False Killer Whales - Facts, Videos and a Rescue Attempt

A captive false killer whale looking at the photographer
A captive false killer whale looking at the photographer | Source

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 killer whales, however, false killer whales are mostly black or dark grey in colour.

The false killer whale, or Pseudorca crassidens, has a widespread distribution. It's usually found in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate oceans. The whale is rarely seen off the coast of British Columbia, where I live. One youngster came to the public's attention recently, however. He was found stranded in shallow water close to a beach and was in poor condition. At the time when this article was written, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre was trying to save the calf's life.

Like the killer whale, 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 False Killer Whales

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 false killer 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.

Adult false killer whales 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.

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish false killer whales from other dark and relatively small whales. These whales include the pilot whales, the melon-headed whale and the pygmy killer whale. An organization called the Cascadia Research Collective has published a helpful page describing the differences between the "blackfish". (Whales are actually mammals like us, not fish.) Cascadia Research Collective is a scientific organization based in the state of Washington.

False Killer Whales Catch and Share a Fish (Photos and Video)

False Killer Whales in Hawaii

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 whales are generally found in warm water and have a worldwide distribution in tropical and subtropical water. 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 Swimming in the Ocean

Bottlenose dolphins often swim with false killer whales and have interbred with them in captivity. These dolphins have a long beak, or rostrum.
Bottlenose dolphins often swim with false killer whales and have interbred with them in captivity. These dolphins have a long beak, or rostrum. | Source

Echolocation

The Life of a False Killer Whale

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.

False killer 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, false killer whales don't seem to be abundant in any part of their range. They sometimes mingle and travel with bottlenose dolphins or other cetaceans.

False killer whales are believed to form long term social bonds with one another. They communicate with their companions with clicks, whistles and other sounds. As in other cetaceans, they are believed to produce their sounds in air sacs below their blowhole.

Also like many other cetaceans, false killer whales use echolocation to detect objects and prey. This is especially useful in areas where visibility is poor. In echolocation the whales emit sound waves that bounce off nearby objects and return to the whale. 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.

False killer whales are fast and acrobatic swimmers, leaping out of the water, turning and somersaulting with ease. They often appear to be playing. The whales frequently approach humans and seem to enjoy swimming beside boats. They are hunters and feed mainly on squid and large fish. The whales 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.

A false killer whale stranding in Flinders Bay, Australia
A false killer whale stranding in Flinders Bay, Australia | Source

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.

This wolphin's mother was a wolphin (a false killer whale - bottlenose dolphin cross) and her father was a bottlenose dolphin.
This wolphin's mother was a wolphin (a false killer whale - bottlenose dolphin cross) and her father was a bottlenose dolphin. | Source

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".

Vancouver Island and the City of Vancouver

A markerTofino -
Tofino, BC, Canada
[get directions]

A stranded false killer whale calf was found near Tofino on Vancouver Island and transported to Vancouver.

A false killer whale swimming in the wild
A false killer whale swimming in the wild | Source

A Stranded False Killer Whale Calf in Vancouver, BC

On July 10th, 2014, a young false killer whale was found in distress in shallow water near Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. 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. 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. (This city isn't located on Vancouver Island, as might be expected from its name.)

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. 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

Levi the Porpoise is Released

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre

Many people support the false killer whale calf'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. The goal of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is to heal and rehabilitate sick and injured animals and then release them back into the wild. This plan is often successful, as it was for Levi the harbour porpoise, who is shown in the video above. 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.

If the calf 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. The calf 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.

A Tour of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre

The False Killer Whale
The False Killer Whale | Source

Population Status and Possible Dangers

The current population status of the false killer whale 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 the whale. Tissue taken from dead animals has been found to contain pesticides and heavy metals such as mercury, which were presumably obtained from prey. False killer 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 these lovely 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 whales have a low reproductive rate, so if their population is hurt by environmental factors they will likely need a long time to recover.

A false killer whale and bottlenose dolphin in captivity
A false killer whale and bottlenose dolphin in captivity | Source

False Killer Whale Calf Update August 7th, 2014

I'm following the progress and fate of the false killer whale calf at the Vancouver Aquarium Rescue Centre carefully and will post updates as they become available.

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.

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.

Video of Chester the False Killer Whale Calf in Late August, 2014

© 2014 Linda Crampton

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Comments 36 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

I always learn so much from your articles. I never heard of a false killer whale until now. Thank you for broadening my knowledge.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Bill. I appreciate your visit so soon after I published the hub!


RachaelOhalloran profile image

RachaelOhalloran 2 years ago from United States

I also never heard of false killer whales. I was just fascinated by the Vancouver Aquarium video detailing the care that the baby is getting. I hope he can be 'safely' returned to the wild and doesn't end up in a Sea World or other sea life park situation. I don't think being displayed in captivity at any of those arenas is healthy or fair to any animal.

