A extraordinary video captured the moment a false killer whale appeared to dance and twirl in front of a group of scuba divers near Costa Rica, but it wasn’t the first time the species got friendly with humans.
False killer whales, so-named because their skulls are like a smaller version of an orca’s, are members of the dolphin family and are found in all of Earth’s oceans, primarily in tropical regions. The animals are usually dark gray or black in color and highly social.
The company Rich Coast Diving, which posted the video last month, said in a Facebook post that as soon as its divers jumped in the water they could hear squeaking sounds that started getting louder and louder. They initially thought that the clicking noises were dolphins. However, as they became more intense, it was clear they weren’t.
“Suddenly two massive shadows came right at us and one just stopped right in front of the group,” the company wrote, adding that the next thing they knew, a 13 to 16 foot false killer whale “started shaking and dancing and twirling and twerking and blowing bubbles!! Just in front of our eyes! It was so close and just stayed there giving us the show of a lifetime!”
The company said the divers were in shock and just trying to understand what was happening. After about two minutes, the two false killer whales swam off. Later, the boat captain told the divers that a pod of whales had just passed them. This may explain how intense and loud the vocalizations could have been.
The company added that the species is known to be social and playful and they “can only guess” what the whale was trying to communicate to them. One person from the company said in a comment under the video that in their 18 years of diving this was the first time they’d ever experienced something like this.
But this was not the only time false killer whales were documented to appear socializing with humans.
Robin Baird, a research biologist and the Hawaii program director for Cascadia Research Collective, told Insider that it’s hard to say for sure what the false killer whale in the video was doing.
But Baird who studies false killer whales near Hawaii said that they interact regularly with humans and approach swimmers. However, the whales also interact with humans in way that appears distinct from how other whale and dolphin species do: by bringing people fish.
Baird described some of those encounters in his 2016 book, “The Lives of Hawai’i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation.”
One case took place near Kona in 1984, when researcher Dan McSweeney jumped into the water while following a group of false killer whales. Two whales were vocalizing nearby, when suddenly McSweeney saw a third whale swimming right toward him with most of an ahi, or yellowfin tuna, weighing approximately 100 pounds, in its mouth.
” The whale stopped at a few meters and let the fish out of its mouth. This momentum then carried it towards Dan,” Baird wrote. “The whale was obviously offering the fish to him, and Dan reached out and took it.”
The false killer whale proceeded to blow bubbles before moving away from McSweeney and then circling back, stopping beside him. McSweeney then pushed the ahi back towards the whale, which grabbed it and swam back to the other whales. The false killer whales then passed the fish back and forth and began to eat it, with each of them getting a share.
The sharing of prey is common for false killer whales, which are long-lived creatures with strong social bonds, Baird said. In Hawaii, he’s seen false killer whales catching and sharing large fish such as mahi-mahi or ono. None of the whales will eat the fish at first — until it is eventually returned to the individual who caught it, and who will take the first bite before sharing with the others.
Baird told Insider the behavior likely serves to strengthen social bonds between the false killer whales, which engage in cooperative hunting and will typically spend their entire lives in the same social group.
Another similar interaction between false killer whales and humans occurred in British Columbia in the 1980s. A lone false killer whale, far from its typical range, would catch fish and offer them to people on boats. In one case, the whale brought a salmon to two guys on a small boat and would let go of it beside the boat, only to grab it once it started to sink.
The whales’ behavior in offering salmon to humans is similar to the way they share fish among themselves. Baird believes that this shows that humans are not just something they play with on the surface of the ocean, but something “similar to them.”
He said that the behavior of the fake killer whale in the video was likely similar to the one shown by the divers.
“These cases of offering fish to people, to me, reflect that they’re somehow viewing humans as something similar to them,” he said. “Something that they can relate to.”
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