False Killer Whales: Facts, Videos, and a Rescued Animal
The False Killer Whale
False killer whales are very sociable animals that generally live in groups. Like other whales and dolphins, they are intelligent animals. They are also fast and agile swimmers that often approach humans. Their name comes from the fact that their skull resembles a killer whale's. Unlike the killer whale, however, false killer whales are mostly black or dark grey in colour.
The scientific name of the whale is Pseudorca crassidens. The animal has a widespread distribution. It's usually found in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate oceans. It's rarely seen off the coast of British Columbia, where I live. A young calf came to the public's attention a few years ago, however. He was found stranded in shallow water close to a beach and was in very poor condition. The calf was taken to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, where he recovered.
Like the killer whale or orca, the false killer whale is technically a dolphin. It's a member of the order Cetacea, which includes all of the whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and belongs to the oceanic dolphin family, or the family Delphinidae. In this article I'll use the common meanings of the words "whale" and "dolphin", however.
A Close-Up View of Wild Animals
How to Recognize a False Killer Whale
The false killer whale is sometimes mistaken for other whales or dolphins, especially when it's young and small. The people who discovered the stranded calf in British Columbia thought that they had found a porpoise.
The whale is relatively slender compared to many other cetaceans. It's black or grey in colour and has a lighter area on its undersurface. Some individuals also have a lighter patch on their head. Other features that may help someone identify the whale include the following.
- The snout is long and rounded and has a horizontal crease.
- The snout often projects beyond the lower jaw, which gives the appearance of an overbite.
- The whale's flippers have a bulge in the middle of the front edge. This feature gives the impression that the flippers are bent and is often referred to as an "elbow".
- The dorsal fin is curved backwards.
Adults are between 4.5 and 6 metres in length (15 to 20 feet). Males are longer than females. They are also heavier. Estimates of maximum body weight vary widely due to our insufficient knowledge about the whales.
Whales Catch and Share a Fish (Photos and Video)
Habitat and Distribution
False killer whales are usually seen in open ocean but are also found close to the shore of some islands, including the Hawaiian islands. The animals are generally found in warm water and have a worldwide distribution in tropical and subtropical areas. They are occasionally sighted in colder areas, however, and have been discovered as far north as Alaska.
There are three populations of false killer whales around Hawaii. One group stays offshore, another group is found around the northwestern islands, and the third group spends its time around the main Hawaiian islands. Researchers have found that the third group is genetically distinct from the other two. It's the best studied group of false killer whales. Unfortunately, its population has decreased dramatically over the last twenty years. In 2012, the NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) listed the whales in this group as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
False Killer Whales in Hawaii
Social Groups and Communication
Many facts about false killer whales have been discovered by examining stranded or dead animals or animals in captivity. We do know some facts about their lives in the wild, however.
The whales are often found in groups of around ten to twenty animals. These groups may be part of a much larger school, or pod. The pod may consist of a hundred or more individuals that are spread over a wide area. Despite this fact, the animals don't seem to be abundant in any part of their range. They sometimes mingle and travel with bottlenose dolphins or other cetaceans.
The whales are believed to form long term social bonds with one another. They communicate with their companions by means of clicks, whistles, and other sounds. As in other cetaceans, they are believed to produce their sounds in air sacs below their blowhole.
False killer whales are fast and acrobatic swimmers, leaping out of the water, turning, and somersaulting with ease. They often appear to be playing. They frequently approach humans and seem to enjoy swimming beside boats. The whales are hunters and feed mainly on squid and large fish. They have been observed passing fish to other members of their group. According to the Cascadia Research Collective, there are reports of false killer whales offering fish to humans as well. They are also a few reports of the whales attacking other cetaceans.
Whales in the Ocean
Like many other cetaceans, false killer whales sometimes use echolocation to detect objects and prey. This is especially useful in areas where visibility is poor. During echolocation, the whales emit sound waves that bounce off nearby objects and return to the emitter. Researchers have found that the reflected sound waves give a cetacean far more information than simply "There's something ahead". Some other cetaceans that echolocate can determine distance, position, size, shape, and structure of an object and speed and direction if the object is moving.
Echolocation in a False Killer Whale
Beaching or Stranding
Unfortunately, groups of false killer whales occasionally swim on to beaches and become stranded. In 2009, fifty-five whales swam on to a beach near Cape Town in South Africa.
It's heartbreaking to see sentient and intelligent animals suffering during a stranding and frustrating when transporting them into the water causes them to head back to the beach. There are many theories about why beaching occurs, but it's often an unexplainable behaviour.
Lifespan and Reproduction
False killer whales are long-lived animals. Females are believed to live for about 62 years and males for about 58. A female is reproductively mature at about ten years of age while the male matures a few years later.
The female gives birth to one calf after a gestation period of around fifteen months. She doesn't have another calf for seven years. The baby nurses for one and a half to two years.
Interestingly, false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins are similar enough that at least in captivity they have interbred and produced fertile offspring. The calf is known as a "wolphin".
A Stranded False Killer Whale Calf
On July 10th, 2014, a very young false killer whale was found in distress near Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was stranded in shallow water. The calf had multiple wounds and his eyes were closed. He was moved into deeper water but couldn't swim away. Volunteers then supported him in the water using beach towels as a sling, keeping his skin moist and his blowhole exposed to the air until help arrived. Whales use their lungs to breathe air, just like us. Air enters the lungs through the blowhole on the top of their head
The calf was believed to be four to six weeks old at the time of his rescue. Experts discovered that he was underweight and dehydrated. His chance of survival was estimated to be around ten percent. He was transported by boat to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. The rescue centre is located on the mainland of British Columbia in the city of Vancouver.