What's interesting to me is that so much seems to be known about false killer whales, as is evidenced by your information in this article, yet it's not a species I've seen many articles written about. Thanks for the education and details about this particular calf. I hope he gets well soon and can fend for himself when released.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Rachel. Yes, I've very glad that the calf is getting such good care from such dedicated people, but when he recovers - as I hope very much that he will do - his future worries me. He was so young when he was stranded.

It may seem that a lot is known about false killer whales, but there is a lot that is unknown, too. I don't think many people have heard about this whale before! The calf is certainly making people think about his species, at least in the area around Vancouver. Thank you for the visit and the comment.


oldiesmusic profile image

oldiesmusic 2 years ago from United States

The title got me curious cos I've never heard of false killer whale. I've learned more of this through your hub. Glad to know the calf is ok and getting better, BUT I hope people won't exploit him and he should be instead sent back to the ocean. Quite alarming that it's an endangered species. Thanks for posting.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

Count me among those who have never heard of the False Killer Whale. What a beautiful creature. I sure hope that this little one can be returned to its natural habitat, where he belongs. Thanks for the education Linda. Great job.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, oldiesmusic. Thanks for the comment! Although the calf's condition is improving, which is very encouraging, it's not certain that he will survive. I'm hoping that he does. I agree with you - as long as the calf can fend for himself he should be released at the appropriate time. My concern is whether he will ever be able to fend for himself.

One of the Hawaiian groups of false killer whales is endangered, but we don't yet know if the whole species is. I certainly hope it isn't!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Yes, the whale is beautiful! I'll be watching the aquarium's bulletins about the calf's progress carefully. There are lots of question marks about his future. Thank you very much for the comment, Bill.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Hi alicia, I have never heard of a false killer whale! how amazing! fascinating facts, and glad the calf is okay, I always learn something new from your hubs! lol!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 2 years ago from California

Very informative hub --a gentle a wonderful animal


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. Yes, the calf is okay at the moment. I hope I don't have to update this hub with sad news. Thanks for the visit. I appreciate your comment!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Audrey. I agree - the false killer whale is a wonderful animal! Researchers need to get to know this whale better to discover the true status of its population and to learn about the problems that it is experiencing.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

Fascinating read! I, too, have never heard of the False Killer Whale. You have written a comprehensive hub here for all to learn much about this wonderful animal. I love all of the photos you have chosen and the videos are amazing. I do hope the calf continues to recover.

Voted up ++++ and away


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Faith. Thank you very much for the comment and the vote! I appreciate your visit. I hope that the condition of the calf continues to improve, too. Helping a stranded cetacean to survive is difficult.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

So interesting, well presented and well informed. Great work Alicia.

Eddy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Eddy.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Thanks for such an interesting article on false killer whales Alicia. I hope the sick calf makes and good recovery and hopefully one be released into the ocean again to have a long and happy life


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Cynthia. I have the same hope as you! This morning I read that he is now suckling from a bottle, which is another good sign.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Always an interesting and well researched hub from you. I like the way you focused completely on the main issue here


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Devika.


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

Wow - comprehensive information!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Maren Morgan!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I hadn't heard of a false killer whale (and certainly not a wolphin). This is well researched and I do wish the best for that little guy they're trying to save.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Flourish. Thanks for the comment. I'm hoping for the best outcome for the calf, too.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

You have managed to bring a new revelation to readers once again. Thanks for the interesting facts on this creature of mystery.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Dianna. I appreciate your visit.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are wonderful animals. I did volunteer work with Allied Whale when I was in Maine, and we managed to recover a couple of live animals. Many located were deceased, including dolphins. I hope that the navy is not permitted to conduct their sonar work in your area. That will definitely disorient and kill others, which I wouldn't be surprised that they have already begun this work, and the calf that you spoke about was nearly one of the casualties. Great article.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. I've been wondering a lot about how the calf became separated from his mother. After I wrote this hub I wrote a post on one of my blogs about why whales and dolphins beach themselves and discussed the problem with sonar. The detrimental effects of humans on ocean life are very worrying. Thanks for the visit and the comment.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful creature, which I had no idea existed up until this time. I hope that poor tyke makes a complete recovery. Great hub!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Mel. The calf is doing better than I think anyone expected. He may survive, which is great news. Thanks for the comment.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

I am very happy to learn that Chester the false killer whale is doing so well. I would imagine that since he was such a baby and had not learned how to hunt on his own that he may not be released into the wild.

Good hub Alicia and I learned much by reading it. Up votes and sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit, the vote and the share, Peggy. Yes, I doubt that Chester will be released into the wild. The good news is that the latest report says that he's getting bigger and stronger.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Fascinating article. Like probably most people, I had never heard of false killer whales before. Thanks for the updates on the stranded calf. It's encouraging to see that he's getting better.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, RonElFran. It is good to hear that the calf is getting better!


javr profile image

javr 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

It's certainly sad when these intelligent animals get beached. They are so graceful in the water.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I agree, javr. I think it's very sad when any marine mammal is beached. Thank you for the comment.

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    Linda Crampton (AliciaC)1,248 Followers
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    Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.



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