False killer whales in Hawai‘i


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Animation of movements of tagged Pseudorca
Management of Pseudorca

Pseudorca, or false killer whales, are a large toothed whale that lives in the tropical and sub-tropical open ocean. In Hawaiian waters there are three populations: an offshore (pelagic) population, a Northwestern Hawaiian Islands population, and a small population associated with the main Hawaiian Islands - this latter population are long-term residents, they are kama‘aina, truely Hawaiian, Pseudorca. This population was listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in November 2012. More is known about Pseudorca in Hawaiian waters than anywhere else in the world, and they are one of the highest priority species for our Hawai‘i research program. Below you will find photographs and a variety of information on Pseudorca in Hawai‘i and elsewhere.

Pseudorca are uncommon everywhere - they are at the top of the food web, and like other top predators are naturally rare. A NMFS study of all of Hawaiian waters out to the international boundary found that false killer whales were the least abundant of the 18 species of toothed whales and dolphins found in Hawaiian waters.

Photo (c) Deron Verbeck

A Pseudorca carrying a tuna, followed by its hunting companions. Photo (c) Deron Verbeck.

In Hawaiian waters Pseudorca regularly use near-shore areas. The island-associated population is genetically differentiated from Pseudorca in offshore Hawaiian waters (Chivers et al. 2007; Martien et al. 2011). Photographs obtained by researcher Dan McSweeney (of the Wild Whale Research Foundation, based in Holualoa) from the mid-1980s and 1990s have been used to demonstrate that this population has long shown fidelity to the area (Baird et al. 2008). The most recent population estimate for the main Hawaiian Islands insular population is approximately 150 individuals. Like the killer whale (not particularly closely related but with a very similar skull), Pseudorca are long-lived (into their 60s), slow to reproduce (having one calf only every 6 or 7 years), and do not start reproducing until their teens. Like humans, females go through menopause, and have a long post-reproductive period. Thus Pseudorca populations would be very slow to recover from any impacts from human activities. Also like killer whales, because they are long-lived upper-trophic level predators, they accumulate high levels of toxins and may be impacted by competition with human fisheries.

Our photo-identification work has demonstrated that Pseudorca have long-term bonds. They share their prey, not only with their companions, but also with humans. A Pseudorca that was alone in British Columbia and Washington from the late 1980s until a few years ago, far from their normal range off Mexico, repeatedly caught large salmon and would offer them to boaters. In Hawaiian waters, Pseudorca have offered fish to human snorklers and divers.

Photo (c) Dan McSweeney

Pseudorca with yellowfin tuna. Photo (c) Dan McSweeeny/Wild Whale Research Foundation

Photo (c) Deron Verbeck

A group of Pseudorca from the insular population. Photo (c) Deron Verbeck.

Recent evidence indicates the insular population of Pseudorca in Hawai‘i has declined dramatically over the last 20 years (Reeves et al. 2009). Five years of aerial surveys undertaken from 1993 through 2003 by Joe Mobley of the University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu have shown a steep decline in sighting rates. Group sizes of the largest groups documented in surveys undertaken by Steve Leatherwood and Randy Reeves in 1989 were almost four times larger than the entire current population estimate (Reeves et al. 2009).

Sighting rate of false killer whales in aerial surveys from 1993 through 2003 around the main Hawaiian Islands This graph shows a significant decline in the sighting rate of Pseudorca around the main Hawaiian Islands in aerial surveys undertaken by Joe Mobley of the University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu (with thanks to Joe Mobley for providing survey and sighting details). These surveys were undertaken at the same of the year each year covering the entire main main Hawaiian Islands.

Mother and calf Pseudorca, December 10, 2008. Photo (c) Robin Baird.

Click the button to start the animation

As part of our work to examine movements and stock structure, in July 2008 we satellite tagged seven Pseudorca from the insular population. This animation shows the movements of five individuals over a 10-day period. Each step in the animation is one set of locations obtained within 10 minutes of each other, and the time intervals between steps average about one hour. The maximum time interval between steps is approximately 12 hours. Lines shown are purely to join consecutive locations for each whale and do not indicate travel routes. For more information on this work see the publication on movements of satellite-tagged Pseudorca, available below. Animation produced by Damon Holzer, Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The animation above shows a 52 day track of an adult male Pseudorca from the insular population (HIPc172 in our catalog, an individual previously seen in 2003 off O‘ahu and in 2004 off Hawai‘i Island) satellite tagged in December 2008. Each step in the animation shows 12 hours of movements. This animation illustrates both the extended periods that individuals may remain in one area, and the rapid broad-scale movements among the islands that tagged individuals often make.

