The Beacon

Grins and Fins: Meet the Sociable False Killer Whale

This false killer whale flashes a (real) killer smile. Photo: Doug Perrine/Hotspot Media

American photographer Doug Perrine, 60, captured this priceless image of a false killer whale mid-grin off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.

Less commonly known than the killer whale (or orca), the false killer whale is the third largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. Growing to 1,500 pounds and up to 20 feet long, the false killer whale looks like no dolphin you’ve seen before. Its small conical head lacks the “beak” we expect in common dolphins, and its flippers have a distinctive hump along the front edge.

False killer whales were first discovered by their fossils in 1843, and were assumed to be extinct. In fact, the species wasn’t discovered alive until fifteen years after the discovery of their fossils. Like the gregarious-looking fellow captured in the photo, false killer whales are intensely social, forming strong social bonds in groups of ten to twenty that belong to larger groups of up to 40 individuals in Hawaii or as many as 100 elsewhere. False killer whales travel and hunt together in broad bands that can be up to several miles wide, and they even share their food with other group members.

Unfortunately, the false killer whale’s population numbers in Hawaii are nothing to smile at – these social creatures have suffered major decline in the last 25 years. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, aerial surveys showed about 400 false killer whales in 1989. More recent studies suggest the number today is closer to 150. As of November 2012, false killer whales were listed as endangered in Hawaii, due in large part to the creature’s vulnerability to be caught as bycatch by tuna and swordfish fisheries. The false killer whales become hooked or entangled in longlines when they take bait off of longline fishing hooks set for Hawaiian swordfish and tuna, a dangerous mistake that often turns deadly.

The future for false killer whales is in danger, but with education, advocacy, and increased respect and protections for these social and gregarious sea creatures, we can give the false killer whale something to smile about.


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