False killer whales. They’re killer whales, but not as we know them.
Out in our oceans, masquerading as orcas (but without the distinctive white markings) is a mysterious species known as ‘false killer whales’.
Jetski Fishing Show host Kirk Davis had a close encounter of the false killer whale kind when he was fishing off the top of Great Barrier Island.
Seeing a lot of activity in the water ahead of him, he went in for a closer look and found around 50 of the majestic mammals, accompanied by a large pod of dolphins, feeding on kingfish.
Happy to cruise
At his closest, he was just a metre from them, and they seemed happy to cruise alongside the jetski as dolphins often do.
“I was a couple of miles out and I could see a whole lot of something making quite a commotion in the water and I just kind of cruised over towards them,” says Kirk.
“They looked a bit like pilot whales, and they were actually feeding on kingfish. The birds would follow them... they would bring the kingfish up from down deep, rips its head off and its guts out and give the rest to the birds. It was like they were working in tandem with the birds.”
Mesmerised, he put away his fishing rod and sat motionless watching them for an hour.
“It was pretty cool. It’s not something you see every day.”
Accompanied by a film crew at the time, the rare encounter was captured on film. Kirk posted some still frames from the footage to Facebook, asking if anyone had any information about the intriguing pod.
He was soon contacted by Jochen Zaeschmar, a marine biologist who runs sailing charters in the Bay of Islands and who has been researching false killer whales for the past 17 years.
Jochen’s research is one of only two long term research projects on the species worldwide, the other being based in Hawaii.
“I first encountered them in 2000 and just got intrigued by them. I wanted to find out more about them.
“From what we know they come into coastal New Zealand waters somewhere around Christmas, give or take a week, and generally the first sightings are in the Bay of Plenty. Then they slowly work their way up to the Far North. They stay here until early May and then they go away and we have no idea where they actually go. But we know that the same individuals come back every year.”
False killer whales are always seen with bottlenose dolphins, but the nature of their relationship is not fully understood.
“I’ve never not seen them together in all those years. Because there are so many dolphins people literally don’t see the whales – they don’t realise there’s more than one species in the group.”
There are about 150 false killer whales known to visit New Zealand, of which Jochen can identify 110 individually from their markings.
“One of the main questions we are trying to answer is; exactly how many of them are there? Are they getting more or less? And do we need to worry about them? The other question is; how unique are they to New Zealand?” he says.
“The other thing we are looking at is the social structures. Are the whales we see together related or just playmates?”
The research relies on sightings of the whales and Jochen is appealing for those out on the water to keep an eye out for them.
“This year, sadly, I haven’t seen them myself. Which is why we are so dependent on and grateful for sightings from the public, especially the game fishing community. They see them a lot because they go for the same food basically.“It would be wonderful to have an idea of where they are. Ideally if people can take a photo or even a video – it doesn’t have to be much – so we can be sure.”
Not easy to find
False killer whales are not easy to find as they have a preference for deep oceanic waters, and groups can separate as far as 20km while travelling or foraging.
In the Bay of Plenty, they have been seen in waters around Mayor Island, White Island and Penguin Shoal. The last Bay of Plenty sighting was in February.
“The Bay of Plenty is really important because that’s when all the December/January/February sightings are seen. They do like warm water,” says Jochen.
“They used to be a lot more common in the Bay of Islands but in recent years they have shifted south a lot, mostly to do with food. There’s been a similar trend with game fish.”
False killer whales look a lot like pilot whales, but once you know what you’re looking for they are easily distinguishable, he says.
“If you can tell a blue marlin from a striped marlin, you can tell a false killer whale from a pilot whale.”
The Far Out Ocean Research Collective, has published identification guides on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/FalseKillerWhalesNZ), along with information, photos and video footage.
The collective also has a hotline for sightings: 0800 FAR OUT