False Killer Whale during Iron Woman event

January 25, 2012

Australia loves reporting on shark attacks. It's a bit of a national obsession and with an increasing number of people taking to the water each year, the frequency of sightings of marine megafauna is on the increase.

When Iron Woman Kirsty Holmes was reviewing video from a recent event in Newcastle, she was surprised to see a finned animal lurching across the surface in the background. No-one saw it at the time. Some think it is a shark, others have suggested a dolphin or pilot whale. In fact, it's a less well known but relatively common inhabitant of east Australian waters, the False Killer Whale.

False Killer Whales are one of only a few cetaceans (the collective name for whales and dolphins) that actually live in our shallow near-coastal waters. At this time of the year, the East Australian Current drags nutrients up along the coast, bringing rich fish stocks and a range of predators including sharks, marlin and dolphins. Despite the name, these 'whales' which include pilot whales and killer whales are dolphins. It's only their size that makes them a whale and False Killer Whales grow up to a few metres.

Most often travelling in groups, False Killers are quite boat-shy, which means few people are fortunate enough to see them well. They mostly hunt fish and squid but like Killer Whales, will also take on other large marine animals like seals and sunfish. Family groups can comprise several generations with strong family bonds, which is why they occasionally mass-strand on our beaches. The animal featured in the video might be a lone male, ousted from a social group, or just part of a family quietly passing by further out to sea.

So how can we be so confident it's a False Killer Whale? Fortunately, this is one of the easiest of our ocean dolphins to identify. They are uniquely torpedo-shaped and reminiscent of a submarine breaching the surface. Pause the video above and you can see this clearly - unmistakeable! Simply the way they reveal this as they lunge forward, low and fast, is fairly unique. There are more subtle charactersistics obvious from the video. It has a dorsal fin that's quite small, falcate and round. Also, as it rolls forward, the long flat back doesn't taper downward (like in a minke whale or shark) but almost flattens out. This is because the tail flukes are only just below the surface as it beats them upwards to dive.

I've seen False Killer Whales over a dozen times around Australia, from the islands of the Coral Sea to Ashmore Reef (WA), off Sydney and Wollongong. It's always a pleasure to encounter these extraordinary animals which most people have never even heard of, let alone seen. Once off Eden, we even found one that was pure white. Their own version of Australia's celebrity albino Humpback Whale, Migaloo.   


The Iron Woman event in Newcastle attracts interest from the public, after video reveals an unidentified finned animal, some think to be a shark - but is actually a harmless False Killer Whale.

Locations visited

Newcastle

Wildlife

Whales, Dolphins & Seals 1 species
False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens) 1

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Written by

Simon Mustoe

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