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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


The Unknown Cetacean 

Story by Sheila Sarhangi


It wasn't until the 1970s that researchers even knew false killer whales existed in Hawai'i. But pioneering work by photographer Dan McSweeney and biologist Robin Baird has revealed that not only do Pseudorca crassidens reside in Hawaiian waters but the Islands' small population--an estimated 150 animals--is unique, genetically distinct from other false killer whales around the world. Photo: Dan J. McSweeney/Wild Whale Research Foundation, taken under NMFS Permit 731-1774.
It’s 7:41;
the morning sun finally cuts through the clouds above Mauna Kea, and the squall that dumped on us as we motored out of Honokohau Harbor has passed. For the last two hours we’ve seen nothing but the usual wedge-tailed shearwaters and panicky flying fish leaping away from the boat. About ten miles off the Kona Coast, someone finally breaks the monotony: “Three o’clock, 100 yards!” A pod of rough-toothed dolphins appears, their dorsal fins breaking the smooth surface. Dan McSweeney takes photos from the deck of his nonprofit’s twenty-seven- foot Boston whaler, his thick gray mustache flattened against his camera. Biologist Robin Baird positions the boat to avoid the blinding reflection of sunlight off the cetaceans’ backs. Then the dolphins disappear as suddenly as they arrived. Six more hours and the only other boat-stopper is a four-foot-long jellyfish with a purple head and tentacles as fat as carrots. Interesting, but that’s not why we’re here. By 2:30 p.m. Baird calls it a day.


 On our way back Baird says, “Hey, at least we didn’t get skunked this time.” Six months earlier I’d tagged along on another trip off O‘ahu. We saw zip, zilch, nada— which isn’t unusual when you’re on a quest to find the elusive Pseudorca, or false killer whale, the rarest cetacean in Hawai‘i waters. There are only 150 left in the main Hawaiian Islands, and on a typical two-week trip, these researchers will see false killer whales just once— maybe.


 False killer whales are actually dolphins, so named because they have a skull similar to that of an orca, or killer whale. They’re widespread in warm oceans throughout the world, but Hawai‘i’s population is unique and genetically distinct from open-ocean Pseudorca. Hawai‘i’s false killer whales cruise among the main Islands but remain within seventy miles of shore. They’re the only false killer whale population in the world known to call an island chain home. In other words, they’re as kama‘aina as kama‘aina gets.


 With such a small numbers of false killer whales, you’d think that researchers would be fighting for the chance to study them. But they’re not; opportunities to study Island Pseudorca are few and far between in contrast to, say, spinner dolphins or humpback whales, which are much easier to find.


 But for Baird and McSweeney, brief opportunities are enough. Before their pioneering research, which they each started independently of the other, no one was looking at Hawai‘i’s Pseudorcas. Today, largely because of their determination, we know more about this Hawai‘i population than about any other false killer whales in the world.