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Monday, March 31, 1997

Yes, Virginia, there are
killer whales off Hawaii

ABOUT two weeks ago, a Hawaii fisherman called the Star-Bulletin to report the sighting of a killer whale about six miles off Kaneohe Bay.

"Can this be true?" a reporter asked me.

Yes, killer whales do swim in Hawaii waters. In fact, orcas are the most cosmopolitan of the world's whales, present in all oceans and seas, from the ice floes of both hemispheres to the warm waters of the equator. Sometimes, killer whales even swim up rivers.

Most of us don't think of killer whales as ramblers because of the close-knit family units some orcas form in places like Puget Sound. Such groups, called resident pods, are present in specific areas year-round and travel only short distances to find food, mostly fish.

Usually, these family-oriented whales spend their entire lives within the same group, with population gains and losses coming only from births and deaths. This social structure is the only one of its kind among the world's mammals.

But another type of killer whale exists, called transients. These whales roam in and out of resident whales' boundaries but don't mix with resident populations.

Both types of orcas live in pods ranging from 1 to 55 individuals, but transient pods tend to be smaller than resident pods.

Transient orcas are different from their resident cousins in other ways too. Transients are quieter animals and have pointed tips (as opposed to rounded) on their distinctive dorsal fins. Also, it is the transients that sometimes eat marine mammals, a practice that gave the whales their common name, killer.

In spite of this malevolent name, documented attacks on humans are rare. In those attacks that have occurred, the whale was provoked either by harpooning or by an attempt to capture it or a member of its family. Collisions between whales and boats are usually accidents.

This doesn't mean that orcas can't sometimes be pests. Hilo fishermen once reported a whale "with an 8-foot sail" raiding and destroying fishing lines. The description is likely that of a male orca.

Other orcas have been spotted off the Waianae Coast and near Kauai in 1979.

The orca sighting two weeks ago was by Hawaii resident David Shane, owner and captain of the 50-foot trawler Moana Mele.

"It was a male orca, about 25 feet long," he told me. "It swam right up to the side of the boat, then rolled up to look at us. It stayed for about 10 minutes, then took off. We were so mesmerized, we didn't think to take its picture."

Because sightings of killer whales are so rare in Hawaii, researchers believe that these mammals are not residents but transients, merely passing though from time to time.

This recent sighting was a lucky, rare moment for David Shane and his passengers.



Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,