The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Scientists document rare killer whale sighting off Kona, Hawaii

They hope to learn more about the mysterious orcas after first-ever tagging effort, and with first-ever underwater footage captured by nearby photographers

Killer whale and at least six hitchhiking remoras. Credit for both killer whale images: Robin Baird/Cascadia Research Collective

Killer whale and at least six hitchhiking remoras. Credit for both killer whale images: Robin Baird/Cascadia Research Collective

Researchers off Kona, Hawaii, on Friday and Sunday documented extremely rare sightings of killer whales, including at least two that were playing host to hitchhiking remoras (see top photo). The family group included a male, an adult female, two sub-adults, and three unspecified orcas. The sighting was made during the final days of a two-week tagging project led by the Cascadia Research Collective out of Olympia, Washington.

Photographers Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman, who were not part of the research effort, also were present. They went diving and captured the first-ever underwater footage of killer whales in Hawaiian waters (video report posted below).

The significance of this discovery—the underwater footage and the first-ever tagging of killer whales in Hawaiian waters—is that scientists might now be able to learn which type of killer whales these are and where they come from. With the first looks at entire animals, they might be able to match them, through distinct markings, with animals cataloged in databases in other parts of the world.

“Now, it’s like OK, everything else sort of pales in comparison to that,” Steelman told KHON 2.

Robin Baird of Cascadia added: “Certainly, the best documented group of killer whales in Hawaii waters ever.”

The sighting capped an extraordinary science mission by Cascadia, which also logged encounters with sperm whales, pygmy killer whales, false killer whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, and rough-toothed dolphins.

But by far the rarest sighting was that of the mysterious killer whales.

Konaorka3

Cascadia stated on its Facebook page that this was only its third killer whale encounter in 14 years of studying marine mammals in Hawaiian waters.

It was the first time killer whales have been fitted with satellite tags in Hawaiian waters, and most likely the first time killer whales have been tagged in the tropical Pacific. “So we are excited about learning where these whales spend their time,” Cascadia stated on its website.

The research group explained that there is no evidence of a resident population of killer whales in Hawaii, and that those seen sporadically around the main Hawaiian islands over the years “are likely part of a wide-ranging population that inhabits the central Pacific.”

orcagraphic

Cascadia added: “There are some physical differences from killer whales seen in Hawaii compared to the well-known populations along the west coast or North America. The saddle patch (the gray area below and behind the dorsal fin) is very narrow in killer whales in Hawaii, and not very bright.”

It’s not uncommon for remoras, in the tropical open ocean, to hitch rides on large marine creatures such as sharks, mantas, and even killer whales.

Cascadia posted several images from its incredible voyage on its website. The bottom image with this story is a chart showing the movements of two of the three tagged killer whales.

–Note: Photos are protected by copyright laws and were used here with the permission of the Cascadia Research Collective

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