pacific Humpback Whale Catalog that are available for a symbolic adoption.

Makena is an adoption humpback whale that was named in honor of Greg Kaufman, the Founder of Pacific Whale Foundation.  This whale represents the long-term research Greg did to promote ocean conservation and his effort to be a voice for protecting whales. Makena was first seen in Maui waters as an adult in 1997.  During this first sighting, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers photographed Makena in a surface active pod with five other whales, including a calf.  In 2014, Makena was sighted again in the 4-island region and a photograph of its tail flukes was taken by a member of the public and donated to the research department.  The story of this whale perfectly encapsulates Greg Kaufman’s legacy;  combining our dedicated research study with a citizen scientist program, and promoting marine education and conservation through our animal adoption program.

Sally is a female humpback whale that has become famous in the Maui area thanks to her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  The “fluke-up” behavior is rarely seen in Hawaiian waters, and is referred to by some as “sailing”. Sally was first observed by our researchers exhibiting the “fluke-up” behavior with her calf nearby in 2016.  No one fully understands the purpose of this behavior, but in 2018, this whale once again had a calf and several times throughout the season was seen displaying the same posture. Photos of Sally were donated to the research department from one of our Keiki Whalewatches, and from Naturalist Josh Wittmer aboard PacWhale Eco-Adventures whalewatch.

 

Want to know more about these amazing individuals? When you adopt a marine mammal through our adoption program you get the chance to learn more about the specific animal’s story and get updates on any re-sightings of the individual.  By adopting one of these animals, you will be able to learn more about Makena the whale, or Sally and her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  Check out our website to learn how to adopt one of these magnificent whales, or any of our other marine mammals that are available for adoption from our catalogs.

And remember, when adopting a dolphin or whale you are supporting PWF’s ongoing research, education, and conservation efforts to protect marine life. Thank you for your support!

Updates from the 6th International Marine Debris Conference

The 6th International Marine Debris Conference, held in March 2018, was co-hosted by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the United Nations Environment Programme. Over 700 participants representing more than 50 countries all came together for five days, for one reason: to address global marine debris issues.  The conference was held in San Diego, California; a leading city in addressing marine debris through zero waste initiatives, sustainability, and education. It’s been seven years since the last international marine debris conference in Honolulu, so the goal of this conference was to assess how far we have come in managing marine debris over the past couple of years, and to look toward the future for innovative ways to minimize the impacts of marine debris.

Senior Pacific Whale Foundation researchers, Stephanie Stack and Jens Currie, attended and participated in the conference. Pacific Whale Foundation’s marine debris program is the only program in the Maui 4-island region that conducts on-water research on marine debris distribution and accumulation; although other programs exist, they mostly focus on land-based removal events. While removal of marine debris is an effective method to reduce direct threats, researching debris can help us further understand the source of the debris and how we can best mitigate it from the point of origin, where the greatest impact will occur. At the conference Jens presented PWF’s work on examining debris type and looking at trends in the location and timing of marine debris in the 4-island region of Maui, while Stephanie presented on the risk marine debris poses to whale and dolphin species by considering the overlap between the two in Maui waters.

Our representatives highlighted that keynote speaker, Afroz Shah from Mumbai, India, is a perfect example of how just a few people can make a large impact! Shah shared the story of him and his 84-year neighbor’s frustration with the decomposing state of their beaches.  They took it upon themselves to clean up the beach, one piece of trash at a time. Their efforts inspired others to join them every weekend, which quickly became one of the largest citizen initiatives the world has ever witnessed, collecting over 4,000 tons of trash. Shah was recognized for his work by the United Nations and awarded the 2016 Champion of the Earth award. Similarly, Youth Plenary Speaker, Melati Wijsen, a senior in high school on the island of Bali co-founded the initiative “Bye Bye Plastic Bags.” At 12 and 10-years old, Melati and her sister initiated this social movement, driven by the youth of Bali to get people to say no to plastic bags. These inspirational women were recently featured in a TED talk, check it out here!

Pacific Whale Foundation was proud to attend the conference and be surrounded by a wide range of people and organizations from around the world. Representatives from NGO’s, governments,  the plastic manufacturing industry, and even students from NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology all gathered to learn from each other and work together to develop creative ways to reduce the impacts of marine debris. The 6th International Marine Debris Conference was a great success, and PWF looks forward to applying the lessons learned to our organization and into our individual daily lives!

IWC 2017 meeting in Bled, Slovenia

Hues of blues and vibrant greens reflect off the calm, clear waters of Lake Bled, a fairytale of a place located in the upper region of northwestern Slovenia. It is this quaint community of Bled, nestled in the foothills of the Julian Alps and famous for its cream cake, that set the stage for nearly 200 scientists from over 40 countries to present their recommendations for whale management policies at the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee meeting in May.

The Scientific Committee (SC) is the body that advises the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on whale stock management and conservation measures. Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) Founder, Greg Kaufman is an Invited Participant to the SC and serves on several subcommittees including: Whalewatch, Southern Hemisphere whales, Small Cetaceans, Photo-ID and Non-deliberate Human Induced Mortality on Cetaceans. He also serves as the international whalewatch representative to the IWC’s Conservation Committee. Part of PWF’s presence at the IWC is to help ensure scientifically based management of the world’s whale populations.

PWF has been instrumental in providing a comprehensive assessment of the impacts and value of whalewatching. Greg is a team member for the IWC’s Modeling and Assessment of the Whalewatch Industry (MAWI) that will undertake a workshop in the next six months to define a long-term assessment on global whalewatch operations. Since 2010, Greg has also been involved in drafting an international Strategic Plan for Whalewatching. This plan is undergoing further review with an expected international roll-out in the next few years.

A dozen papers authored, co-authored, or using PWF data were presented to the SC this year. One of the most highly regarded papers was focused on photo-identification of Bryde’s whales in Latin America. This work, long thought to be near impossible to conduct, was co-led by PWF Ecuador researcher, Cristina Castro who collected and compiled the data. Barbara Galletti also presented research funded by PWF on Chilean blue whales, focusing on a small population found off the coast of Chiloe Island.

Continue reading