If They’re Not Killer Whales, What Are They?

My first adventure day with a GOPRO was outstanding. My family had brought it as a gift with them on one of their visits to Drake Bay, and the very next day, I took it out with me on the offshore pelagic tour. To get from Drake Bay to deeper waters, it is necessary to pass one of the world’s great snorkeling and dive locations, Cano Island. Upon our approach, we discovered False Killer Whales.

Personally, I think this creature has one of the worst names ever given (see the title of this blog). The name apparently originated from the similarities in skull shape, and in 1846 they were described as close cousins of Orcas. It is known that their closest living relatives are in fact; Risso’s Dolphin, Melon-headed Whales, Pygmy Killer Whales and Pilot Whales.

I find it fascinating that dolphin species are more accurately described as dolphin races- due to the vast number of recorded sightings of hybrids. I have personally seen spotted-bottlenose and bottlenose-spinner dolphins. Of all known hybrids, the bottlenose-false killer whale seems to me the most extreme. False killer Whales are almost double the size of bottlenose and their family origins are so distant, yet they still have enough in common to produce offspring. I have not personally seen this hybrid (yet!) but I have seen adult Bottlenose and False Killer Whales swimming together in groups. In Drake Bay, we normally see pods of False Killer Whales of 20-30. But I have also seen them in groups as large as 100.

False killer Whales behave similarly to cats when it comes to training their babies how to hunt. In order to teach a juvenile, the mother gradually provides opportunities for the juvenile to finish kills. First she’ll bring things that are almost completely dead. When the calf reaches the end stages of education, the mother will provide food that is barely injured at all. Upon graduation, the juvenile can hunt and kill its food without aid. It is a somewhat vicious version of playing with your food. One often finds oneself feeling bad for the food and the torture it endures so that mothers can train their juvenile assassins.

False killer Whales hunt in packs. Often swimming side by side, spanning from the coastline to the deeper waters. When the pods are large, they may also swim in rows. If the first wall of False Killer Whales didn’t find the prey, then the next row will get the chance, then the next row, and so on. A False Killer Whale will attack its prey by biting and thrashing until the animal is dead. If the prey is large then multiple False Killer Whales work together when attacking. They will often leave the lifeless bodies of their victims while taking the chance to attack other opportunistic animals that are also in the vicinity. Once the area has been disturbed and the living prey have vanished, the False Killer Whales quickly return to eat the floating mangled bodies that were previously left behind.

Some of these victim species include squid and large fish such as Mahi Mahi, Tuna and Roosterfish. Here in the Eastern Pacific, False Killer Whales have also been recorded attacking species of dolphins, sperm whales and baby humpbacks. Although false killer whales are obviously a formidable predator, they are not apex. Coastal and offshore killer whales are both known to eat false killers.

It seems a bit insane to get into the water with these 6 meter long nightmarish creatures with gigantic teeth, and people often question why I choose to put myself in such danger. I have searched for instances of False Killer Whales attacking humans and I have found no reason for fear. I do not know why they have not attacked humans, but my confidence in my decision grows with each experience. Humans naturally have a lower body fat percentage than a False Killer Whale’s normal prey. Maybe that is why they don’t bother with us. Maybe it’s because their mothers never taught them how to hunt us, and thus, they do not think of us as food. Regardless of the true answer, I feel more and more certain that they won’t attack me because if they haven’t taken advantage during the many opportunities that I’ve given them, then they probably never will.

I have enjoyed many instances of floating around on the ocean’s surface, snorkeling and watching these enormous creatures as they swim around studying me. On one occasion I was tucked into the fetal position and a False Killer Whale pushed me up out of the water 3 times using the melon part of its head. Their overall curiosity and studious nature is evident because so many of them have stopped to spend a few minutes with me. During all of my meetings with false killer whales I have experienced a sort of safe feeling that they seem to be transmitting. I have felt this with numerous species of cetacean, but the False Killer Whales provide me with the most relief when transmitting this signal. Although it occurs to me as I write this, that they may be using it as a method of calming their prey!

My family got their first sense of what I get to experience in this natural paradise and we had only just reached Cano Island. The day still wasn’t over. Our next encounter was with Pilot Whales and I’ll write about them in the blog to come.

Next Episode Coming on Thursday 16th May, 2019!

If you would like us to schedule your Drake Bay pelagic adventure, please visit our What to Do in Drake Bay pages and contact us.