The animation above shows the tracks of five different Pseudorca satellite-tagged off of O‘ahu in October 2009 as well as four individuals tagged off of island of Hawai‘i in December 2009. The animation goes through the end of January 2010. The O‘ahu individuals were tagged on five different days between October 5 and October 17, while the Hawai‘i individuals were tagged on two different dates (December 10, December 18), thus individuals appear throughout the animation. Once a tag has stopped transmitting the icon representing that individual stops at the location when the last transmission was received. The tags deployed in October transmitted from 11 to 94 days, while those deployed in December lasted from 16 to 105 days (one is still transmitting as of April 2, 2010).

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Pseudorca with a satellite tag. Photo by Daniel Webster. We are using these tags to examine movements of both the insular and offshore populations in Hawaiian waters, in part to try to assess interactions with the long-line fishery.

Pseudorca carrying prey, followed by wedge-tailed shearwaters. Photo (c) Erin Oleson

Photo (c) Robin W. Baird

A Pseudorca from the offshore population leaping while chasing prey. Photo (c) Robin Baird.

Pseudorca with tuna. Photo (c) Annie Douglas

Offshore Pseudorca on Jaggar Seamount. Photo (c) Erin Oleson.

Pseudorca with mahimahi. Photo (c) Dan McSweeney.

Pseudorca off the island of Maui. Photo (c) Robin W. Baird.

Pseudorca off the island of Hawai‘i. Photo (c) Robin W. Baird.

Pseudorca mother and calf. Photo (c) Deron Verbeck.

Pseudorca are closely related to, and often confused with pygmy killer whales, short-finned pilot whales and melon-headed whales, all of which are also found in Hawaiian waters.


Attention educators - if you would like a copy of this Powerpoint presentation for educational purposes/displays please contact Robin Baird at rwbaird (at) cascadiaresearch.org


Brochures and handouts

Cover photos (c) Deron Verbeck/iamaquatic.com, Dan McSweeney/Wild Whale Research Foundation and Robin Baird/CRC Cover photo (c) Deron Verbeck/iamaquatic.com

To help raise awareness of Pseudorca conservation and management issues within Hawai‘i we have created and printed a brochure for the general public as well as a handout for kids with a word puzzle and map, and coloring pages and fact sheets for kids. These brochures are being distributed through the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary education programs as well as through other venues in Hawai‘i. PDF copies of the brochure and handout (meant for printing double-sided) can be downloaded by clicking on the photos above (or below). Left photo (c) Doug Perrine/SeaPics.com - all rights reserved. Center photo (c) Deron Verbeck/iamaquatic.com. If you are interested in printed copies of the brochure or handout for distribution please contact Robin Baird at rwbaird (at) cascadiaresearch.org

Download pdf copies of the coloring pages (with fact sheets on the back) by clicking on the images above. Thanks to Jeff Hogan/Killer Whale Tales and Uko Gorter for producing these coloring pages.


Maps and photos from recent field projects where we've encountered Pseudorca

During field projects in Hawai‘i we post regularly updates on sightings and often include maps of movements of satellite tagged individuals etc. We encountered Pseudorca during several recent field projects - you can find links to the project updates below.

Reports from our October/November 2013 Hawai‘i Island field project

Reports from our July/August 2013 Kaua‘i field project

Reports from our June/July 2012 Kaua‘i field project

Reports from our October/November 2011 Hawai‘i Island field project

Reports from our August 2011 Hawai‘i Island field project

Reports from our December 2010 Hawai‘i Island field project

Reports from our October 2010 O‘ahu field project

Reports from our July/August 2010 field project

Reports from our December 2009 field project

Reports from our October 2009 field project

Reports from our December 2008 field project

Reports from our June/July 2008 field project

Reports from our April/May 2008 field project

Reports from our August 2007 field project

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Publications, reports and conference presentations on Pseudorca

Most recent publications/reports/presentations are presented first.

