Close encounter with false killer whales

The whale watch trip on Tuesday morning was a very special one; it was a gorgeous day to be out on the water, we were on board of our new raft (Ocean Freedom) for Ultimate Whale Watch, and we had a very close encounter with false killer whales!

We departed from Ma’alaea harbor on board of our new raft Ocean Freedom, a 40 foot RIB (rigid-hull inflatable boat). Our first encounter was with a mom, calf and escort, with multiple breaches from calf and escort. Suddenly we started to notice small dorsal fins coming out of the water; at first we weren’t sure what species of odontocete they were, but when we got closer we had a great surprise, they were false killer whales! They were about 10-12 animals and they were very spread out over a large area. Unexpectedly, one animal swam alongside the raft, allowing amazing viewing chance for everyone. It was so cool! First time all of us had an opportunity to see these rare and especial tooth whales so close! Very exciting!

False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are large member of the tooth whale family, Delphinidae. They have a dark coloration but for some lighter areas near the throat and middle chest, conic head without a beak, tall dorsal fin, and unique knob in the middle front edge of pectoral fins, and can reach up to 20 feet. These animals live in open and warm waters around the world, but the ones we see close to shore around the Hawaiian Islands are very special animals. They belong to the Hawaiian insular population, a small genetically isolate population. This population estimate is about 123 individuals and of those only 46 are capable of reproduction, female has a calving interval of about 7 years, and they have been declining for last 20 years due to anthropogenic causes such as bycatch in fishing gear; putting them in high risk of extinction. But fortunately National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to list the insular Hawaiian population under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

I have been in charge of the Pacific Whale Foundation False Killer Whales Photo-identification catalog; and I have been working with photos taken in past years that haven’t been matched to the catalog, and also with new photos taken this year from the Research On Board (ROB) program. Ten individuals were added to the catalog only from photos taken Tuesday and from this year ROB program. The up-to-date catalog has 67 identified individuals. I am still working in matching the photos; there are about 730 photos to be matched. Photo-identification research is a non-invasive method that allows the recognition of individual animals and it can be used to estimate population size and track individual animal over time, researchers identify individual odontocete by their dorsal fin, each animal has unique pattern such as notches, nicks, and marks.
Luckily, we have encountered these animals a few times this year, but by far this was the best encounter! I got some good identification photos of the individual that swam really close to the boat, and I matched it to the catalog and turned out to be a new individual. It was named “MAKA KILO” which means “observant” in Hawaiian. All the false killer whales in our catalog have identification numbers and also Hawaiian names.