A Rare Orca Sighting Off Kauai

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - August 10, 2011
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For years, Hawaii fishermen have shared stories of killer whales sightings in Hawaiian waters, particularly off Kauai. Sure, some of them may be fishing tales, but chances are most are not.

Hawaii anglers are among the most knowledgeable fishermen in the world. Killer whales are not on the list of Hawaii’s ocean life, at least not a resident population. They are, in the true sense, visitors to our islands.

Well, welcome back!

On Sunday, July 24, marine researchers taking part in a three week field project off Kauai got up close with a pod of killer whales. Marine biologist Robin Baird and several scientists with Cascadia Research Collective of Washington state were not expecting the rare encounter.

“We found a group of four killer whales, actually only the second time we’ve seen killer whales in Hawaiian waters in the last 12 years of working out here,” says Baird, who spoke to me by phone on the research boat the Wild Whale several miles off Kauai. “When we first came across the group they were actually chasing a rough-toothed dolphin, but we weren’t close enough to see whether they actually caught it.”

Baird says the last time he saw an orca in Hawaiian waters was May 10, 2002, off Kona. He says this group was spotted midway between Kauai and Niihau moving at a high speed.

“We were able to get close to the animals after that and get good identification photographs of all four,” he says. “Although we were set up for satellite tagging, we were not able to get close enough to deploy a tag.”

But they did get close enough to notice that an adult female appeared to have a fresh wound from a cookie-cutter shark behind its blowhole. Marine biologists say such wounds are not unusual for deep-water species of whales and dolphins around the islands.

Baird says there are some physical differences in killer whales seen in Hawaii compared to the well-known populations along the west coast of North America. He says the saddle patch or the gray area below and behind the dorsal fin is very narrow on killer whales in Hawaii, and also not very bright.

However, he says there’s no evidence of a resident-population of killer whales in Hawaii, and he believes this group was part of an offshore open-ocean population moving through.

“There’s not a lot known about killer whales in Hawaii,” Baird says, “but we have a small catalog of individuals that are photo identified by the distinctive markings, so we’re going to be able to compare those photos and see whether they’re animals that have been documented around the islands before.”

Besides the killer whales, the team has encountered pilot whales, false killer whales and one morning a group of about 200 bottlenose dolphins. They also spotted four monk seals and seabirds nesting on Lehua Island.

This is the team’s fifth field project working off Kauai and Niihau. If you’re interested in updates on their field work and seeing more photos, go to cascadiaresearch.org/hawaii/July2011.htm.

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