false killer whale

A false killer whale trio swims alongside the Dana Pride out of Dana Wharf Whalewatch; photo by ©Pete Thomas

A large pod of false killer whales passed through Southern California coastal waters Wednesday and Thursday, for the first time since 2001 and for one of only a few times in the past 30 years.

The first sighting, by Capt. Mike Bursk of the Sea Explorer out of the Ocean Institute, was at about 11 a.m. Wednesday off Dana Point. The scattered pod of between 50 and 70 mammals traveled slowly to the north, and remained off northern Orange County overnight before slowly traveling south, and ultimately picking up speed and disappearing Thursday. Many were able to capture up-close images and produce videos, but the most amazing footage to emerge so far was captured by David Anderson of Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari (posted below).


Captain Dave used a GoPro camera and managed, from his skiff, to not only capture close-ups of the false killer whales, but also vocalizations from the curious mammals, including one that seemed to be speaking to the camera. It’s one-of-a-kind footage, to be sure.

"I've never seen anything like it," Anderson said. "I was sitting there for about five minutes and the whales came over and surrounded me. Their whistles were so loud I could hear them above the surface. I grabbed my GoPro and wasn't even sure it was on and stuck it in the water. I was tempted to touch them but I didn't want to disturb them. It was one of the most amazing encounters I've ever had with wild cetaceans."

False killer whale

False killer whale breaches off San Clemente, alongside the Dana Pride; photo by ©Pete Thomas

False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) do resemble killer whales only slightly in body shape. They’re all black and lack the white eye patches and gray saddles of killer whales. They do, however, share some of the same feeding habits (both are known to prey on other marine mammals) and social behavior. They grow to about 16 feet, about half the size of the largest killer whales, and are somewhat mysterious.

It’s unclear where the large pod came from, but it’s possible that it traveled up the coast from Mexico or Central America, where false killer whale populations exist. The water off Southern California is unseasonably warm, and that could help explain the extremely rare visit.

Here’s another quality video, courtesy of  Dana Wharf Whale Watch:

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