The calf was in critical condition when he first arrived at the rescue centre. He couldn't swim and had to be supported in a special body sling or by hand in the water of his tank. A record of his progress is given below in a journal format. I live near Vancouver and followed the calf's story with interest.
July 2014 Report
Staff or volunteers have been in the water with the whale twenty-four hours a day since his arrival and he is being closely monitored. The whale has to be fed through a tube. His teeth haven't erupted, which means that he was still feeding from his mother when he was stranded.
At the present time the calf is still listed in critical condition, but things are looking better. The calf is now opening his eyes and seems curious about his surroundings. His respiration and buoyancy have improved and he has gained some weight.
Rescuing and Caring for a False Killer Whale Calf
Update August 7th, 2014
The calf's condition is continuing to improve, although he remains in critical condition. He is now able to float and swim without support from a sling. There is always someone in his tank to help him if necessary, however. The calf feeds from a bottle and no longer needs to obtain nutrition through a tube. He is also becoming more "tactile", according to the Rescue Centre's report, and has started to vocalize. The staff are cautiously optimistic about his chance of recovery.
The calf's vocalizations are being recorded. Of course, it's very sad that he was stranded and was in such poor condition when he was found, but his presence at the rescue centre is a wonderful opportunity for researchers to collect data and learn more about false killer whales.
Video of the Calf in Late August, 2014
Update September 1st, 2014
The calf is still alive and now has a name. He's been called Chester after Chesterman Beach, where he was discovered. He's swimming on his own, energetic, and curious about the people who enter his tank. The staff caring for him say that he also rolls upside down for daily belly rubs.
Since Chester's teeth have now appeared, he's starting to eat fish. I was especially happy to learn that in late August Chester was moved to a bigger tank where he has more room to exercise. He's still being monitored continuously, but his condition has greatly improved.
Many people support Chester's rescue and are hoping that he survives. Questions have already been raised about what will happen to the calf if he does live, however. If he recovers, the decision about whether or not he is releasable will be made by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a government organization. This organization also had to give its approval for the transport of the calf from Vancouver Island to the rescue centre. Chester was separated from his mother at such a young age that he hasn't learned how to hunt for food effectively or how to avoid danger, which could be a problem in relation to his release.
Chester has made it! He's now a healthy youngster. He was deemed unreleasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and has become a resident of the aquarium. He lives in a tank with Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin. Helen's pectoral flippers have been partially amputated. The cause of the amputation is unknown. Like Chester, Helen has been deemed unreleasable. Chester continues to teach researchers and visitors about false killer whales.
The Vancouver Aquarium stopped holding typical whale shows a long time ago. Though Chester is being trained to follow commands, as shown in the video below, the behaviours that he and Helen perform are natural ones that they would perform in the wild. Many of the behaviours are designed to show off different parts of the animals' bodies in order to educate the public.
This update brings sad news. After surviving for over three years, Chester died in November, 2017. Cetacean calves that are rescued when they are very young often have renal problems. The cause of Chester's death is believed to have been an infection caused by a bacterium named Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, however.
Chester showed the first symptoms of ill health on a Wednesday afternoon and died on the Friday. Helen didn't get sick from the bacterial infection, even though she lived in the same tank as Chester. She was given antibiotics as a preventative measure.
It's a shame that Chester died at such a young age after appearing to do well. The aquarium said that he had faced a number of health challenges during his life, however. They also said that his health was compromised by his stranding while he was a young calf.
The goal of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at the Vancouver Aquarium is to heal and rehabilitate sick and injured animals and then release them back into the wild. This plan is often successful. Some rescued animals heal but are unable to support or defend themselves in the wild, however. A life in captivity is then the only option to keep them alive, as it was for Chester.
In June 2019, a law banning the keeping of cetaceans in captivity was passed in Canada. There are two exceptions to the law.
- Cetaceans may still be rescued from the wild and rehabilitated.
- Cetaceans already in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium and at Marineland in Ontario (the only facilities in the country that contain the animals) may be kept to live out their lives.
The exceptions mean that if another false killer whale calf is found in trouble near Vancouver, it may be rescued. It probably won't be put on public display at the aquarium, though. The Vancouver Aquarium has a new director. He has said that he is trying to find another home for Helen because she needs company. After her departure, no more cetaceans will be kept at the facilty.
A Tour of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre
Population Status of the Whale in the Wild
The current status of the false killer whale population is unknown. The population is classified in the Data Deficient category established by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). This means that there is not enough known about the number of animals or their distribution to determine whether the whales are in trouble.
False killer whales aren't widely hunted, but they are occasionally killed for food or cooking oil. They are also killed by fisherman because they take fish from lines. The whales are sometimes trapped on fishing lines or hooks or tangled in nets. They are also caught as bycatch in the fishing industries for other marine animals. A decrease in the abundance of prey may be another problem for the whale.
Chemical and noise pollution are additional factors that may be hurting false killer whales. Tissue taken from dead animals has been found to contain pesticides and heavy metals such as mercury, which were presumably obtained from prey. The whales may be susceptible to injury caused by loud noises created by humans, such as those created by seismic surveys and military sonar.
We really need to discover more about the animals and determine the seriousness of the perceived threats to their population. The fact that a Hawaiian population of false killer whales is in trouble is a warning sign for us. The animals have a low reproductive rate. If their population is hurt by environmental factors they will likely need a long time to recover.
False killer whale facts from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Facts about the whales from the Cascadia Research Collective
Information about false killer whales from the Vancouver Aquarium
Remembering Chester from Ocean Wise's Aqua Blog
Chester's bacterial infection described by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Whale and dolphin captivity banned by law from Global News BC
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Linda Crampton