  • Baird, R.W., E.M. Oleson, J. Barlow, A.D. Ligon, A.M. Gorgone, and S.D. Mahaffy. 2013. Evidence of an island-associated population of false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Pacific Science 67:513-521. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., M.B. Hanson, G.S. Schorr, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, A.M. Gorgone, S.D. Mahaffy, D. Holzer, E.M. Oleson and R.D. Andrews. 2012. Range and primary habitats of Hawaiian insular false killer whales: informing determination of critical habitat. Endangered Species Research 18:47-61. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., G.S. Schorr, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, M.B. Hanson and R.D. Andrews. 2011. Movements and spatial use of false killer whales in Hawai‘i: satellite tagging studies in 2009. Report prepared under Order No. AB133F09SE4132 from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Honolulu, HI. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., E.M. Oleson, J. Barlow, A.D. Ligon, A.M. Gorgone, and S.D. Mahaffy. 2011. Photo-identification and satellite tagging of false killer whales during HICEAS II: evidence of an island-associated population in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Document PSRG-2011-16 presented to the Pacific Scientific Review Group, Seattle, November 2011. Download PDF copy

  • Martien, K.K., R.W. Baird, S.J. Chivers, E.M. Oleson and B.L. Taylor. 2011. Population structure and mechanisms of gene flow within island-associated false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the Hawaiian Archipelago. Document PSRG-2011-14 presented to the Pacific Scientific Review Group, Seattle, November 2011. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2010. Over-fished and under-appreciated: conservation and management of false killer whales, Hawai‘i's rarest whales.Poster presentation at the 2010 Hawai‘i Conservation Conference, August 4-6, 2010, Honolulu, HI. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2010. Pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata) or false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens)? Identification of a group of small cetaceans seen off Ecuador in 2004. Aquatic Mammals 36: DOI 10.1578/AM.36.3.2010.

  • Chivers, S.J., R.W. Baird, K.M. Martien, B.L. Taylor, E. Archer, A.M. Gorgone, B.L. Hancock, N.M. Hedrick, D. Matilla, D.J. McSweeney, E.M. Oleson, C.L. Palmer, V. Pease, K.M. Robertson, J. Robbins, J.C. Salinas, G.S. Schorr, M. Schultz, J.L. Theileking, and D.L. Webster. 2010. Evidence of genetic differentiation for Hawai‘i insular false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-458, 46p. Download PDR copy

  • Baird, R.W., G.S. Schorr, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, M.B. Hanson and R.D. Andrews. 2010. Movements and habitat use of satellite-tagged false killer whales around the main Hawaiian Islands. Endangered Species Research 10:107-121. Download PDR copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2009. A review of false killer whales in Hawaiian waters: biology, status, and risk factors. Report prepared for the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission under Order No. E40475499. Download PDF copy

  • Ylitalo, G.M., R.W. Baird, G.K. Yanagida, D.L. Webster, S.J. Chivers, J.L. Bolton, G.S. Schorr, and D.J. McSweeney. 2009. High levels of persistent organic pollutants measured in blubber of island-associated false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the main Hawaiian Islands. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58:1932-1937. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2009. Hawai'i's false killer whales are at risk: should they be included as a "resource" in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Poster presented at the First International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, Maui, HI, March 30 - April 3, 2009. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2009. False killer whales in Hawaiian waters: bycatch in the long-line fishery and the long-line exclusion zone around the main Hawaiian Islands. Bycatch Communication Network Newsletter, Aug-Sep 2009:9-13. Download PDF copy

  • Reeves, R.R., S. Leatherwood and R.W. Baird. 2009. Evidence of a possible decline since 1989 in false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the main Hawaiian Islands. Pacific Science 63:253-261. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2008. False killer whale Pseudorca crassidens. Pages 405-406 in Encyclopedia Of Marine Mammals 2nd Edition. Edited by W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig and J.G.M. Thewissen. Academic Press, San Diego, CA. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., A.M. Gorgone, D.J. McSweeney, D.L. Webster, D.R. Salden, M.H. Deakos, A.D. Ligon, G.S. Schorr, J. Barlow and S.D. Mahaffy. 2008. False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the main Hawaiian Islands: long-term site fidelity, inter-island movements, and association patterns. Marine Mammal Science 24:591-612. Download PDF copy The definitive version is available at Wiley InterScience

  • Baird, R.W., G.S. Schorr, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, M.B. Hanson, and R.D. Andrews. 2008. Movements of satellite-tagged false killer whales around the main Hawaiian Islands. Document PSRG-2008-13 submitted to the Pacific Scientific Review Group, Kihei, HI, November 2008. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., G.S. Schorr, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, A.M. Gorgone and S.J. Chivers. 2008. A survey to assess overlap of insular and offshore false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) off the island of Hawai‘i. Report prepared under Order No. AB133F07SE4484 for the Protected Species Division, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, Honolulu, HI. Download PDF copy

