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A group of Pseudorcas.
Photo: Chris Johnson

March 11, 2003
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

It is always a thrill to see any cetacean species in the wild for the first time. Today, after more than three years of the voyage, the Odyssey crew spent a couple of hours with a dozen Pseudorcas, also known as false killer whales.

False killer whales are members of a group of cetaceans collectively known as Globicephalidae, or as fisherman often refer to them, 'blackfish'. This group includes pilot whales, orcas, melon-headed whales and the smaller, poorly known pygmy killer whale. Blackfish are smaller toothed whales, although they are generally considered more closely related to dolphins than other whale species. The word 'whale' is more applicable to their size, blunt head and lack of beak than actual zoological affinity.

On several occasions, the whales approached Odyssey, lining up alongside her bowsprit in order to ride the pressure wave, a mother and calf pair joining in briefly. False killer whales are astonishingly agile and acrobatic for their size. Males of this species can reach lengths of 6 meters and weigh over two tonnes. After two hours of non-stop antics, we all agreed these exceptionally active animals are fully deserving of their reputation as the most swift and playful of the smaller whales.

Some animals appeared curious, swimming slowly toward us as if to investigate the boat, while others raced around rapidly, often lifting their heads and much of their bodies out of the water when surfacing, affording us a good look at the unique head shape. Throughout the time we spent in their company, they remained in close proximity. We watched as one particularly large male made graceful leaps entirely clear of the water propelling himself 2-3 body lengths forward before crashing back to sea. Others in the group lob tailed and spy-hopped, often making fast stops and quick turns. One of the most endearing features of the false killer whale is that its actions are far more characteristic of a smaller dolphin than of a mid-sized whale.

Psuedorcas are often mistaken at sea for pygmy killer whales and melon-headed whales, however, the distinctively long, slender body shape leaves little room for doubt at close range the other two species are far smaller at less than 3 meters long. At a distance, they may be mistaken for pilot whales or even orcas, however they are nowhere near as robust as either animal. False killer whales are uniformly brown in color, except for a faint light grey anchor patch between the flippers. Their heads are elongated, tapering to a rounded snout that overhangs the lower jaw. A unique feature of these animals are the flippers which have a distinctive broad hump, resulting in an 's' shape. This feature alone is diagnostic for the species.

The 'False killer whales' around the Odyssey.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Throughout the encounter, most of the crew were poised on the bow with cameras. Odyssey Chief Scientist Dr. Peter Madsen, made acoustic recordings throughout, using a multi-hydrophone wideband recording system that allows for the estimation of the source parameters. Such parameters include how powerful the clicks and whistles are at the source. This gives us an insight into the sonar system of the whales, how they find their prey, how they communicate and how susceptible they may be to various types of manmade noise.

Although acoustic data has been collected from this species in captivity, these rare recordings of free ranging psuedorcas gives us valuable data on the acoustic behavior of the wild animal.

Listen to the underwater sounds of the Pseudorcas recorded from the Odyssey:
  Real Audio -   28k
  Download -  MP3 file

False killer whales live primarily in deep, offshore tropical and warm temperate waters. Unlike their larger toothed cousins the sperm whale, where there is a difference in geographical distribution between the sexes, false killer whales are not known to be segregated in any season or area by age or sex.

Like sperm whales, they prey mainly on squid. Large pelagic fishes such as dorado and tuna are also known to make up a substantial portion of their diet. However, like their marine mammal eating namesake, false killer whales have been observed preying on dolphins and are even known to attack humpback and sperm whales.

Overall, relatively little is known of this animal. Judging by the infrequency of observations at sea, it is probably comparatively rare. We do know that false killer whales are highly social as are all toothed whales, and have been observed in groups of over 500 animals, although 10 20 is more common. Sadly, among this whales' more puzzling behaviours is its propensity to strand on mass.

This was the first encounter with Pseudorcas by the Odyssey crew.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Hopefully, the observations, acoustic recordings and images captured onboard Odyssey today, will help unlock some of the heavily guarded secrets of this little known whale.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Maldives.


  • What did the crew of the Odyssey report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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