Fisherman enjoys rare sighting of false killer whales

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Mark Rayor has seen plenty while working as a fishing and diving guide for 15-plus years in Baja California’s East Cape region.

But until earlier this week, he’d never seen false killer whales, which is understandable because they’re an offshore species rarely seen by boaters aboard coastal vessels.

The sighting of 10-to-15 false killer whales occurred early Monday in the Sea of Cortez, near the northern boundary of Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

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“We have seen what I thought were false killer whales, but they looked different,” Rayor said. “At first that is what we thought they were, but then we had doubts. They just hung around and played with our panga until we left.”

Not a lot is known about the movements of false killer whales or how many there are. They were named because they share feeding habits of some types of killer whales—notably those that attack and kill other cetaceans.

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They’re smaller than killer whales, however, measuring to about 20 feet (females to about 15 feet) and weighing to about 1,500 pounds.

Like killer whales, false killer whales establish strong social bonds and generally travel in groups of 10 to 20.

“False killer whales are typically found in deep, offshore, tropical to semi-tropical oceans, and they feed on large game fish,” said Annie Douglas, a researcher with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington. “However, they occasionally come into more coastal waters or stray into colder climates.

“They are very gregarious and are one of the few cetaceans that share their food with their group, and there have been numerous accounts of individual false killer whales offering food to divers and swimmers as well.”

They’re also known to strand on beaches, sometimes in much larger groups, in some parts of the world.

False killer whales are studied extensively in Hawaiian waters, where one of three distinct populations—a tiny population associated with the main islands—was recently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s fortunate that Rayor brought his camera along Monday. His photos are being used by scientists who are trying to see if any of the mammals he spotted match specimens photo-cataloged off Central America.

Rayor said that none of the false killer whales he encountered offered him any fish, but being a veteran angler in a bountiful region, he has plenty of his own.