True Tales of False Killer Whales

Feb 24, 2015

Did you know B.C.’s unique coast is host to 23% of the world’s entire cetacean populations? Such biodiversity means you never really know what you might see if you are on the water. Any cetacean sighting is an exciting occurrence, but if you’re lucky, you might have the unique experience of spotting something that is very rarely seen. One of the rare species you may spot off B.C.’s shores is the false killer whale, which has a very interesting history in B.C. waters.

The false killer whale is a toothed whale (also referred to as an odontocete), that can grow to 6 metres (18 ft) in adulthood. These whales are found in tropical to warm temperate waters throughout the world. They are generally thought to be an offshore species, living in deeper waters away from coastal areas, but they have been spotted with some regularity around coastal areas such as the Hawaiian Islands. Sightings of false killer whales in British Columbia have been reported, but they are considered rare occurrences.

False killer whales, or Pseudorca crassidens (pseudo=false, orca=killer whale) as they are known in scientific circles, received their name (you guessed it!) because of their resemblance to killer whales. The history of false killer whales in B.C. is an interesting one. There have been very few sightings of false killer whales in B.C., and many of the sightings that have occurred are thought to be attributed to a group of approximately 12 false killer whales that came to Puget Sound in 1987. Around this time, the first reported occurrence of this species in western Canadian waters was verified by the discovery of a stranded and dead individual on Denman Island in 1987. Later that year a live animal was photographed by a whale watching vessel in Johnstone Strait, and a stranded animal was found in Ucluelet Harbour, where it was successfully returned to deeper water by local residents.

This rescued male became quite famous, and throughout 1988 and 1989 he was frequently sighted in Barkley Sound. He became very well known to local residents of Ucluelet due to his displays of energetic behavior that included his habit of approaching boats and surfing in their wake. This whale became particularly attached to a classic old union Steamship vessel called the MV Lady Rose, which had a regular scheduled ferry service route. He would frequently accompany the boat on trips between Port Alberni and Bamfield, and soon became fondly referred to as “Rufus”.

Shortly after, in May of 1990, a group of students and educators from the Vancouver Aquarium spotted a lone false killer whale in the Vancouver Harbour. From that day forward, this lone whale became a regularly sighted individual, frequently spotted following the wake of boats and being very active. This whale was fondly referred to as “Willy the Whale”.

Interestingly, sightings of “Rufus” stopped abruptly in April 1990, about one month before the similarly behaved “Willy” began to be sighted in Vancouver. Due to this corresponding timeline, John Ford (head of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Cetacean Research Program) began wondering if it was the same whale, and confirmed that in April 1990 the Lady Rose made a rare trip from Barkley Sound to Vancouver. It is speculated that the whale called “Rufus” followed this vessel as he normally would, leading him all the way to Vancouver where he  became famous once again, this time as “Willy the Whale” in his new home.

After 1991, “Willy” was no longer sighted in Vancouver Harbour, but after this time and up until 2004, sightings of a lone false killer whale with a particular attraction to vessels were reported throughout B.C. While it cannot be confirmed that these sightings were of the same animal, based on behavior it is possible that this same charismatic individual captured the adoration of many of B.C.’s residents, from Barkley Sound, Vancouver, and beyond.

Although there were no sightings after 2004, on two occasions in 2010 the distinctive calls of false killer whales were picked up by audio recording devices off Brooks Peninsula on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island.

The most recent sighting of a false killer whale in B.C. waters is tied to the dramatic events that unfolded in the spring of 2014, when a very young stranded male was spotted on Chesterman Beach in Tofino. Aptly named “Chester”, this false killer whale calf was reported to the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network and was found to be in very poor condition, unable to swim on his own or even open his eyes. He had no erupted teeth, and was therefore assumed to be just four to six weeks old. At this early stage of development, cetacean calves rely strongly on their mother for food, protection, and care.

After many failed attempts to locate the baby whale’s mother, it was determined by Fisheries and Oceans Canada that this whale needed to be rescued. On July 10, 2014 the team transported him to Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (VAMMRC) where his rehabilitation process began. The team at VAMMRC faced many challenges in dealing with such a young calf, but with dedication and expertise they were able to stabilize his condition. To date, Chester continues his remarkable rehabilitation at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, and reportedly continues to recover well.

Thanks to keen ocean observers, experts are able to rescue and rehabilitate distressed cetacean creatures off the B.C. coastal waters. If you spot a stranded animal, please report it to the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network by calling 1-800-465-4336 or notifying radio channel 16.

Keep your eyes open, you never know what you may see when out on the water! And please, share your findings—we’d  love to hear from you whenever you spot a whale, dolphin, or porpoise. You can report all sightings to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network and be a part of our citizen science research project. You can click here to let us know what you’ve seen.

Reference

Ford, J.K.B 2014. Marine Mammals of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum. 314-322 pp.

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