  • Chivers, S.J., R.W. Baird, D.J. McSweeney, D.L. Webster, N.M. Hedrick, and J.C. Salinas. 2007. Genetic variation and evidence for population structure in eastern North Pacific false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens). Canadian Journal of Zoology 85:783-794. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., and A.M. Gorgone. 2005. False killer whale dorsal fin disfigurements as a possible indicator of long-line fishery interactions in Hawaiian waters. Pacific Science 59:593-601.Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., A.M. Gorgone, D.L. Webster, D.J. McSweeney, J.W. Durban, A.D. Ligon, D.R. Salden, and M.H. Deakos. 2005. False killer whales around the main Hawaiian islands: an assessment of inter-island movements and population size using individual photo-identification. Report prepared under Order No. JJ133F04SE0120 from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W. 2002. False killer whale Pseudorca crassidens. Pages 411-412 in Encyclopedia Of Marine Mammals. Edited by W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig and J.G.M. Thewissen. Academic Press, San Diego, CA. Download PDF copy

  • Stacey, P.J., S. Leatherwood and R.W. Baird. 1994. Pseudorca crassidens. Mammalian Species 456:1-6. Download PDF copy

  • Stacey, P.J., and R.W. Baird. 1991. Status of the false killer whale, Pseudorca crassidens, in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 105:189-197. Download PDF copy

  • Leatherwood, S., D. McDonald, R.W. Baird and M.D. Scott. 1989. The false killer whale, Pseudorca crassidens (OWEN, 1846): a summary of information available through 1988. Oceans Unlimited Technical Report 89-001. 114 p. Download PDF copy

  • Baird, R.W., K.M. Langelier and P.J. Stacey. 1989. First records of false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 103:368-371. Download PDF copy

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    Management of Pseudorca

    As well as publishing papers and presenting information to workshops and conferences, we also regularly submit comments in response to proposed government actions in regards to false killer whale conservation and management and are participating in the false killer whale Take Reduction Team. Copies of these comments and more information is available below.

    Cascadia biologist Robin Baird is a member of the False Killer Whale Take Reduction Team established by NMFS. The Team developed a draft Take Reduction Plan to reduce bycatch of false killer whales in the Hawaii-based longline fishery. To download the draft Take Reduction Plan click here

    In November 2010 the National Marine Fisheries Service announced a proposal to list the Hawaii insular population of false killer whales as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A copy of the Federal Register notice can be downloaded here. In November 2012 the main Hawaiian Islands insular population was listed as Endangered.

    For more information on management of false killer whales in Hawaiian waters see the web site of the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office

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    False killer whales in the news

    There have been a number of articles and stories on false killer whales in the news in recent years - links to some of these are below.

    Click on the images above to go to the articles in the Honolulu Weekly (February 24, 2010) or the Hawaii Fishing News (October 2009)

    The unknown cetacean - in search of Hawai‘i's elusive false killer whale by Sheila Sarhangi, in Hana Hou!, October/November 2011. Click on the image above to get a copy of the article

    Preserving Hawaii's false killer whales - Action is being taken to preserve a rare Hawaiian creature by Sheila Sarhangi in Honolulu Magazine, September 2010

    Killers with manners in Environment Hawai‘i, May 2010

    The greenest band on the planet? by Treena Shapiro in The Honolulu Advertiser, March 29, 2010

    Feds try to reduce deaths of dolphins off Hawaii's shores by Audrey McAvoy in The Maui News, January 23, 2010 (for more information on the false killer whale Take Reduction Team see the web pages of NOAA Fisheries headquarters or the Pacific Islands Regional Office)

    Hawaii's false killer whales may be Endangered by Audrey McAvoy on ABC News, January 5, 2010

    Save the Pseudorca by Rob Parsons in MauiTime, November 12, 2009

    Study: false killer whales declining off Hawaii by Audrey McAvoy in the Guardian, April 4, 2009

    Conservationists sue to protect Hawaii's false killer whales in Environment News Service, March 18, 2009


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    Cascadia Research is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization and any donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.

    Photos taken under NMFS Scientific Research Permits (Nos. 731-1774). All photos are copyrighted and should not be used without permission.

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    Last updated January 2014.