10 Facts You Didn't Know About False Killer Whales
1. False killer whales are oceanic dolphins generally found in deep, offshore tropical and sub-tropical waters although they can also be seen in temperate waters.
Range of false killer whales (c) NOAA
2. They are almost entirely dark grey-black and do not have white patches like the killer whales and pilot whales who they are often confused for
3. They get their name from having similar skulls to the orca/killer whale
4. Males grow to around 6m in length and 2,200kg in weight whilst females are slightly smaller, growing to around 5m in length and 1,200kg in weight.
5. They can dive up to 927.5m and swim at speeds of up to 29km/h.
6. In the summer, the East Auckland Current containing warm water from the tropics, moves closer to the north-eastern coastline of the North Island. This is when sightings of false killer whales peaks, particularly around the months of December - May.
7. There are two 'social clusters' or groups of false killer whales off the north-eastern coastline, totalling less than 200 animals. These two clusters are stable and return to the area each summer and often interact with each other.
8. They are almost always seen in association with oceanic bottlenose dolphins. These bottlenose dolphins are different to the ones that are often seen up around the coastline. It is not fully understood as to why the two species hang out together but theories include evasion from predators and improving foraging success.
False killer whales (front) and oceanic bottlenose dolphins (back) foraging together on kahawai as seen from the Dolphin Explorer in 2011.
9. In New Zealand, this species is classed as 'Naturally Uncommon' on the New Zealand Threat Classification System.
10. Due to their behaviour and ecology, it is uncommon for false killer whales to be found in the inner Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. Our 2020 sighting was our first since 2012 - which goes to show that we never know what we are going to see on any given trip. Our oceans are incredible and continue to surprise us daily!
False killer whale researchers in New Zealand rely heavily on sightings reports. If you see false killer whales, please give the FAR OUT Research Program a call (0800 FAR OUT). Thanks to Jochen Zaeschmar of Far Out Research Collective for providing the cover photo.