A Guide to False Killer Whales

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Most people are familiar with killer whales, also known as orcas. These apex predators are widely recognized marine mammals belonging to the dolphin family. Known for their distinctive black-and-white coloring, as well as their intelligence and complex social behaviors, orcas are one of the most captivating and well-studied marine mammals in the ocean.

         But what is a false killer whale? Have you ever heard of this marine mammal? They, too, belong to the dolphin family, but public awareness seems to be lacking. With their dark gray to black bodies and massive size, false killer whales resemble killer whales, but they are a distinct species with their own unique behaviors and fascinating characteristics.

This blog will highlight some false killer whale facts and explain how the false killer whale got its name. “False killer whale,” after all, instantly sparks curiosity—and rightly so!


         The false killer whale resides worldwide in tropical to warm, temperate waters. Researchers have determined that their populations seem to be widespread. They’ve been spotted, for example, in deep offshore waters surrounding various islands in the central and western Pacific. A large population of false killer whales has even made their home off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands, and most of the information we have about this species has come from those who have studied the false killer whales residing in this specific area.


         When it comes to their eating habits, the false killer whale prefers to eat fish and squid. Occasionally they’ll hunt smaller dolphins, humpback whales, and sperm whales, but whether they hunt these species for sustenance or to reduce food competition remains uncertain.


         Similar to orcas, the false killer whale regards hunting as a group effort. The false killer whale shares food among members of the pod and, interestingly, they’ve demonstrated a remarkable level of generosity by offering some of their food to humans they encounter who are engaged in activities such as snorkeling, diving, or fishing. This leads to one of the neatest false killer whale facts we have for you: The false killer whale is one of the friendliest whales in the ocean!


         Researchers who have studied the false killer whale have labeled them as non-aggressive. They’re incredibly sociable and playful; it’s not uncommon to see the false killer whale interacting with pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins. Like bottlenose dolphins, the false killer whale enjoys leaping out of the water, performing flips, and swimming with enthusiasm alongside its pod mates.

Size and Appearance

         One reason why false killer whales are often mistaken for orcas is because of their size and close physical resemblance. Both the false killer whale and the “true” killer whale have a sleek body shape, a prominent dorsal fin, a narrow-pointed head, no pronounced beak, and black or dark gray coloration. On average, false killer whales tend to be smaller than orcas, but they are still relatively large dolphins and can grow to lengths of approximately 15 to 20 feet as well as weigh up to 3,000 pounds. The similarity in size and appearance can lead to misidentification, especially while spotting a false killer whale from a distance or in conditions causing poor visibility.

Conservation Status

According to American Oceans, “There are an estimated 60,000 false killer whales in the oceans. However, we do not know the exact number as this species has been difficult for scientists to study with certainty. False killer whales are listed as near threatened by the IUCN Red List.” NOAA Fisheries adds that “all false killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whale is protected under both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the MMPA.” Preserving the population of false killer whales is crucial for maintaining the biodiversity and ecological balance of marine ecosystems in oceans around the world.

The Story Behind the Name “False Killer Whale”

The name “false killer whale” almost seems offensive, right? John Smith, for example, surely wouldn’t want to be called “False John Smith.” So how did false killer whales become known as “false” in the first place?

Early whalers are to blame. They often mistook these dolphins for killer whales, and eventually, the persistent misidentification led people to begin referring to them as “false” killer whales. This name stuck simply because it emphasized the mistaken identity and it distinguished them from the “true” killer whales. The misleading name underscores the importance of precise identification and the benefits of establishing a deeper understanding of these and other lesser-known marine mammals.

Book a Cruise to Learn More About Marine Life

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading all these false killer whale facts. If anyone ever asks you, “What is a false killer whale?” you’re now well-prepared to share some valuable insights!

In the meantime, our friendly and hospitable crew at Harbor Breeze Cruises would like to invite you to reserve a spot on an upcoming whale-watching excursion so you can learn more about marine life and enjoy a relaxing, picturesque cruise.

For more information about our family-friendly cruises, call 562-983-6880 or book your cruise online. For nearly 20 years, we’ve given people of all ages a unique opportunity to board our comfortable and state-of-the-art catamarans so they can try to spot whales and dolphins residing in the magnificent Pacific Ocean. Join us for an unforgettable adventure and don’t forget to bring along your family and your friends!   


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